Mom’s Choice Awards is excited to announce another post in our interview series where we chat with the inventors, designers, publishers, and others behind some of our favorite family-friendly products.
Welcome to another interview with a Mom’s Choice Awards honoree! Today we are delighted to speak with Joseph Cassis, known for his superb Squire With Fire children’s picture book series. In his third book, Squire With Fire—Disappearance of Luka, the unique white dragon Luka has the chance to use his newly discovered superpower (invisibility) to save the day for his friends and community. If you’re a parent or educator looking for an excellent way to initiate discussions with children ages 7 to 10 about sensitive topics—such as how to defend themselves from bullying—this story about a winsome dragon who’s discovering his own strengths is an ideal place to start. In addition, kids will discover how our differences make us all special.
Hi, Joseph! Thanks so much for joining us today. Congratulations on winning another Mom’s Choice Award. Squire With Fire—Disappearance of Luka is an excellent resource for parents and educators to help kids navigate some pretty rough terrain, like protecting themselves against bullying. To get started, please tell us something about yourself.
First, I would like to emphasize how much I appreciate the Mom’s Choice Awards (MCA) and this opportunity to be interviewed. Thank you for the accolades and distinctions. Being a Mom’s Choice Award winner for all four of my children’s books is quite humbling and inspirational to improve upon my writing craft while entertaining readers of my books.
Writing was not my first passion, though I’ve always enjoyed sharing stories—ever since I was a kid living in West Virginia. Sometimes when I lay in bed, I would even make up a story so to avoid thinking about how scared I was of the dark. My father would remonstrate, “Boys don’t cry!” The campfires crackling during my Boy Scout outings, or when my family was gathered around a firepit after we moved to Connecticut, were excellent venues for me to tell stories. To see people react to my scary tales gave me a sense of confidence.
Even at parties during my high school years and at the University of Connecticut, fellow students would ask me to concoct stories based on characters they would delineate. I didn’t mind the popularity since I wanted to overcome being an introvert and I felt comfortable creating my own worlds, especially if they entertained other people. That premise of observing people’s behavior, including my own, during these interactions led me to change my choice of studies from Aeronautical Engineering to Psychology, focusing on Behavior Modification. In fact, my English professor was the one that told me I would be a great storyteller after she handed back my paper with an A+ for a fictional story highlighting inequality in society. Talk about sparking an incentive to write!
Realizing that a Psychology degree would not be too beneficial unless I either pursued graduate work or a medical profession requiring at least 4 to6 more years of study, I decided to earn my M.B.A. degree at Washington University in St. Louis concentrating on Marketing as well as Information Technology (I.T.). For me, psychology is an excellent basis for marketing to various demographic segments, no matter what the product or service. And, Information Technology requires similar logic like the brain to perform functions. These two disciplines are a great combination to succeed in business when dealing with people and technology.
After graduating, my first job was a systems analyst for Kraft Foods in Chicago. Companies were paying a premium for I.T. people. At that time, no one wanted an entry-level marketer, which was my real passion. Corporate consulting became my next career step, consolidating systems for multi-national companies, yet I was enamored with their fantastic marketing campaigns for their products and services. They told stories and usually had riveting messages. The company I was employed was then acquired, forcing me to seek a new position.
I heard about a small telecommunications company, called Teleconnect, that was started in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, by a math teacher. After visiting with the executive team and then hired as its Vice President of Application Development, I moved my family to Iowa, where this highly entrepreneurial company was going up against behemoths like AT&T and MCI (defunct now). What a thrill! And, I fell in love with Iowa, a pleasant surprise indeed. The company grew from about $2 million to a billion dollars within 3 years, then bad news. MCI acquired Teleconnect and asked me to move to Washington, D.C. I rejected the offer as did many of the executive management team.
Since I earned my tuition for my college/grad education as a chef in a country club, I had a dream of owning a restaurant. A few of my executive team members and I established the first large-scale sports bar and grill in Iowa. After being courted by a large restaurant chain for a couple of years, we finally sold the business. That is when I decided to follow one of my other passions—marketing. I started a firm creating collateral materials, writing and producing ads, commercials and copy as well as web development. My firm grew while attracting much recognition. I sold it to spend more time with my family.
