Boston schoolteacher brings fantasy world to life in new book
By Ling-Mei Wong
By day, Phil Amara teaches fourth grade at the Josiah Quincy Lower School.
By night, he battles masked villains and saves villages from doom.
“The Treehouse Heroes and the Forgotten Beast,” Amara’s first picture book, was published November 2011. Five young superheroes and their teacher reside in a tree house. They band together and rescue the magical Zez from the evil General Moon.
The book features lush watercolor drawings, illustrated by Lucasfilm animator Alina Chau. Amara, a former comics editor, came up with the story’s concept and would bounce ideas off Chau. Unlike a traditional storybook with the illustrations filled in after the writing, Amara and Chau created the words and pictures together.
“There are lots of good artists with technical skill, but not everyone is a collaborator,” Amara said. “It was a match between me as a creator and Alina as an artist.”
The Treehouse Heroes combine their superpowers — incredible strength, shape shifting, remarkable speed, teleportation and a voice like the wind — to help others. While the book has magical elements, it incorporates team work and environmental awareness as well. When the Zez is freed, it brings an old tree to life and flourishes when people care for the land.
“We both believe to make a good story for kids, it doesn’t need to be violent, vulgar or outrageous to get children’s attention,” Chau said. “It’s a good story that kids can learn a lesson from. They are not reading it because they must learn, but because it’s fun.”
The book’s look is based on traditional Chinese art. “The Zez character is based on the qilin,” Chau said. “The bad guy, General Moon, is totally inspired by Peking opera costumes.”
Chau has worked on 3-D animation for “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” but the Treehouse Heroes book was the first time she had so much input into the final product. “Working with Phil is very fun,” she said. “It’s very hard to find a creative partner or collaborator because artists have a strong style or vision. But Phil and I, we have similar taste and philosophy, especially in writing books for children.”
Amara and Chau established several guidelines for the Treehouse Heroes. First, they wanted superheroes that were unlike ones from DC Comics or Marvel. Second, they wanted kid-friendly heroes that appealed to both genders — not just boys — with heroic qualities, such as helping others. Finally, the book was set in ancient times, reflecting Amara’s love of Asian mythology and Chau’s Chinese heritage.
“We want kids to relate to the characters,” Chau said. “We brainstormed with all kinds of ideas and developed the concept into Treehouse Heroes.”
For Amara, the book combines his passions. “This came from two sides of my brain. One is the teacher side that wants to create something my fellow teachers and I can use in class,” he said. “The other side is I wanted to take the next step after comics.”
There may be more Treehouse Heroes books to come. For the first book, Amara hopes it entertains children and inspires them. “What the heroes realize is magic is one part, but the rest is up to you,” he said.
This post is also available in: Chinese