Telling the Story of Agate the Moose

by Paul Lundgren

What Good is a Moose?
Creators of Agate Answer that Question for Children of All Ages

Giant yet lanky.

Powerful yet unable to fight off biting bugs.

It’s easy for a moose to feel like a big, awkward dope. It’s easy for anyone to feel that way.

Nikki Johnson and Joy Morgan Dey both understand how a moose, or a person, might feel.

“Everybody has had that feeling of sitting in a room and saying, ‘I don’t fit in. I feel like a moose,’” Nikki says.

                    Morgan Dey and Nikki Johnson with their creations.

That is exactly how Nikki felt once when she and Joy had attended a gathering that included some very prim, well-dressed ladies. Nikki said she felt totally out of place, a wee bit dumpy.

On the way home, she said to Joy, “Didn’t you feel like that in there: What good is a moose?”

Agate: What Good Is a
                    Moose?Those feelings would later become the magic phrase that launched their new children’s book, Agate: What Good is a Moose?

The book follows Agate the moose as he poses that question to his talented friends.

The series of watercolor illustrations and a heart-warming text help children of all ages to see their own worth.

It’s a lesson valuable for everyone, even the authors.

Nikki remembers her younger days, growing up in the Silver Creek Cliff area of Minnesota’s north shore and going to school in Two Harbors.

“If you’re raised in a town that has an uptown and a downtown group, and you’re from out in the country, you really don’t fit any group. I was a country kid. So then you’re looking at the kids in town, and they’re doing the town things, and you’re out there doing the inventive things because you’ve got to think it up yourself. Stupidly you wonder if you’re missing out on something, but you’re not missing out on a thing. … When you grow up and realize all you’ve gained from being in the country - which I did - you realize how your life was so enriched.”

Back then, Nikki also felt awkward about being taller than her classmates.

“When you’re young, if you’re taller than the boys, you just feel like you don’t fit. … We all have feelings of inferiority at one time or another in our lives and (working on Agate) was just a great opportunity to express that.”

Released in May by Lake Superior Port Cities Inc. (the publishers of Lake Superior Magazine), Agate the moose sees all the wonderful traits of the animals around him and wants to be like them. It takes Agate’s friends to remind him of his own unique qualities.

“It’s about looking around at the agates in your life,” Joy says. “You have to take the trouble to find the real value inside. You have to have a special eye to spot an agate on a beach, just like you have to have a special eye to find the beauty inside every person.”

Joy, a graphic artist, wrote Agate and designed the book. Nikki, a master painter with the Lake Superior Watercolor Society, did the illustrations.

Their partnership began in 2002, when Nikki begged Joy to design a book for her. While that project ended up shelved, their collaboration led to their first published book, Nightlight, released in 2004 by Windward Publishing of Lakeville, Minnesota.

In that children’s story, written by Jeannine Anderson, two bear cubs discover the northern lights. It was selected by ForeWord magazine as a finalist for Book of the Year in the children’s picture-book category.

                    Morgan Dey and Nikki Johnson with Agate in the

“We were fortunate to get that published,” Joy says. “It’s so difficult to get a first book published, as a rule.”

Joy grew up in southern Minnesota. After earning a psychology degree from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, she traveled to Samoa with the Peace Corps during her “hippy” days. A collection of odd jobs followed, everything from picking apples to working at a stock brokerage. She next went to Bemidji State University and earned a degree in technical illustration.

Her first design job was with Stewart Taylor Printing in Duluth.

From there, Joy moved on to design catalogs and books for Pfeifer-Hamilton Publishers in Duluth. Two children’s books that she designed - Old Turtle (1992) and The Quiltmaker’s Gift (2001) - won Book of the Year awards in the children’s literature category from Book Sense, a marketing program of the American Booksellers Association. Joy may have the distinction of being the only designer with two Book of the Year winners.

Nikki attended the University of Minnesota Duluth until 1972, moved to Florida for five years and then to Madison, Wisconsin, for 10.

Since Nikki was a child, she’s looked to animals as “role models,” aspiring to fly like an eagle or to be as graceful as deer.

Her lifelong connection to animals led her to create Tundra South Wildlife Park, a 50-acre drive-through park about 20 miles north of Madison and five miles east of Lake Wisconsin in the village of Poynette.

Nikki sold the park in the 1980s and moved back to the north shore, opening North Shore Deer Park and Silver Creek Gifts near Silver Creek Cliffs. In 1997, she closed that park, sold its gift shop and moved into Duluth. That same year, she opened her current business, a retail shop in Duluth’s Canal Park called Spirit of the Lake, specializing in clothing and artwork depicting Lake Superior.

Inspired by Nikki’s “What good is a moose?” lament after that uncomfortable gathering and then by her watercolor moose and a handful of other paintings, Joy says the text for Agate simply flowed.

Nikki says Joy’s text was exactly what she hoped that it would be: “Like Lake Superior, I wanted it clean and clear.”

All of the animals in the new book are named after birthstones, except for Agate himself.

Nikki and Joy both beam with the excitement of new moms over Agate and with being able to work with a local publisher.

“We both feel very much rooted in the area,” Nikki says.

Joy says it’s natural such a book would come out of Duluth.

Agate characters from Agate, What Good Is a

“This town is a hidden agate in itself. There are so many excellent writers and painters. There’s so much talent.”

After the main draft of the book, but before it was accepted for publication, Nikki and Joy test drove it in local classrooms.

The first drafts of the story used characters named for only a few birthstones.

The children taught the creators of the book that you have to include everyone.

“The little guys were coming up and looking for their birthstones,” Nikki says. So more characters, reflecting all 12 months, were added.

The school children did love the book, as well as the instructions by Nikki and Joy on how to create their own art and stories.

Joy introduced Nikki as being able to paint a moose in three minutes, an artistic feat Nikki continues to perform when the two get together to do presentations.

From those class visits, children’s “reviews” were gleaned. Some get right to the point. “We are all,” says Theresa, 11, “special, precious gems.”

Paul Lundgren is a freelance writer in Duluth. His birthstone is turquoise, a sign of health and prosperity.

©Lake Superior Port Cities Inc.