Bedtime stories that make a difference in children’s lives.
Joe Sutton’s charming children’s tale starring Wanda, a mischievous, gum-chewing yet lovable little girl, gives a nod to the lost art of storytelling—passing stories, family histories and values from one generation to the next.
“Wanda and the Oblahlahs,” (Bright Sky Press, September 2011) the brainchild of then Army Colonel Sutton, emerged at bedtime for his rambunctious young daughters, Gretchen and Megan. Now 35 years later, Wanda’s imaginative adventure lives on for Sutton’s grandchildren and, as a children’s book, can share its timeless teachings with a new generation of readers near and far.
Sutton, a successful Houston-based energy executive, says Wanda’s misadventures turned story time into a beloved family tradition. The character he dreamed up personified the young girl who did everything she shouldn’t, and the tales always made doing the right thing seem like the best choice.
His eldest daughter, Gretchen (Sutton Setrum), remembers asking her dad repeatedly to tell her the Wanda story as a child. Three years ago, much to her delight, Megan found the vintage Wanda stories with their original illustrations by her Aunt Jane. They were in an old shopping bag in her parents’ attic, in tact after 23 moves. With Megan’s encouragement, her father decided to publish Wanda and the Oblahlahs to bring the age-old story back to life for future generations, including his own grandchildren.
To help support children who may not have loving families to share stories with them, Sutton will donate a significant portion of the proceeds from book sales to the action-focused, nonprofit organization Children at Risk for programs that combat child trafficking.
Wanda author discusses the importance of good old-fashioned story telling.
Change magazine (cm): Who is Wanda and from where is she inspired?
Joe Sutton (js): My oldest daughter, Gretchen, who loved chewing gum all the time when she was a very little girl, was the inspiration for my story. My wife and I had a difficult time getting her to take her gum out of her mouth when she went to bed. I dreamed up the Wanda character, a girl version of Dennis the Menace, if you will, to drive home the point for her to listen to her mother and me.
cm: What or who are the Oblahlahs? Do the Oblahlahs have some higher representation?
js: The Oblahlahs are colorful little creatures who move in to childrens’ mouths when the children fall asleep while chewing their gum. These pesky Oblahlahs thrive on gum and throw such a party in Wanda’s mouth that she can’t chew gum any more. In fact, she can’t even talk! Her parents can’t help, her brother, Rocky and her dog, Moldy, can’t help. Even the doctor is at a loss. It’s all up to her. The Oblahlahs are just the sound I thought one might make if his or her vocal cords were stuck together with gum...oblahlah, oblahlah.
cm: In addition to the appropriate time and place for gum chewing, what other lessons did Wanda teach your girls?
js: Wanda’s gum-chewing story launched lots of different stories that I dreamed up to point out what would happen if my daughters didn't do as they were told. My girls seemed to learn their lessons well from Wanda’s various escapades. We used Wanda to keep them from wandering out of the yard; teeth brushing; being nice to others and even good manners. It (storytelling) is what children like and remember; it costs nothing; and it is fun. There is no substitute for parental interaction with children. Too many times parents substitute television, video games, and the Internet for that interaction. Just tell your child a story, made up or real life—they love it.
cm: Your daughter, Megan, found the vintage Wanda stories with their original illustrations by her Aunt Jane in your attic three years ago and now Aunt Jane's drawings are included in the new book. What was her reaction after all of these years to the decision to publish Wanda's tales as a children's book? Did she want to do any revisions on the art?
js: My sister, Jane, who is quite a fine artist, was the person who sparked the idea to illustrate my story more than 35 years ago. She was thrilled when I called her about her drawings being published after all these years hidden away in the attic. There was no need to revise her artwork—we really liked the vintage feel of this particular work. I’ve always liked her depiction of the Oblahlahs. I think she did a great job with these tiny little creatures.
cm: You've decided to give 100 percent of the proceeds from the sale of “Wanda and the Oblahlahs” to Children At Risk. What led you to this organization and how will the proceeds be used within the organization?
js: My daughter, Megan, is on the board of Children at Risk and invited me to one of their programs last year. I was horrified to learn that child trafficking exists in this country and that Houston is an international hub for such operations. I want to do whatever I can to eliminate child trafficking and am donating the proceeds of the sales of the books, as well as “Wanda” T-shirts, insulated lunch bags and water bottles to Children At Risk. The monies raised are earmarked for programs to combat child trafficking.
cm: We know that Wanda and the Oblahlahs hold a lesson for children. Is there, too, a lesson for the adults who may buy the book for the children in their lives?
js: Yes, just like “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” I think adults will learn that they get their message across to their children without nagging but by being a bit creative. Make up your own story with a lesson hidden inside. It really works! I also think that parents will learn, and can pass on to their children, that their purchase of the book will help children in need—children who may not be as fortunate as they are. There’s a lesson in philanthropy—of helping others—in every purchase of the book.