This constant search for good books keeps Stuckenschneider knee-deep in reading material - or, as she likes to call it, "heaven." It's also enabled her to hone her skills the last seven years and discover what makes a good children's book.
"Twist of Fate, the Miracle Colt and His Friends" is a story of hope and one Missourian readers may already be somewhat familiar with. It's the true story of what happened after a tractor-trailer carrying 42 horses flipped over on Interstate 44 between Stanton and St. Clair back in September 2006.
Sixteen of the animals were killed in the accident or had to be euthanized, but 26 survived, including "a visibly pregnant" mare who was dubbed Mama by the veterinarian who cared for her.
Mama and some of the survivors were taken to Longmeadow Rescue Ranch in Union to recover, but many feared Mama would miscarry her baby. They both pulled through and on April 18, 2007, "the miracle colt" was born.
"A bay colt with lots of white . . . complete with a lightning bolt mark on his face that rivals Harry Potter's," Stuckenschneider wrote in her weekly "Sights and Insights" column.
At first, that's all the story was going to be for Stuckenschneider - the subject of a column. As she delved into it, though, she couldn't let it go. "I was so shocked by the accident," she recalled. "I've always been a horse lover, and this story just got me. And then to find out that a foal was going to be born - that was just awesome.
"I couldn't believe it. The story (of the accident) was so sad, but there were so many people who came together to save these horses - it was touching. And from this tragic story comes a glimmer of hope with the colt being born."
Stuckenschneider visited Longmeadow about a week after the colt was born to interview the director, Earlene Cole, for the column and was quickly inspired.
"I fell in love with the whole idea of this story and the (Longmeadow) facility," she said. "I told Dawn (Kitchell), 'You've got to see this ranch. It's like eye candy, it's so beautiful.' "
Kitchell, who is the Newspaper In Education coordinator both for The Missourian and for the Missouri Press Association, as well as Stuckenschneider's partner in managing the newspaper's Book Buzz program, tagged along with her on a second visit to the ranch and that's when the idea struck.
"We were walking out and I looked at Dawn and said, 'This could be a serial story for the paper!' " Stuckenschneider recalled. "Well, our faces lit up and we started batting ideas back and forth."
If you've ever been around Stuckenschneider and Kitchell when an idea strikes them, you know what she's talking about. The two are each creative thinkers on their own, but when they get together, their ideas build on each other until the end result is something extraordinary.
"We realized the story wasn't just about the miracle of the colt being born, but the miracle of all the horses that were saved," said Stuckenschneider.
She got to work late that summer writing the eight-chapter serial story, which was sponsored by the Missouri Press Association's NIE program and would eventually be offered to newspapers all over the state. Stuckenschneider met with Cole for a series of interviews, and Cole selected the horses that would be featured in the story.
Somewhere along the way, Stuckenschneider can't remember exactly when, she made the off-handed comment to Kitchell, "This could be the book I've always wanted to write."
Her friend came right back with a, "You're right, it is!" and encouraged Stuckenschneider to make it happen.
Making a Book Deal
Stuckenschneider turned to her many contacts in the children's book world to get started. She contacted the literary agent for Book Buzz author Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who Stuckenschneider had worked with on an author visit to Washington a couple of years ago.
"I sent her (the agent) the entire serial story, but she said it didn't fit with the type of books she represents," Stuckenschneider recalled.
She followed up with other contacts to see if there was a hope of getting the book into the hands of a mainstream publishing house. But knowing how hard it is to get a book published this way, Stuckenschneider decided she was willing to self-publish the book if she had to.
She contacted Reedy Press, a small two-man publishing house out of St. Louis, with that idea in mind, but was pleased to discover the company offers something called "co-publishing," where author and publisher share the cost of printing and each has a certain number of books to sell to recoup cost and see profit.
"What's neat about it is that every step of the way, you have an editor helping and guiding you through the process," said Stuckenschneider.