Marketing led me into the promotion of the Iowa’s film industry, where writing screenplays became an obsession. I wrote three over the course of a few years, with one being optioned in Hollywood and another one for consideration by an upcoming director. Unfortunately, they did not get produced. There are so many challenges in Hollywood, with extreme competition for funding being the biggest. However, I kept on studying the craft. I attended such training as the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop Festivals as well as many global webinars to expand my writing technique. Writing screenplays became my new “hobby” or passion.
Meanwhile, I didn’t know I had this other passion to write children’s books until a special life-changing event occurred. Our daughter told us she was pregnant. At that time, I was primarily focusing on writing screenplays. My wife, Joyce, was quite supportive in my writing and even provided me with great ideas as she has done with all my books.
We at Mom’s Choice Awards are delighted that you pursued this new passion of writing for children! After writing screenplays, what was your path to becoming a children’s storybook writer like? What inspired you?
Squire With Fire – A Happy Dragon Tale was my first venture in children’s books. I published that book in 2018, primarily to satisfy a promise I made to my daughter, Mallory, back when she was about 3 years old. We were sitting on the steps of Cinderella Castle at Disney World when Mallory mentioned she loved my stories about knights and dragons. Her fascination inspired me so much that I said I would commit to write a special book for her. However, life challenges occurred, and 30 years went flying by until that one special event occurred: Mallory told my wife and I that we were to be grandparents! Instantly, the 30-year-old promise I made to Mallory was as if someone slapped me along the side of my head. I immediately wanted to not only fulfill that commitment to my daughter, but also leave a legacy for my new granddaughter, Isla.
I sat down one weekend and wrote the story using characters I once told Mallory about at bedtime when she was a little girl. The writing aspect was not the challenge for me. Having 24 illustrations was the overwhelming part, since I would have to hire a talented artist for thousands of dollars. So, I tried my hand at illustrating. My first rendition was terrible. My first dragon looked more like a monkey. I took some online courses and the illustrations improved, but certainly not for the public to see. Then, remembering what I did with the photography application called Photoshop and other computer systems to create websites, commercials and advertising, I taught myself how to do illustrations on a digital board using similar layering effects. Though the illustrations were not of the high standards of a talented illustrator, they certainly conveyed what visuals I had in my head. Plus, my granddaughter was soon to be born.
Unfortunately, I did not realize the extent of the number of steps in taking a manuscript and 24 finished illustrations to publication; there is editing, pagination, layouts, legal provisions, printing, distribution arrangements, etc. The book didn’t make it for Isla’s birth nor Mallory’s birthday, both in April. Nor did the book make it for Mother’s Day. It was not until November that the box of my first book arrived from the printers. I managed to keep this endeavor a total secret from my daughter. The timing was appropriate for the Thanksgiving holiday, because I certainly had much to be thankful for!
When I saw my daughter shed tears remembering the promise I had made and realizing the book was created for her and her newborn daughter, it was truly a priceless experience. Little did I realize that many people beyond my family circle thought my first book was great. I was honored to earn my first award, the coveted Mom’s Choice Award Gold, as well as several other distinguished awards.
MCA has a special spot in my heart since it was the first to acknowledge that my efforts were considered for accolades alongside other talented authors. With the joy of seeing my daughter’s excitement, as well as receiving my first MCA award, I was inspired to write another Squire With Fire story for a book series. I also didn’t know if maybe these awards were flukes. I learned in marketing: You don’t want to be a “one-trick pony.” [perhaps: it was the first to consider my efforts for accolades]
Your hard work has certainly paid off! What was your inspiration for writing Squire With Fire?
