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This author becomes one with subjects

Jillian Dexheimer photos.

Wearing a snorkel mask and jumping into a pond, local children's book writer Rick Chrustowski gets face-to-face with the animals that dot the pages of his children's books.

The author and illustrator of five books, including: "Big Brown Bat," "Turtle Crossing," "Blue Sky Bluebird," "Hop Frog" and "Bright Beetle" visited Westside Elementary Feb. 27-28.

During his visit, Chrustowski said his books start with one little idea. He then does research and writes a story.

He showed students a picture of a turtle-crossing sign and said that it sparked an idea. He then challenged the students to think of places that he could go to research turtles.

Answers included: Pond, woods, beach, library, Google it, the zoo and more.

Chrustowski told the Westside students what he did: Got a pair of waders and hung out by the turtle crossing sign and watched the turtles.

He said: "I pretend I'm the animal that I am studying."

As examples, he cited swimming with frogs and climbing into the rafters for a bat's perspective.

Chrustowski also looks for something unique or new to include in his book. He told students while reading from "Big Brown Bat," that bats purr just like cats do.

Explaining his writing process, Chrustowski said he writes his story out big so he can include everything and doesn't worry about spelling or grammar. The idea, he says, is to get ideas down and keep moving on.

To add artwork to his story, he said he pictures the animal in his head and he starts with simple shapes and then gets his colored pencils out.

His first book, "Bright Beatle" was written in 2000 and took three years. He said his books now take about one-two years.

According to Chrustowski, from Indiana, the color-pencil technique is time consuming. He added that pages with many details take a lot of time as well.

When he needs a break he goes out into his Clifton Township backyard and walks around, looking for inspiration. The owner of two dogs, a cat, a horse and chickens doesn't have to look far.

He told the kids that one advantage of illustrating is that you can put whatever you want in the picture -- including your own animals.

When asked what his favorite animal is, Chrustowski replied, "a praying mantis" -- because it looks like a cross between a human, alien and insect.

Having always loved art as a child, Chrustowski always knew he wanted to be an artist, but it was not until he was in college at UW-Madison that he found his calling.

Recalling that his sister had just had a baby and he didn't have any money, but wanted to give the baby a gift, he spent the weekend making the baby a book. He said by the end of the weekend he knew what he wanted to do.

Chrustowski's next book, "Bee Dance" will feature a honey bee. Although it is only 250 words, the project has taken nine years to get going.

According to Chrustowski, he kept putting it aside and then would come back to it on occasion. Now that the story is finished, he feels it could be his best book ever.

Chrustowski, who moved to River Falls in 1994, said he "keeps trying to get better with every book." To him writing books means a lifetime of learning.

He is also working on a graphic novel that he says is different than anything he's ever done. He was quick to point out that even with all his success, he still has failures.

In the future, Chrustowski would like to tackle other animals including: a spider, snake, dragonfly, red fox, bear, bald eagle, and owl.

As part of his job, Chrustowski travels around a lot, talking to schools. He said: "You have to like travelling and public speaking."

For more information about Chrustowski, visit his website at His books are available at or the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul.

Jillian Dexheimer
Jillian Dexheimer has been a copy editor and reporter for the River Falls Journal since 2011. She previously worked for the River Falls Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau. Dexheimer holds a sociology degree from UW-River Falls.
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