The owners of Reedy, Josh Stevens and Matt Heidenry, didn't hesitate at signing a deal for "Twist of Fate," their first children's book. They saw its full potential from the start.
"We have been interested in producing a children's book for some time, but we were careful about attaching ourselves to a project," said Matt Heidenry. "Reedy Press is a regional publisher, so we can better serve a product when there is a specific market that we can focus on. We saw 'Twist of Fate' as the best of both worlds - a regional book with national appeal.
"The story, itself, was another draw," he said. "We knew it would be a challenge to tell such a complex story to children, but we felt it was a story that had to be told. The story is dramatic, full of hope and inspiration, and best of all, it's true."
Heidenry said Stuckenschneider herself was the final reason they agreed to take on her book.
"A passionate author is essential in regional publishing, and Chris has set the bar very high," he said. "Her enthusiasm and dedication were contagious while pulling this book together."
Taking the eight-chapter serial story of "Twist of Fate," which is what the baby colt was named through a contest where kids could submit their suggestions, and paring it into a children's book was a challenge, said Stuckenschneider. At first, she wasn't sure how she was going to tell the story of "Twister," as he's nicknamed, and include the other five accident survivors that had been featured in the serial story.
She worked closely with her buddy, Kitchell, to find out a way to make it work. She also took advice from her mother, Amy Flottmann, and Diane Lick, a friend and retired reading specialst with the Washington School District.
"Diane helped me see that I had to make the story so simple," Stuckenschneider remarked. "Use less words on each page."
And that's what she did. Stuckenschneider wrote short sidebars with details about each of the five survivors that appear throughout the book.
"That was the hardest part and at times I'd call Dawn and say, 'It's not going to work - the main story will get mixed up with the sidebars. But Dawn encouraged me not to give up on them. Now I just love the sidebars."
Other animals from Longmeadow are featured in the story as well. It was Heidenry who suggested that Stuckenschneider include them. He thought kids would love reading about "Snortin' Norton" the pig, "Mama Llama" and "Crackers" the pygmy goat, and it helped illustrate the kind of place Longmeadow is.
'Only as Good as The Illustrations'
Illustrations for "Twist of Fate" were created by Kevin Belford of Kirkwood, who worked from photographs mainly taken at Longmeadow by the Humane Society and Missourian photo editor Jeanne Miller Wood and at the scene of the accident by members of the Missouri Emergency Response Team.
Stuckenschneider is quick to credit Belford with helping her book turn out so well.
"Everyone always says a picture book is only as good as your illustrations, and it's so true," she remarked.
Belford, who studied art at Kansas City Art Institute and has been working as an illustrator since the early '80s, had never done a children's book before "Twist of Fate." Most of his work has been with nonfiction stories, like Stuckenschneider's, which is why he prefers to paint from photos.
"I wanted to show the animals accurately," Belford said.
Through his illustrations, Belford also worked in some meaningful imagery that begins with the Western motif design carried throughout the book.
"There's an inferred horizon on the design that is replaced by blue sky later in the story when 'Twister' is born," Belford explained. "I didn't want to use any blue sky until he was born."
That's not something he expects many people will pick up on their first time reading the story, but that's how he intends it.
"I hope there are new things that people discover each time they read it, just like you do with a great piece of music when you listen to it over and over," he remarked.
"Writing this book is the realization of a dream," Stuckenschneider writes in her dedication. "Twist of Fate" may be the name of the miracle colt and now of Stuckenschneider's book, but it's also an apt description for how things have turned out for her as well.
Writing a children's book was a dream that always seemed out of reach. In her own life, a "twist of fate" changed that.
To learn more about Chris and the making of "Twist of Fate," you can visit Stuckenschneider's web site: cstuckenschneider.com
To buy a copy of "Twist of Fate," people can contact Stuckenschneider at 636-239-7272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Cost is $16.95 plus tax, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Humane Society of Missouri.