The inspiration came from many directions. The first direction was the priceless moment of seeing my daughter’s joy. The second occurred when I formally retired from my career to focus on my writing. I had reached retirement age and wanted to spend more time with our expanding family. After my first book was published, a colleague, Chris Zhang, was mastering his 3D-printing skills. He honored me with a special gift, a fully articulating 3D-printed dragon (the body and head move in numerous positions). It was to celebrate my first book publication and my granddaughter’s birth, as well as my retirement. His amazing gift touched my heart. Though the dragon was all white, I named it Blaze to coincide with the book title, Squire With Fire, and in relation to Spitfire the dragon, the main character in my first book.
I chose that book title to emphasize the young people’s burning desire to pursue their dreams and the dragon represented that passion. I committed to Chris that I would write a children’s book based upon his dragon creation. I quickly said it would be called Squire With Fire – Blaze of Color to emphasize diversity and prejudice. He told me I should paint it my preferred color. I explained how I was going to keep it white to show the uniqueness. Most dragons in various cultures are either red, green, black, brown or yellow. White was not common for a dragon. It is similar to seeing a white moose, white deer, white rhinos or other uniquely white animals. Several cultures believe the rarity of white animals means that great fortune and luck will come one’s way. I subtly used that premise with my main character Luka the dragon, since he is all white, to show how being different is distinctive, not a curse. However, being different can also attract those who are not considered unique to bully those who are.
Since I was already working on my second book, Squire With Fire – When Sparks Fly (WSF), I had to finish the illustrations and publish it before proceeding with Blaze of Color. I successfully published WSF in 2019, receiving many wonderful reviews and awards, including one from MCA. I was truly flattered.
After some insights from other notable authors, I realized writing another Squire With Fire might begin to stereotype my writing. I decided to venture into a different venue and wrote Skinny Legs and Fat Cheeks. The book delves into bullying and body shaming by highlighting the graceful but very tall and skinny traits of a giraffe, Zuri, in contrast to a large hippopotamus named Kubwa, who spent much of his time in the river waters of Tanzania, Africa. They mock each other’s bodies until a fast-moving wildfire traps Zuri, possibly overcoming her in flames. Kubwa and his fellow hippos come to the rescue with an unusual and exceptional solution. Did she get saved? You must read the book. LOL!
Besides the enjoyment of writing, I love to do the deep research on the topic and character development. While researching details about giraffe and hippopotamus, I learned that giraffe are going extinct due to poaching, loss of habitat, disease and climate. The earth has lost about 30% of the wild towers (name for herds of giraffe) in the past 30 years, bringing the number to approximately 117,000. Fortunately, there is an organization, Giraffe Conservation Foundation (https://giraffeconservation.org) in Africa, which is bringing awareness and survival assistance to these majestic animals. A patron can donate and even adopt specific giraffe to receive updates on the animal’s status. I was so moved by the possible extinction crisis and GCF’s efforts, I not only adopted a giraffe, I partnered with GCF to include a letter at the back of my book, Skinny Legs and Fat Cheeks. It highlights these conditions and introduces GCF’s wonderful efforts to protect giraffe while asking for the readers’ consideration to support this non-profit organization. Every year on June 21st, zoos and other animal sanctuaries celebrate World Giraffe Day to celebrate giraffe and enhance the awareness of their possible plight.
My third book featuring Zuri and Kubwa was published, and it too was well-received with great reviews and awards. I certainly felt that I could do much better if I could spend less time on illustrating and more on writing, my true passion. And, many people were asking about another book in the Squire With Fire book series. Fortunately, while waiting for Skinny Legs and Fat Cheeks to be completed at the printers, I had written Squire With Fire – Blaze of Color. I took the manuscript to a writer’s workshop retreat where about 20–25 very talented and published children’s book authors participated.
That story was NOT well-received! “Too complicated” was the main criticism. Some asked, “Why should you be addressing diversity at that age range?” Others questioned why I had threaded factual and historic information throughout the story. “It is fascinating, but would children want to know at that age all that history and culture?” I could go on, which the criticism certainly did, but I believe your readers already understand the experience I encountered. I was “sliced and diced” in every which way … storyline, voice, flow, character development, etc. In fact, I was about to shelve my entire children’s book-writing career. I was simply devastated.
