WEST STOCKBRIDGE — One sunny afternoon while No. Six Depot Café was closed briefly for renovations, four West Stockbridge women — an author, an illustrator, a filmmaker and a café proprietor — sat in the empty adjoining gallery surrounded by paint cans instead of the usual coffee beans and customers, and looked forward to Mother's Day.
At 4 p.m., Sunday, May 8, families will descend on the former West Stockbridge train station for a reading of the new children's book "Soldier," written by area author Kara Van Kirk Levin and illustrated by Vlada Soshkina in collaboration with Polina Doroshenko.
The hardcover book tells the tale of a young porcupine named Soldier, who can't be hugged by his family because his prickly quills won't lie flat. A compassionate field mouse hears the beautiful, sad music Soldier plays on his wooden flute in the forest and rallies the other woodland creatures to help him.
The richly detailed illustrations encompass a soft palette of muted mauves and blues, imagining a world of whimsical animal characters who live in cozy cottages in a sylvan setting where fireflies cast a warm glow.
Levin, a part-time West Stockbridge resident and child clinical psychologist, originally wrote the story back in 2003. Now the mother of 6-year-old twin boys, last year she revisited the project.
"It seemed like it had to wait to converge with these people at this time," she said.
Her next door neighbor, Iin Purwanti, introduced her to Soshkina, a native of the Ukraine, who lives nearby with her photographer husband and 2-year-old son.
"West Stockbridge has become a hub for international artists," said Purwanti, an Indonesian filmmaker whose production studio shares the train depot building with the café.
"I read the manuscript and it was really heart-warming," she said. "When I saw Vlada's work, somehow I felt it's the right connection."
Soshkina created the digital illustrations with Polina Doroshenko, her artistic collaborator in the Ukraine. Together, they create a line of stationery, including cards and notebooks for their company Red Wooden Flag. While not specifically reflecting a Ukrainian folk artistic style, "when you see the pictures around you, it influences you a lot," she said.
"Soldier" was printed in Kiev, and Soshkina traveled there to oversee production of the book, using the opportunity to visit her family.
"In Ukraine is now really hard times and people are pretty poor, so I was happy to bring an order from the States," she said.
Printing the personally financed project in the U.S. would have been cost-prohibitive, explained Levin, who established the Little Wooden Flute publishing house to produce the title.
"A larger publisher typically will select an illustrator for you," she said. "We had the advantage of sitting down and talking about every illustration as it was coming to life."
She chose to name the main character "Soldier" because of the way the word sounded. "If you extrapolate, [the word] 'soul' is embedded in there; and this little critter had to be brave and also sensitive."
"Vlada put Soldier in the tenderest of environments," she said. "Even though he is lonely internally, you can tell he is surrounded by love and is going to be OK."
The story's simple message?
"You can do something small and change one life," she said.
While the book is aimed primarily at children aged 3 to 8 years, Levin has been surprised by how much it also appeals to younger children and especially boys. So far, marketing has been largely word of mouth, she said, with lots of interest on Facebook and social media.
"People take pictures of their kids with the book and send it back to us," she said.
In March, a batch of books hot off the press sold out in Kentucky, where Soshkina had gone to paint a street mural as part of an artist residency.
Levin hopes to develop the story further and add a couple more books in the series. She is also exploring a related musical project.
The No. Six Depot reading and signing is free and will include refreshments and a fun temporary tattoo party for children and mothers. Reservations are requested at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Café co-owner Lisa Landry is delighted to launch the book in the café's airy adjoining gallery, where she schedules events from music concerts and play readings to tea tastings and Balinese dancing, alongside rotating art exhibits.
"Coffee without community doesn't make sense," she said. "In England, coffee houses used to be called 'Penny Universities' because people would come and meet and discuss culture and politics."
"Soldier" is available for $16.95 online at littlewoodenflute.com and locally at Shaker Mill Books in West Stockbridge and the Bookloft in Great Barrington.
If you go ...
What: "Soldier" children's book reading, signing and "tattoo" party
Where: No. Six Depot café, Depot Street, West Stockbridge
When: 4 p.m. Sunday, May 8
Information: sixdepot.com (413) 232-0205