Children’s book delivers honesty, pride

RIO GRANDE, Ohio – Born in Parkersburg, W.Va., and raised in Athens County, the rich tradition and heritage of Appalachia have always been dear to Stacie Vaughn Hutton’s heart.

Too often though, the 1994 University of Rio Grande alumnae has seen Appalachia misrepresented in popular culture with sensationalized, inaccurate depictions of the region and its people.

So Vaughn Hutton, a member of the University of Rio Grande Board of Trustees, decided to help change that perception through a children's book titled Shovelful of Sunshine. Thanks largely to her fellow Rio Grande alumni, the book has enjoyed early success since its October 2012 release and been recognized as a Hot New Release by and received the Gold Award by Mom’s Choice. 

"The whole process has really been amazing; it's been an outpouring of networking with Rio alums," Vaughn Hutton said. "A project like this reminds you how much pride each of us have for Rio Grande, our fellow alumni and the entire region."

The shear volume of supporters makes individual recognition impossible, but her fellow Zeta Theta Chi (formerly Alpha Sigma Tau) sisters have been particularly helpful, as many are now teachers and parents with strong coal mining lineage.

Because of those alumni connections, Vaughn Hutton recently traveled to Southeastern West Virginia for a book tour incorporated into the region's Coal Week. The tour included copies of Shovelful of Sunshine for students within the local public schools.

Rich Bitonte, a 1994 Rio graduate who works in government relations, also played a pivotal role as he connected Vaughn Hutton with the Ohio Coal Association in the early stages of her book's development.

"I'm so happy to see the success Stacie has enjoyed with Shovelful of Sunshine," Alumni Association Director Annette Ward said. "It is especially gratifying when the lifelong bounds forged at Rio Grande and cultivated through the Alumni Association help each of us accomplish our goals in the various chapters of our lives."

Exactly how successful Shovelful of Sunshine has been remains unclear, as initial royalties are not expected until July. Vaughn Hutton, however, said early indications are that her first children's book has been very well received.

Count former America's Got Talent winner Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. among the many supporters. The vocalist from Logan County, W.Va., native wrote the foreword for Shovelful of Sunshine.

"Stacie wrote a great little book that's perfect for coal mining families, and anyone that would like a glimpse of that world through a child's eyes," Murphy Jr. said. "When my manager Burke Allen brought the book to me, and said that his client Homer Hickam was also endorsing it, I was happy to take a look at the book, and I'm glad I did. My dad worked in the mines, along with lots of other friends and family members, and I respect miners a lot."

The 32-page picture book celebrates family, coal mining and the Welsh heritage of the region through a historically accurate lens. It also features illustrations by Cheryl Harness, who has been recognized for her previous work by Oprah Winfrey.

Harness came into the project known for her dedication to accuracy, and Vaughn Hutton said the response during signings to the littlest details has been tremendous.

So to has Vaughn Hutton’s desire to sign each book in honor of a coal miner or other immigrant relative to further enhance the sense of historical pride.

"It's been emotional for families, and I'm proud to do something that can make folks proud of their heritage in Appalachia," Vaughn Hutton said. "Coal built this country, and that's something for all of us to be proud of. There are so many wonderful stories of the people and families responsible; I'm just proud to contribute something to that."