Throughout my writing, whether it was for marketing campaigns, speeches for dignitaries, scripts and children’s books, I received a fair share of excellent “constructive criticism.” However, this level was pure annihilation. The authors were kind in wording their many points, but it was like a thousand little cuts… I still bled humiliation.
Remembering that I did publish several books that were well-received as well as having people outside my family asking for new Squire With Fire stories, I re-evaluated my dreadful workshop experience and realized there must an overwhelming problem with the Blaze manuscript to receive such negative feedback. After deep contemplation, I changed my perspective and wrote a new story as if a child was telling the tale. I realized that I had overwhelmed the reader with too many disjointed thoughts. I had gotten caught up with producing “another story” just to get it done, instead of writing a story with passion from my heart to emphasize a simple message.
So, the third direction came from this profound self-evaluation. I researched and developed the main character to represent a new theme focusing on bullying, then tied it to explain how children might feel when they face these challenges, and incorporated how they must overcome these fears with their own unique gifts. I even renamed the main character, from Blaze to Luka, which has a distinct meaning: bringer of light. The name analogy is to accentuate hope. I even felt compelled to seek out a new publisher who would feel my passion and be a “partner” with me on this writing endeavor. I wanted to seek a new level of accomplishment.
My new publisher, Global Book Publishing, provided five talented illustrators to create my vision of the new character and the dazzling page layouts. Their idea for Luka was bigger than publishing a book. They taught me to think as an “authorpreneur” and create audiobooks, book trailers, children’s workshops with activities, games, toys, and maybe even a comic-graphic novel or a children’s movie. Thus, Squire With Fire – Disappearance of Luka was born. We achieved #1 Best Seller and #1 New Release on Amazon when it was launched as a pre-order. What a thrill! [use of boldface ok?]
What are some of the key lessons found in Squire With Fire – Disappearance of Luka?
The main theme is based upon bullying. Most kids want to hide or simply disappear from these devastating experiences. I took the double meaning of “disappearing” to enhance this feeling of hiding from your fears while also using the sensitivity as a special way to build confidence in oneself. Many times, we don’t know what we have to offer or what we must face to make us stronger. I personally felt the emotion of humiliation when I wrote the Blaze of Color manuscript. Though I experienced bullying many times during the different stages of my life, we all can relate to times where you need to self-evaluate and learn your strengths while controlling your fears.
The lesson of not engaging in fighting, or at least minimizing the need to fight, is another key value that I have stressed throughout my Squire With Fire book series. It is not to say that one should run from a conflict, but to create a way to avoid confrontation for all involved… because everyone involved will lose something, even the victor.
Another lesson was to learn how to control your fears and redirect that energy into something good. Initially, Luka just disappeared without understanding how his power occurred. He sensed it was just another bad quirk of himself. A person must become attentive to learn what gifts or special influences one has and nurture it through passion to do good.
If you could ensure that readers of your book walk away with one main lesson, what would it be?
To not be of fear but to embrace it. Failure is a lesson. If we would keep in mind that during the first stage of developing any new skill or having a successful experience, there will always have some form of fear as a way for us to focus our energies to excel. Then the fear becomes controllable and energizes your development. A person should keep his/her mind as a beginner, eager to always be a life-long learner. That is when you have a passion to overcome the major obstacles in your life as well as be attentive to the little details to make you stand out above the norm. If you feel you have mastered something, you won’t have the desire to do better and keep surpassing beyond your own expectations. However, confidence is vital and too much will lessen the effectiveness and the quality of achievements.
What kind of response have you received from readers?
Unanimously, it has been how cute Luka is. I don’t think this reaction refers to just his outward appearance, but also to his vulnerabilities. We all can relate to these traits in our own lives. Luka is as excited as most of us can get when we first learn how to do something new. Just think of when a child takes his/her first steps or rides a bike without an adult hanging on for balance. Perhaps there are lots of bruising or bumps going on, but the pain is overshadowed with the joy of success; the feeling is so great that the child wants to do take more steps or travel farther to continue the feeling of freedom. That exhilarating feeling is in our nature, our DNA to pursue more and greater accomplishments… seek out new adventures, make new discoveries or build new relationships.
