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.
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?”
Those feelings would later become the magic phrase
that launched their new children’s book, Agate: What Good is a
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
“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
Back then, Nikki also felt awkward about being taller than
“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
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
“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
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
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.
“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
“The little guys were coming up and looking for their
birthstones,” Nikki says. So more characters, reflecting all 12 months,
The school children did love the book, as well as the
instructions by Nikki and Joy on how to create their own art and
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,
Paul Lundgren is a freelance writer in Duluth. His
birthstone is turquoise, a sign of health and prosperity.