Rene Rawls finds inspiration in a child detective citing Proverbs
“If there is no enemy within, the enemy without can do no harm.”
Rene Rawls identifies with this proverb; its wisdom has helped her for the past 17 or so years when she first came up with the idea of a resourceful, proverb-citing child detective name Sule. Since then, she has persevered despite the rejections of those who oppose her creative pitches to bring her proposed storybook character to life.
But as the saying goes, when life throws up barriers, roadblocks and obstacles, one must maintain faith in oneself to move forward. Rawls takes it to heart and has been able to realize some of her “big dreams” for Sule (and she has many more). She received the first annual Mandela Day/Tribeca All Access Award, which allowed her to write and produce the short animated film. Sule and the Case of the Little Sparks† When publishers turned down her pitch for a Sule picture book, she took the Kickstarter route, which helped her self-publish Sule and the Case of the Tied Lion†
The Case of the Tied Lion is an interactive learning adventure with Sule, an African boy who uses the wisdom of proverbs to help someone solve their problem. In the case of a young girl named Fara, she has a huge problem:
My class is having a party this afternoon and I promised to do everything, including the errands. Everyone comes, but nothing is ready. How do I get it all done in time?
Sule offers Fara a proverb that will help solve her problem: “When cobwebs unite, they can tie up a lion.”
Delightful illustrations by Brittnie Brotzman bring to life a colorful market where Sule takes Fara’s shopping list and distributes it among her friends, promoting the concept of teamwork that allows Fara to successfully complete her party preparations. Readers are asked to find items on Fara’s list and other items in the photos to test their observation skills (“Find all of Fara’s friends who have a piece of her list”).
The Case of the Tied Lion made the Kirkus Reviews Best Books List of 2021. Kirkus’ starred review praises the book as “perfect for lap readers or confident elementary readers…. Brotzman’s interactive hidden object cartoon illustrations make great use of the colors of the market; the items (and Sule herself) are well defined and fun to find, and crazy details are sure to spark a giggle.
Rawls grew up immersed in books. The Fort Lauderdale native’s mother was an elementary school librarian for a little over four decades. “I was surrounded by books, not knowing that it would play a part in my life later on,” she says. Her father, an English major turned lawyer, always emphasized the importance of good grammar.
Culture-based stories like Jack Tworkov’s The camel that took a walkArlene Mosel’s Tikki Tikki Temboand Claire Huchet Bishop’s The Five Chinese Brothers as a young girl captured her imagination. While they may have been culture-specific, the stories they told were universal, she says.
Rawls became a teacher. She taught senior English at Frederick Douglas High School in Atlanta. One of the novels she assigned was Chinua Achebe’s 1958 debut novel, Things are falling apart† The book, she says, is full of proverbs. “One of my students joked that the class was becoming Spells in regards to interpreting the book. They were proud of it and I was glad they realized it.”
Fast forward to Los Angeles. Rawls had left education to pursue a career in entertainment. “I was walking around a track thinking about my former students and the Spellskillers. Suddenly the image of a little boy who was a proverbial detective popped into my head.”
That was in 2005. Thus began Sule’s fraught journey to the print shop. Rawls wrote a first draft of the picture book, but after a lot of pitching “it just didn’t get anywhere,” she says.
In 2012, she was able to bring Sule to life on the screen in an animated short thanks to funding from a collaboration between the Nelson Mandela Foundation, 46664, which produced AIDS benefit concerts in honor of Mandela, and the All Access program of the Tribeca Film Festival.
In October 2015, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to complete her original Sule manuscript. She raised about $11,000. She reconnected with Brotzman, the character designer for the film. “I loved her work, so I told her that when I was making the book, I wanted her to illustrate it,” she says.
Rawls embarked on her own personal cultural journey by rewriting her book. “I went to Nigeria and took a boat full of photos,” she says. “I have studied and done research. I have friends from Nigeria and have picked their brains. It was very collaborative.”
When asked why it was important to her that Sule was an African boy and not, say, Florida or Atlanta, she said, “That’s how he came to be. African culture is rich in proverbs, even more so than the United States.”
In publishing, as in comedy, indeed, as in life, timing is everything. Rawls believes the phenomenal success of the 2018 blockbuster Black Pantherportraying the mythical African nation of Wakanda may have opened doors to Sule and representations of African culture.
Of The Case of the Tied LionRawls expects the next chapter in Sule’s story. “The goal is for him to travel the world to help children solve their problems with proverbs specific to that country,” she says. “Readers get the chance to discover different cultures.”
Her “big dreams” include the hitherto elusive TV series, a podcast, and even a feature film. She keeps saying to herself, “If there is no enemy within, the enemy without can do no harm.”
“In the entertainment industry,” she says, “you get a lot of nos. As long as I keep telling myself Yes, it doesn’t matter what’s going on with others. I’ll be fine.”
Donald Liebenson is a writer from Chicago.