It’s like when one sees a delicate plant push itself through the hard concrete sidewalk. What gives the plant seed such astonishing strength to break through such an obstacle? It knows down to its core that it must survive and the only way to do so is to seek light.
How did the 3D animatron of Luka come about, and what has the reaction been? Do you find that many of the children who respond at these events—book festivals and other special events—are familiar with your Squire series so you’re building on that positive association?
There are many facets to the development of Luka’s animatron. I was excited when Chris made me the 3D-printed dragon. I felt like a little kid again. Then, I saw how excited kids were when they saw my stuffed giraffe and hippo at the various book events. For example, during a World Giraffe Day event, we had a booth set up about 50 feet from four beautiful and magnificent giraffe at our local Blank Park Zoo. The parents could not get their children to stop hugging my stuffed giraffe to have them go a few feet and feed the real giraffe. I also remembered how we are enamored with the animatrons at Disney and the moving dinosaurs at the museums; they are so lifelike and amazing to watch.
After doing some research on animatron builders, I learned about a company that had become famous for creating the very large moving dinosaurs for museums and theme parks in China as well as throughout the world. I contacted them to ask if they do customized creatures. Sure enough, that is one of the many animatrons they can create. After sending several illustrations of Luka and detailed descriptions, they created this phenomenal animatron that can move its eyes, wings, mouth and even roars with an external sound box. I must say, it is “mind-blowing” to see something you have visualized in your mind, then on paper in a book, to then manifest in reality… a great example of pursuing one’s actual dreams.
The kids and even the adults are fascinated when they first see Luka at one of the bookfairs or at a school event. His cuteness brings them to our booth and hooks them to learn more about the stories. Most of the time, they are not familiar with the Squire With Fire book series. The best scenario is when parents usually end up buying all three books, knowing that the excitement builds throughout the entire series. Though I carefully wrote each book to stand alone, together they consistently demonstrate connectivity of family and relationships along with strong values.
The concept that a perceived weakness can actually be a strength— have you seen a kind of Eureka! moment among young readers?
Oh yes, definitely. The kids seem to understand the concept of something disappearing. They also can relate to hiding from something or someone either for fun or when scared. Putting these emotional concepts together, I can see them have that “eureka moment” when their eyes light up and they know that is a special feeling. They usually respond, “I wish I could disappear!” and I continue the discussion with a “why?” Either I can tell if they are experiencing something bad when the answer is “I don’t want to be seen” or the answer is “so I can help others.” A side benefit is identifying bad behavior when a child says something like, “so I can pull Mary’s hair and she won’t know who did it.” I immediately reinforce the idea of being good by pointing out how harmful that can be and the waste of “your superpower.”
Discussions in that general theme continue when the children start naming other types of powers, like hearing someone calling for help miles away. Sometimes they ask what their special power is. I respond by saying that’s the fun part of life; you get to go and find it like a treasure hunt. Everyone has a special and unique gift. You will find it if you search for it.
I wrote these books for the purpose of setting a platform for parents, grandparents, teachers and other influencers to initiate a dialogue with the children to address sensitive topics they may be experiencing with their own growth. The purpose of a good children’s book should always strive to meet that goal.
I saw online that you have a new project in the works—you’re currently working on a thermodynamic energy source for cooking in primitive places. You sound like the most necessary of people—a problem solver! Is that something you care to share with other readers?
Wow, you have done your homework! Yes, while I was researching and matching agriculture equipment features for one of our clients overseas, I wanted to learn more about the crops that were plentiful in those regions. Amaranth is a prevalent crop throughout the world. In the States, it is also known as pigweed and farmers eradicate this “weed” with herbicides. Yet, it is considered a “superfood” with many great health benefits such as lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. It is an anti-inflammatory, enhances the immune system, and supplies a significant amount of protein, vitamins, and minerals, all very important in anyone’s diet, especially where people have very little to eat. Studies have shown that Amaranth helps with treating diabetes and combating osteoporosis and anemia. All of this while being easy to digest—and it’s gluten-free! It is ironic how in one region, something is considered beneficial, and in another part of the world, totally destructive.
