Recently, a slim book entitled, “What’s a Friend For?”, written and illustrated by Melinda Hoffman, appeared on display at Joel Ann Chandler’s Mauldin Open Air Market. One might wonder why this book can be found among fruits, vegetables, and the sundry items sold in this store. By way of answer, Joel Ann’s farm serves as a backdrop for this tender story about a well-known friendship between a brown and white cow and a fine speckled goose.
For years, Mauldin residents, particularly those associated with Mauldin High School, have had a ring-side seat to the antics of a goose and cow who traveled together on Joel Ann’s farm. Folks driving by or walking down busy Butler Road could glimpse the goose chasing after the brown and white cow whenever she moved about the field.
Melinda Hoffman, who resides a short distance down the street from the farm, became fascinated with this story and witnessed the friendship herself. Many times, she would pull her car over and stop to view them whenever they rested together in the farm’s upper field. She wondered at the delightful companionship shared between two such disparate creatures and that wondering led to the idea for this book.
Melinda dropped by Joel Ann’s store to discuss the cow and the goose, expressing concern that they might one day be separated from each other or something could happen to the cow. Joel Ann reassured her that the two friends would remain together.
In all, Melinda watched and photographed the cow and goose for 1.5 years. With Joel Ann’s permission, Melinda planned to camp out on the farm to further research and observe this friendship. Sadly, though, she drove by one day and did not see the goose. When she consulted Joel Ann, they discovered the goose had passed away of natural causes at around 20 years old. That sparked Melinda’s writing of this precious story. She knew that someone had to document and share this special and enduring friendship. After all those photographs, all that time observing, she says that the book wrote itself. Melinda woke up one Saturday morning and knew what had to be on each page.
Melinda spends her days as an artist who prefers to work in acrylic paints on paper or canvas and sometimes includes trinkets, orbs, and even bullets to explore her theme. Her gallery, located within her residence, abounds with paintings, some of which have been exhibited at ArtFields, an art competition organized by Darla Moore in Lakeside, South Carolina, and an Anderson Arts Center event called Celebrating Women in Art. The mother of three daughters and grandparent to five received a fine arts degree from Indiana University and studied printmaking at Clemson University, but her roots go back to classical piano and music informs much of her art as well as her life. Many of her paintings involve sailboats, but her real passion is creating pieces that give political voice to contemporary issues and human dilemmas. She says that her paintings are like delivering a melody line. She is concerned about those who find themselves in unspeakable situations and themes such as migration, war, and destruction as well as the importance and availability of clean air and water pervade her creations. Her earnest desire is to evoke conversation and dialogue when people view her paintings, engaging them to reflect upon and discuss difficult and even troubling things. If no one talks about such things, how will they change for the better?
Because her artistic pieces often involve heavy themes, Melinda found great joy and respite in creating this book on the true meaning of friendship. Her intentional choices in devising and publishing this work make it highly unique and truly exceptional. While many books, particularly those designed for children, include a glossy front, this book’s cover possesses a matte finish and muted fall hues to slow down the pace and prepare the reader for reflection. The book’s orientation is landscape rather than the traditional portrait mode because Melinda feels that “landscape” is the way people really see things and that there is stability in finding the horizon line. The inscription at the front of the book relays that it is “for Johanna who swears she saw them kiss”, an allusion to one of her own daughters. The story opens with these words, “Once upon a very real time.” Melinda says that she likes to write about real things because reality is important to children. She carefully chose background colors for different pages based on where the thought changes or to capture colors from the paintings or evoke a certain mood. This slim volume contains but 485 words, but Melinda carefully chose each one, sometimes hashing out the best one in long discussions with her sister, who also served as her editor. She chose a special font called “mali” which evokes fun and youthfulness and is especially easy for young readers. Working from her many photographs, Melinda used a mechanical pencil and watercolors to create the various scenes outlining the story. Her pictures comprise the true heart of the book, each one fresh and whimsical, containing details to be discussed and explored. Melinda says that she never used watercolors as a medium before tackling this project. Rather than tubed watercolors, she chose to work with watercolor cakes, carefully mixing the colors into unique blends and hues.
Within the pages of “What’s a Friend for?”, one finds allusions to Joel Ann Chandler, her store, and most of all her farm. One picture depicts Joel Ann among her fruit stands, holding a leaf rake, with a nearby U.S. flag and her farm visible behind her. Anyone who has visited the Mauldin Open Air Market will readily recognize both the person and the scene. Another picture shows Joel Ann’s beloved red pick-up truck parked on her farm. In her book, Melinda describes a company seeking to buy Joel Ann’s farm and her refusing this offer. Joel Ann will tell you that this property has been in her family since 1924. Her grandfather earned a living by planting cotton, harvesting peaches, and raising livestock such as hogs and cattle. She can remember climbing peach trees there before she learned to walk. At present, she owns 35 acres where the farm is located plus the 1 acre across the street where her store stands. Though she has been approached by would-be buyers, Joel Ann firmly declares that she has no intentions of selling her beloved farm. Melinda concludes her story with a paragraph dedicating the book to Joel Ann and her many contributions to Mauldin. Of Joel Ann, Melinda declares this, “I realize that the reason this story existed was that there is an exceptional person running the show to keep beautiful land, a touch of nature.”
Most would consider this book to be primarily aimed at children, especially those in early grade school, but preschoolers might enjoy it as well. Melinda suggests that the book is really a children’s book that has been written for adults. It challenges the reader to consider such things as how we really choose our friends and what the true value of friendship is. She believes it to be a perfect book to give to an adult, especially someone who is stressed out or has experienced recent loss. It would let them know that they have a friend who is there and always will be. Her sister, editor Sara Taylor, who spent more than 40 years as a first-grade teacher specializing in reading, calls this a teaching book. She envisions one reading this book to a child and in the process, expounding and explaining it based on his/her own experiences in this wonderful thing called friendship. Given its geographic setting, this book should especially appeal to Mauldin residents.
Melinda readily shares her problems and concerns with publishing her book. U.S. companies charge a lot to self-publish, so she explored worldwide until she found a woman in the Philippines who created the necessary files quickly and for reasonable prices. The book is available through major online book companies, directly from Melinda’s website: www.melindahoffman.com, and of course, at Joel Ann’s store. Already, Melinda has plans for 3 or 4 additional book titles.
After the goose’s passing, the cow “balled” a lot and obviously missed her friend. She went on to have a calf of her own and still happily lives on Joel Ann’s farm.
Melinda wants her paintings in this book to speak to people about the truly important things in life like friendship. She hopes that folks can somehow get beyond their differences especially in these divisive times, learn to appreciate each other, and maybe even become friends. Joel Ann adds this, “If a cow and a goose can do this, then why can’t human beings do this?”♦