BROOKINGS – Eric Holm, Brookings High School class of 2001, and Eileen Binkley, class of 2002, were friends back in those days.
They remained friends over the years, share mutual interests and now are collaborating on a planned series of children’s books.
Binkley is an art teacher at Brookings Mickelson Middle School, a painter, weaver, and mother of two. Holm, who calls New York home when he’s not in Brookings, is a theater director and a musician who writes and performs children’s songs.
“We’re in the very early stages right now,” Binkley said of the duo’s first book. “I will illustrate and Eric has already written some of the lyrics.” The age range for their first effort is 3 to 8 years old.
“We’re hoping that this is an ongoing collaboration,” Holm added. “We’re planning on it being something that we can come back to throughout our lives.”
Before she and Holm began their collaborative efforts, Binkley was sketching pictures of her own children in “an adventure in the forest living with the animals.”
Later during a year when Holm came home to visit his parents who still live in Brookings, the two friends got together.
“I showed him my sketchbook and he started talking about the work he was doing in New York,” Binkley said.
When Binkley showed Holm the sketches of her children in their forest adventure and living with the animals, he raised the question of her sketching the illustrations before any words were written.
She did admit that her process apparently was “a fairly unusual way to approach writing a book.”
“As he started telling me about his lyrics, I immediately started to envision the characters in the book,” she explained. “And the scene: where do they live, what does that place look like, and how would I create that environment.”
A ‘contemporary Mr. Rogers’
“After finishing graduate school as a theater artist, a theater director, I had to make ends meet,” Holm explained, of how he came to being a lyricist for children’s entertainment. “And I started singing for very young people. I created a persona called ‘Teacher Eric.’ An example was ‘Teacher Eric sings to children in the park.’”
He envisioned a sort of “contemporary Mr. Rogers,” whom he greatly admired. “He’s a true musical genius. He wrote all his themes. He’s a beautiful piano player.”
Holm also noted that when Rogers drew pictures on his show, they were pretty simple and basic, like a child might do. His approach was, “I’m not very good at this; but that’s OK.”
Holm admits that he, too, is not very good at drawing. And that’s where the collaboration with Binkley comes into play.
“I have different skills,” he explained. “Instead I can lean on my friend, who is really, really great at drawing. That’s one of the beautiful things about collaboration.
“You can lean on each other’s strengths, our differences, our different strengths, our different weaknesses, even join together to make us stronger as a whole.”
They will collaborate on the narrative and the writing. And each book will also be a song.
“If you’re a little kid and you don’t know how to read yet, you can listen to the song,” Holm explained. “And the song will narrate the book for you.”
To that end, Holm has transformed some of his and Binkley’s collaborative ideas “into lyrics that rhyme and have a particular meter. Our books are poetic in more than one sense of the word.”
Additionally, their books will consider “the beauty of everyday life,” be it something as mundane and everyday occurring, such as breakfast.
“It’s also a really big deal. You’ve got to have breakfast,” Holm said, smiling.
“Especially for young children,” Binkley added. “The act of eating together as a family and who’s together and what are we eating all come into play.”
The authors envision books that parents can share with their children, reading to them and singing along with them.
“We imagine these books as being pretty interactive to read,” Holm said. “Partly because of the musical aspect, so that a very young person could say, ‘Let me perform this book for you,’ and then sings it to you as they read it.
”When I was very little, I knew the words to my favorite books before I was able to read.”
“Books are meant to be somewhat funny,” he also noted. “I think having a sense of humor is a big deal for young people as well as grownups.”
Welcoming, accepting, inclusive
In their collaboration, Holm and Binkley can draw upon similar experiences they had and their friendship during their years at Brookings High School. Both were active in theater, speech and debate. Later both were active in Prairie Repertory Theatre.
But in their higher education pursuits, they chose different schools.
Holm went to acting school at the University of Minnesota.
“It was a pretty intensive classical acting school,” Holm said. “We did a lot of Shakespeare, voice and speech, ballet, African dance. Intensive performer training.”
He later attended a master’s program in directing at Columbia University in New York City. “I kind of moved from being onstage to being behind the scenes, to being the watcher, the creator and the director.”
Binkley earned her credentials in art, printing, print-making and art education at South Dakota State University. They mesh well with the credentials that Holm brings to their collaboration.
“Eric and I are examples of two people doing a lot of things,” she explained. “I would describe us as young, intelligent, liberal, artistic people that have a strong voice. The books we’re writing for kids are very inclusive.”
“I wanted to make less exclusive art and more inclusive art,” Holm said. “That was sort of the impulse toward making art for young people. We are queer friendly. … Some of the characters in our books are gay and queer.”
“I increasingly see a need for this kind of acceptance in our community,” Binkley added. “We have more trans and gay people, children in our community that need to know that there are adults in our community that love them, champion them.
“We’re trying to create a safe space for people like us to create a dialogue for young people to learn about the trans community and the gay community,” Binkley explained. “Perhaps South Dakota has not always been the most accepting place.”
Both agreed that their “huge project is very welcoming to all types of people.”
Holm noted that New York audiences are “pretty radical, left-wing queer people. They didn’t need to hear the things that I was trying to share. They already knew that they were OK. They already had found their community.”
“I realized the people that I needed to talk to were queer kids in Red states,” he said. “So I wrote a song called ‘Queer Kids in Red States.’ It’s on an album that’s coming out very shortly.”
Contact John Kubal at [email protected]