Once harvested, the consumers in these tribal communities would have to cook the seeds to break down the outer shells for consumption. Many do not have electric or gas stoves. That meant they would need wood-burning stoves, which unfortunately generate lots of carbon and other air impurities. Using solar stoves is one method in use, but the heat is not always consistent and controllable. Combining solar with thermoelectric properties would make these stoves much more efficient and provide more consistent benefits when using a thermoelectric generator. Today, these thermoelectric cells are built into small appliances that can keep items cold or even hot depending upon how the electric current is flowing to the generator.
I have been working on an invention that would incorporate all these features into a compact and, hopefully, inexpensive appliance that would enhance the solar powered equipment. I have one patent for an advertising device, but it was certainly not as intricate in the engineering requirements as this solar appliance will entail. If or when I’m successful, this special equipment will provide a more efficient cooking appliance with no air pollution, nor the burning of valuable resources while delivering nutritional foods to these needy people anywhere there is sunlight.
As the Squire With Fire books are so popular, can we expect to see more in this series?
Yes, that burning desire to have another book is deep in my soul. Thank you for asking. I have one project already written as part of the Squire With Fire book series. It is going through the edit process and the illustrating conception stage. It is meant for the upcoming Christmas holiday with the working title, Squire With Fire – Yule Be Gone! It is a “mesh” story of dragon, knights and squires, along with gnomes and nisse—little mischievous creatures from the Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Sweden and Denmark. As many know, Vikings also originated from this area, bringing much cultural influence on the medieval period of England and Scotland when they invaded these lands.
The story is to honor my wife’s heritage and her family ancestry. Joyce is 100% Norwegian and is from Decorah, Iowa, the second-largest population of Norwegians outside of Norway. She even danced for Norway’s King Olaf during the town’s Nordic Fest as a young Nordic Dancer. She loves to decorate our home with Norwegian artifacts including little gnomes and nisse, those mythological creatures from Nordic folklore, typically associated with the winter solstice and the Christmas season. Gnomes and nisse can be found throughout our house year-round.
During my research on knights, dragons and Vikings, I learned about the way the people of that era celebrated that time of year by decorating an “upside-down” Christmas tree hung from the home rafters. A tree took up valuable space on the floor. Ironically, this practice is fast becoming a new Christmas tradition in present-day homes, even without rafters. I imagined how fun it would be to have a story based upon a mischievous nisse, which apparently have magical powers and can also disappear. They were also referred to in Nordic folklore as “the invisibles.” My new character in Squire With Fire – Yule Be Gone is named Hilda. She meets up with our playful dragon Luka during the Christmas holiday at the castle. Wild and crazy times ensue.
The book title is derived from Yule celebrations now synonymous with the word Christmas, otherwise known as the Winter Solstice celebration, a pagan holiday that marks the longest night of the year. Since the night hours will only get shorter after that point, Yuletide represents the rebirth of the Sun God. In essence, it is the symbolic end of the cold and dark winter and the return of light, celebrated with fire and candlelight. Some present-day Christmas customs and traditions such as the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar, Yule singing, and others have connections to the older pagan Yule traditions based on Nordic cultures. In fact, the Christmas holiday is still referred to as Yule in the Scots language.
I also have a screenplay in the works, as well as a true animal story based on the love between two geese.
Thank you so much for this interview and the great honor of receiving the MCA awards. I feature the MCA awards on my website: www.squirewithfire.com.
By the way, I’m still working on perfecting the thermoelectric stove.
What an exciting update! Please let us know when your latest title is released.
You can learn more about Joseph Cassis and his award-winning book, Squire With Fire – Disappearance of Luka by visiting his MCA Shop page.