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Grandpa Willard sends Lucy and Clark on a grand, magical adventure

Some things are just magical, in the telling:

… Before Lucy could answer, one of the Canadian geese floating on the lake flew out of the water and walked over to them. “Hello,” the goose said, “what are you two doing here?”

“Well,” said Clark, “we aren’t quite sure. We were in Grandpa Willard’s front yard playing with a box he gave us and then all of a sudden we were here.”

“Grandpa Willard?” the goose asked. “Could it be? I thought I recognized that backpack but I haven’t seen it for many years,” said the goose, becoming more and more excited. “You must have come through Willard’s travel tunnel!”

“A travel tunnel?” said Clark. “I don’t know about that. We just crawled through an old box …”

And so starts the heart of the narrative to “The Adventures of Lucy and Clark: The Journey Begins.”

That’s the title of a new children’s book with Morgantown/Monongalia County connections currently topping the young reader sales charts on Amazon. It was No. 1 in new releases for January, in fact.

“Well, that was a surprise,” said Jo Cyphert, who wrote the book with help of family members Erica, Leah and Mara Cyphert.

“Definitely wasn’t expecting that.”

The tale features an old cardboard box (that isn’t); goggles that enable its wearers to see things (that they wouldn’t otherwise); the aforementioned gregarious goose — and a funny, inquisitive rabbit (who could use some dental floss).

There’s that, plus its celebration of place (West Virginia).

And, of imagination (see above box).

Woven within the telling is the kind, nurturing nature of the also-aforementioned Grandpa Willard (who really was real).

He’s the source of the real magic, in fact.

A little backstory is in order.

Author’s page

Jo — her given name is JoAnna but she’s been “Jo” since she was a little girl — works at J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital, where she helps transport patients to their various procedures and surgeries.

She’s a scribbler from way back, all the time writing little capsules of her big, boisterous family — to go with the snatches of dialogue she might hear at the grocery store.

There’s also a drawer full of short stories and whole novels that have gone unpublished until now.

Jo is the real-life maternal granddaughter to the real-life Grandpa Willard, which we’ll get to.

Erica Cyphert, her cousin from her dad’s side who works in information technology at Ruby, was an English major in school — and brought from that an ear for dialogue and an eye for honing sentences.

The book’s fanciful illustrations came from the pen and watercolors of Leah Cyphert, who married into the family.

Leah’s a University City native now living in North Carolina, and her little girl, Mara, also a budding artist, drew the map of Lucy and Clark’s imaginative journey that ties it all together on the last page.

In the book, Lucy is a perpetually smiling dog (the best kind). The scruffy, terrier-looking canine is best friend to Clark, who probably isn’t much older than Mara, who is 11.

Jo chose “Lucy” and “Clark” in that order for the character names and for the title, because she liked the wordplay and resonance to Lewis and Clark, America’s intrepid explorers.

She and Erica, especially, are all about exploring and adventure.

They’ve traveled everywhere from Aurora (the one in Preston County), to Alaska (yes, that one).

Actually getting the book out was an act of exploration and adventure once the creative endeavors were done.

They didn’t self-publish.

Erica shopped it around to conventional publishing houses and Gatekeeper Press, a house in Tampa, Fla., picked it up and sent it forth this past Dec. 16 — which, as it turns out, was also Jo’s birthday.

“I wish I could tell you we planned it like that,” Jo said.

The title hit Amazon in early January, and now its authors are seeking book sellers around Morgantown and the region for placement on their shelves.

Lucy and Clark’s telling is currently a featured title in WVU Medicine Children’s hospital’s NICU Book Club: Parents can read aloud to their babies undergoing treatment and observation in the neonatal intensive care unit.

It’s an extra bond of closeness in a place where separation has to be the medical order.

“We’re especially proud of the NICU Book Club,” Erica said. “For us, that’s near and dear.”

Zoom sessions into the evening made collaborations near and dear for Leah, even if she was a few states away, the artist said.

“It was just a lot of fun coming up with the character drawings to match Jo and Erica’s words,” she said. “I wanted to give them their own personalities.”


Jo had the tale of her grandfather — and of that wondrous cardboard box that could make animals talk and little boys go on grand adventures by way of imagination — in her head for a few years before she wrote it.

Grandpa Willard has the literary distinction of being a secondary character, and a star, at the same time.

He was the real-life Willard Helmick, dad to Jo’s mom, Patricia.

Willard was born in 1917 on a farm at Pleasant Hill, where he spent most of his life, after a few years in Ohio.

When he was Clark’s age in Jo’s book, he looked upward and imagined Charles Lindbergh flying over in the Spirit of St. Louis on his solo adventure to Paris in 1927.

“He was enthralled by that,” his granddaughter said.

“And when we would go somewhere, he’d always want to see the pictures and hear the stories.”

Younger family members remember Mr. Helmick as a good-natured, ambling old dude, Jo said, with a shock of white hair and an easy grin.

Like the best grandpas, he knew how to do stuff, too — whether it was under the hood, around the house or in his dark room, where he developed the old-school film from his camera in the old-school way.

In 1935, while working in the Buckeye State, he met and courted Twila Fry, the prettiest girl in Yorkville, Ohio (and, arguably, the town’s best yodeler, to boot).

There wasn’t anything she couldn’t do either, from quilting to canning to dispensing motherly advice — at the precise, emotional moment it needed to be dispensed.

Willard transported Twila to West Virginia and the Helmick farm, where they brought four girls into the world.

Their progeny married and had kids (and grandkids) of their own, and Willard and Twila’s place got on the familial travel-tunnel quickly.

When everyone gathered there for Christmas, they were their own Yuletide ZIP code.

A summer cookout on the farm generated more covered dishes than a Tupperware convention.

For all those kid-cousins, there were open expanses ripe for romping, trees to climb and clouds to watch from atop lazy hills, Jo remembers.

Willard used to pick and sing in The West Virginia Ramblers, an assemblage of mountain musicians who could it tear it up on makeshift bandstands across the region while also being heard on WAJR, Morgantown’s AM radio powerhouse.

It never took much coaxing to get Twila in front of the microphone with the Ramblers for her famous yodeling that always set feet to stomping like thunder.

Last chapter … (that isn’t)

She wouldn’t leave his bedside when the cancer finally took Willard down in 2011.

Two years later, after the Alzheimer’s robbed Twila’s memories and it was time for her transition, her family — husbands, kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, included — wouldn’t leave hers, either.

“We were blessed,” Jo said, “and we knew it.”

A once-and-future bestselling author was thinking about all that, when she began unspooling Lucy and Clark’s adventure in her head.

With the success of this book, a series is set to follow.

“We’ll probably have to send them to Alaska at some point,” Jo said, in that way authors have of being real-world, matter of fact about their imaginary characters.   

Right now, though, she said, Clark and Lucy’s creators, collaborators and enablers are going to enjoy the ride with the inaugural book for a while.

SPOILER ALERT: When Jo sat down to write, she came up for air only after Grandpa Willard gifted that magical box to Clark — just before the page with Mara’s map.

“Just remember, you can never get rid of it.”

“Don’t worry, Grandpa. I’ll keep it forever.”

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