Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
FAIRFIELD — Jefferson County residents Brittney Tiller and Therese Cummiskey have collaborated to author a children’s book, which they just recently published through Barnes & Noble.
Tiller is Jefferson County Naturalist, a position she assumed in 2019 after Cummiskey stepped down from the role. The two are good friends, and for the past couple of years have been posting online educational videos about nature. It started in 2020 when the COVID pandemic made it impossible for Jefferson County Conservation to hold programs in-person, and online videos were one of the few ways to stay connected to the area’s youth.
After doing more than a dozen educational videos, the two hatched the idea of writing a children’s book together. With the assistance of illustrator Denise Venteicher, Tiller and Cummiskey published “The Adventures of Toad and Timberdoodle: Leaving Winter Behind.” The names “Toad” and “Timberdoodle” are the nicknames that Cummiskey and Tiller have acquired, respectively, through their work at the nature center, which became their nicknames for the video series they produced, too.
To celebrate the publication of their book, Tiller, Cummiskey and Venteicher will host a “grand book opening” at 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 6 at Jefferson County Park, in the Camp Kyle Amphitheater west of the nature center. They will have copies of the book for sale, and plan to read from it and answer questions.
The book follows the two main characters, a toad and a timberdoodle (also known as an American woodcock) as they meet other creatures in the spring and learn about how they survived the winter. Tiller said it was fun to author a book that tells all about the amazing lengths that animals go to in order to survive the bitter cold months, from migration to hibernation to insulation. She especially enjoyed writing a book that focused specifically on local wildlife.
“I remember a long time ago, Therese said there aren’t many books relevant to the wildlife of the Midwest,” Tiller said. “There are a lot about the African Savannah or ocean animals, but there aren’t a lot of books where all the animals are found here. If kids look out their back yard, they could see all these animals.”
Where did these two nicknames of “Toad” and “Timberdoodle” come from? Cummiskey has been known as “Toad” for 35 years, but it was not her first nickname. Before moving to Fairfield, Cummiskey worked at an outdoor education center in Ohio, where her boss required employees to have a “nature name.”
“He didn’t want the kids to feel threatened by calling us ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.’,” Cummiskey said. “We had all a ‘nature name.’ There was ‘Craig Catfish’ and ‘Chris Coyote’ and ‘Nancy Nighthawk.’ I took the name ‘Therese Trilobite’ because I like fossils.”
When Cummiskey started working for Jefferson County Conservation, she opted for a new nickname, and chose “Toad.”
“I was totally fine with it, to have kids chase me down in Hy-Vee yelling ‘Toad! Toad!’” Cummiskey laughed. “I loved it.”
After Tiller was hired at Jefferson County Conservation, she tried a few nicknames, too, such as “Brittney Bobcat,” but they didn’t stick. Cummiskey recalled that on her official day of work, Tiller found a timberdoodle’s nest with a group of kids.
“On her first day of work, she found something even I had never seen,” Cummiskey said. “I just gave her the name, ‘Timberdoodle.’”
Later, Cummiskey introduced Tiller as “Timberdoodle” to a big group. Tiller laughed, because she thought there was no way it was going to stick. But it did.
“At the end of that week, I was walking out of the nature center to go to my car, and a kid rode by on his bike and yelled, ‘Hey Timberdoodle!’ And the rest is history,” Tiller said.
After COVID hit Iowa in March 2020, schools shut down, and Jefferson County Conservation suspended its programs, too. The following month, Tiller put together a “virtual field trip” to Cedar Creek Wetland, where she and Cummiskey filmed an educational video that they posted on social media.
“Just off the cuff, I said, ‘This is an adventure with Toad and Timberdoodle, the first and possibly the last,’” Tiller said. “We aimed it at kids, but what amazed me was how many parents and grandparents told us how much they loved it, and how they learned so much. They asked us when we were going to do the next one.”
Due to popular demand, Tiller and Cummiskey continued making videos, usually filming them at various parks in the county such as Turkey Run and Zillman’s Hickory Hills. By now, they’ve lost count of the number of videos they’ve done, but it’s at least 15.
A woman named Denise Venteicher, who lived in Fairfield for nearly a decade before moving away, is a good friend of Cummiskey’s, and designed a logo for them to use with the Toad and Timberdoodle videos.
Fairfield resident Diane Goudy has helped other people publish books, and she told Tiller and Cummiskey that they should turn their videos into a book. Goudy intended the characters to be Tiller and Cummiskey in human form, not their animal nicknames, but that’s not how Tiller and Cummiskey interpreted it. Those two decided to base the book on their respective animals.
They wrote the story they wanted to tell about animals surviving the winter, and because of their connection to Venteicher, asked her if she’d be willing to illustrate the book.
“I have to say that 90 percent of the story was written by Brittney,” said Cummiskey, who added that her role was more of a nature adviser. “I would say that one of the animals our characters could meet is a red-belly woodpecker, because woodpeckers live in their hole in the winter.”
When Tiller and Cummiskey met with Venteicher in person, they were pleasantly surprised to see that Venteicher had already illustrated most of the book on her computer.
“We are freaked out. We are so excited,” Cummiskey said. “We both took our phones out to take pictures of her artwork. We were blown away by it.”
Venteicher started her sketches by drawing them by hand, then scanned them into a computer where she colorized them.
Tiller and Cummiskey published the book through Barnes & Noble. It is printed on demand with each order. It can be ordered through the company’s website at barnesandnoble.com.
Call Andy Hallman at 641-575-0135 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org