HANAPEPE — Kauai is the setting for “The Kukui Tree,” a new children’s book to hit the market, but there’s more to the story than just that it takes place in Hanapepe.
It’s a story about the power of love and coping with the loss of friendship, written by Jarrod Gatlin in honor of his best friend, Aaron Parker, who died after a car accident in 2000.
“(Aaron) was my lifetime best friend who passed away and I went through those emotions and textbook examples of the stages of grief,” Gatlin said. “When I was done with that, I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that I wanted to do something to honor him.”
So in 2006, the Indiana man landed a grant from the Lilly Endowment organization, which allowed him to travel to Kauai and write the book as a self-enhancement project. Nearly 10 years later, it’s been published.
“It was a cool project, but it’s also been a lesson in perseverance,” Gatlin said. “To have someone finally agree to publish it was amazing after 10 years.”
The 30-page picture book is the tale of two best friends — an endangered Hawaiian monk seal and an o’o bird, which is an extinct species. The two become friends and go on adventures but eventually have to part ways.
“The book is a celebration of friendship and love, while addressing the sensitive topic of grief, a theme you rarely read about in a children’s format,” said Elodie Delannoy, marketing manager for The Madden Corporation in a news release.
The monk seal, named Hilo, is the character that represents Gatlin in the book. The o’o bird, named Koa, is modeled after Parker.
“He brought me out of my shell and I wanted to give examples of how he gave me the courage to try things I didn’t think I could do,” Gatlin said. “I was more studious and my grades were really important to me, but Aaron could make any situation funny.”
Gatlin is an assistant principal and has taught elementary school, so he couldn’t help but put a few educational underpinnings into the story. The use of extinct and endangered animals was one of those lessons.
“I started studying the extinct and endangered animal list and the monk seal seamed perfect, being introverted and they like their solitude. I thought, that’s like me,” Gatlin said. “And the squeaky bird coming to bug the monk seal who is trying to nap seemed like a good fit.”
Choosing an extinct species as a character was a deliberate decision, Gatlin said, because “if I used an extinct animal with Aaron passing, it would have symbolism with his death and that of the animal species.”
“I wanted the book to have teachable knowledge,” Gatlin said. “I think teachers could use this for lesson plans and I’ve thought counselors could use it for grief.”
Gatlin arrived on Kauai in 2006 with a vague story in his head and the desire to write a book. Inspiration struck him when he took a day hike in the Alakai Swamp.
Conversations with Kauai locals about native plants and traditions sparked other parts of the book, including things like the symbolism of light within the kukui nut.
“There’s lots of themes that parallel our friendship and I really think this is a cool book that could become a year-long lesson with all the content and subject area,” Gatlin said. “It was really cool to write.”