Children's book by Pike County native was inspired by tour in Iraq

Pike County native Christopher Epling works from a studio in his Lexington apartment. Epling's first children's book will be spotlighted at the Kentucky Book Fair.
Pike County native Christopher Epling works from a studio in his Lexington apartment. Epling's first children's book will be spotlighted at the Kentucky Book Fair. Herald-Leader

Christopher Epling's first children's book, Erby's Turn to Rake, is all about getting back home and really appreciating it.

Erby is a Polliwog who flees his home to avoid having to do chores, specifically raking. He imagines that life "up north" would not include chores and would allow him to sleep late, so he takes off on an adventure to get there.

Along the way he encounters various obstacles and people, and he learns that he can't trust first appearances.

When he reaches his destination he finds that chores have to be done there, too, and he gratefully returns home.

The idea of Erby was born while Epling, a native of the Pike County community of Wolfpit, served in the Army in Iraq. Epling dedicates the book to his late brother who died from an aneurysm and his late mother who died from pancreatic cancer.

"I really feel that God gave me this book to work on," Epling said, adding that his roots in the Southern Baptist church influence his work.

He said that Erby is "a little bit like the prodigal son," and the surprising gentleness of the book's fierce-looking Kroftymoft suggests that, "If you take time to listen, you may be surprised" at a person's character.

Erby has to wander for a while before learning his lessons, Epling said. "Sometimes running from your mistake is worse than acknowledging that you made one."

Erby's journey shows that he doesn't realize how good he has it until he tries to live far away from the routine he's always known. He gets cold, loses his food, fears his new environment and doesn't even have his favorite "tangerine tea" comfort drink. When he arrives at what he thinks is the promised land, the town is unfriendly and the work even more difficult.

Charlene Hopkins, a librarian at the Pike County Library, said the book began circulating a few weeks ago, and "the book has been out ever since we got it in."

"People are real proud of Christopher, him being a local person," she said. "When I looked at the book I immediately thought of Paul Brett Johnson (the late Kentucky artist and writer who worked extensively on mountain themes). It's a children's book, but it's a book that all ages can enjoy."

Epling, 34, lives in Lexington, where he is working on a second book, a graphic novel about growing up in Eastern Kentucky, which he describes as "a culture within a culture." A 2012 University of Kentucky graduate, Epling received a degree from the University of Pikeville, also, and worked for National College. He joined the Army in part to help pay off his student loans, he said.

While Epling served with the 101st Airborne in Iraq, Erby was born as part of his war journal. He started the Erby story after talking with some Iraqi children about their favorite stories.

Epling wrote the rhyming text and did all the artwork for the book. He also draws cartoons on political subjects and social satire that have appeared in newspapers in Kentucky and West Virginia.

Epling now plans to go back to UK for either graduate school or law school. If he becomes a lawyer, he wants to practice in the same dry-goods store location started by his great grandparents in Wolfpit, a town that prospered as the site of one of McKinney Steel's coal camps from 1919 to 1926.

"That's a big influence in my life, that store," he said.