By Shana Siren Kempton
Local author Hunter Hawkins strives to tell the stories he wishes he could have heard as a kid when he felt different, unsure, and alone. The story of “Sydney,” his first published children’s book, bears a message so personal to him and yet so important for anyone who has ever felt less-than and compared to others. It is a picture book that speaks to both adult and child, and the main character is a unique looking knob-billed duck named Sydney.
Sydney stands out because of the large bump on her bill which is characteristic of her species but which is also the target of jeers and mean-spirited laughter that brings her to tears, causing her to question her worth and her place in the world. Through this endearing duck we learn that what truly matters is what’s inside and how you treat others.
Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale of an “ugly duckling” that somehow transforms into a beautiful swan fell short of teaching the importance of inner beauty and kindness.
Hawkins turns the oft-told fairytale inside-out and what Sydney learns is this:
“Some birds are pretty, some birds are smart, some birds show talent in music or art. Sydney, I tell you, of all of these traits, of looks and of skills, of colors and weights, none matter more than the shape of your heart. Your wonderful deeds are what set you apart.” (“Sydney,” p. 24)
“What made me choose THAT duck is the knob on the bill because it is something you can’t overlook – it’s THERE,” shares Hunter. “I didn’t want to make it a regular duck who looked different. I wanted it to be clear that Sydney did not have flaws. That was how she was born. That was what she looked like.”
Hunter wishes he could have heard that message of acceptance “as a chubby little gay kid.” He says, “It was very healing for me to take myself back and say what I would have appreciated hearing at that age, so I encourage people to go back to when you were six or seven years old. What do you wish a book would have said to you?”
Artist Matthew Hawkins, Hunter’s uncle, brings Sydney to life with his characteristic style of imbuing animals with raw expression and personality. No words are necessary as Sydney hurries away from the taunting quacks of other ducks, a single, plump tear dripping from her sad, questioning eye while her vibrant purple and green feathers droop, dejected.
Matthew did not feel obligated to illustrate the story because he is family. He says, “I actually read the story and felt obligated that it needed to be out in the world.”
Matthew’s body of work is an ever expanding collection of interesting animals making sardonic quips on two-dimensional surfaces, or in the form of life-size puppets. He has the ability to make an animal relatable, whether it be a hard-working beaver or a jingly, jangly banjo playing frog.
As with Sydney, Matthew encourages animals to speak their truths and to spread compassion and understanding through intimate observation of their habits. The squirrel in the backyard, the fox who appeared in his shed…they all have something to say.
“I think the humor of my work is a good lubricant to make a human connection and to say some things I want to say about humanity,” says Matthew.
For example, one of his favorite pieces is a fox that says, “Unique, me ‘nique, we all ‘nique.” Another example is a duck with the words, “Not all who waddle are lost.”
“Sydney” is equal parts Hunter and Matthew, writer and illustrator, respectively. The two decided to self-publish in 2021 to preserve the integrity of the story, marketing, and distribution.
“Community is very important,” says Hunter. “Everything has been so commodified. This was a very personal art piece and that’s not a commodity to me. I want to talk to you about who you’re going to read this to or what it meant to you or how your kid reacted. That’s why I did it.”
Matthew enjoys the comradery he finds within the community of makers, setting up shop at art shows, puppet festivals, and comic book conventions.
“I really feel this great connection with people at these shows,” says Matthew. “Even though it’s just goofy drawings and puns to me and to other people, it also reveals a little bit of humanity and I really relish making those connections.”
“Sydney, honestly, taught me to be kinder to myself and to give myself more grace,” says Hunter. “Writing her overcoming her struggle with body image helped me to do the same thing. After all, if she can do it, and she’s part of my imagination, I can do it too!”
Interested in purchasing a copy of “Sydney” or a t-shirt of a cat that reads “Don’t Mind If I Don’t?” Find these and more at http://www.matthewmadeart.com or follow Hunter on twitter at @HawkmanWrites.