Photo by Kelsey Shoemaker.

Look at those city birds, they’re all the same,” says Jenani Tzhone’s young daughter, as the two watched them congregate on a February night at White Rock Lake. 

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Those birds were called coots, a common water bird that is known to travel in large flocks. The coots weren’t particularly discernible from one another, most of them sporting the same dark black feathers and white beaks. 

Tzhone then noticed a duck fly in and land among the coots. The duck had beautiful brown feathers that stood out and magnified the coots’ uniformity. The image of a colorful, singular duck standing out in the sea of mundane coots stuck with her, and she knew exactly what to do with it.

“I got this story, it just came spilling out,” she says. “The next day, I went for a run and when I got home, I just spit it all out on paper.”

Her story described the coots as creatures of boring habit, until the arrival of a unique duck that inspires them to break out of their stereotype and form unique personalities of their own. 

Tzhone’s idea was one of many, batting around different concepts for children’s books over her years as a grade school teacher. Until then, she had never formally written before.

“I’ve always had ideas,” she explains. “But then I would Google it and someone’s already done it. This was one time where I wasn’t even trying, and of course, that’s when it happened to stick.”

In one night, her idea came to fruition as a fun, rhythmic tale of singularity and bravery. Her words were on paper, and she loved it. But that’s only half the battle. Tzhone laid out her words along with some photos she took on the lake for her first rough draft of the book, and took it across the street to get her neighbors’ opinions. According to Tzhone, her neighbor didn’t mince words.

“Your pictures are crap,” he told her. “But give it to my sister who’s a graphic designer and she’ll knock it out of the park for you.” 

Serena Burrows was the one up to bat. She lived in Iowa, and just like Tzhone, hadn’t worked on a children’s book before. 

“We both knew nothing,” Tzhone says. “Her first time, my first time. It was so fun going back and forth.”

The two worked tirelessly together online, bringing Tzhone’s vision for the book to life. Eventually they came to a consensus, crafting a watercolor art scheme and a main character duck modeled after Willie Nelson. 

The finished product became known as The City Coots of White Rock Lake, retelling the scene Tzhone witnessed with her daughter with a fun, rhyming twist that reads like the great children’s books of old. 

After years of teaching, learning and trying, Tzhone has finally crafted the art she’s always wanted to make. It’s conceived out of love, for her daughter and for the countless students she taught along the way. It’s conceived out of nature and out of neighbors. Most of all, The City Coots of White Rock Lake is a product of her never-ending desire to create, and to make something out of what she sees around her. It’s to stand out in a crowd.

“If I go through every day and do the same thing, especially as a mom, you’re doing lots of cyclical things,” Tzhone explains. “That’s what creating is for me. Creating guarantees it’s not Groundhog Day.”