Sheeley, Fraser foster the power of imagination
Earlier this year, on top of Aspen Mountain, a young boy handed Jill Sheeley a rock. Not any ordinary rock, the boy explained, but a special rock. A special rock for Fraser, Sheeley’s 13-year-old yellow Labrador.Sheeley has become accustomed to such gifts. The other day she returned home to Aspen to find a package of dog biscuits and a letter expressing affection for all things Fraser-related. Drawings of Fraser, stories about Fraser, notes to Fraser, cookies for Fraser and the like turn up regularly in the Sheeley mailbox. And of course, there is a pile of bandanas for Fraser – in an assortment of colors, but most in his signature red.Such red-carpet treatment is apropos for a celebrity of Fraser’s status. The old hound has been the star of five adventure books, all of which end in a daring rescue, usually of his mistress, Courtney – the real-life daughter of Sheeley and her husband, Don – and her cohorts. (In one book, the rescuee is Maggie, a yellow puppy who has become a little sister to the real Fraser and a sidekick in the fictional adventures.) Fraser is at an age where he doesn’t make personal appearances in schools; Maggie has stepped into the role. But Fraser – who has not given up his job of providing pet therapy in local nursing homes – carries on as heroically as ever in print. A book-signing and reading at Explore Booksellers in Aspen celebrates the publication of “Adventures of Fraser the Yellow Dog: Rescue at Maroon Bells” at 6:30 p.m. Friday. Sheeley will also have the book available at the Aspen Saturday Market on Saturday, Oct. 20, and will appear for another signing and reading at Town Center Booksellers in Basalt on Tuesday, Oct. 23, at 10:30 a.m.Sheeley’s original motivation was to spread the word about Aspen to kids who visited from other regions. Previously the author of several cookbooks and a Christmas book about Aspen, she noticed that there were no children’s stories with a local angle. “I wanted a book that kids could take home with them, to learn a little something about Aspen,” said Sheeley, whose take on Aspen is broad enough to include such modern institutions as Boogie’s Diner and the Winter X Games. “It’s a great educational tool, and if you have characters who kids can relate to, all the better.”
Sheeley happened to have the perfect character – cuddly, cute and heroic – in her then-puppy. Fraser, swears Sheeley, actually has shown a streak of bravery. In his youth, he dug a tiny pup out of deep snow and plowed a path to safety; in another episode, he prevented a Rottweiler attack on a small dog. The first book, from 1996, had Fraser rescue Courtney from a snowslide on Snowmass Mountain; subsequent adventures involved encounters with storms, mine shafts and violent rapids. The series, all illustrated by local artist Tammie Lane, became a lesson not just in Aspen geography, history and culture, but in outdoor safety. Each book ended with a checklist of safety tips about the relevant activity.Fraser’s celebrity has spread beyond the Roaring Fork Valley. Sheeley has gotten in the habit of arranging presentations to students in the course of her travels. Kids in California; St. John, the Virgin Islands; Belize; and various points throughout Colorado have been treated to a reading of one of Fraser’s adventures instead of arithmetic or social studies. Eight years ago, Sheeley visited Kenya, where one of her books was translated into Swahili for the benefit of local kids – who knew nothing about snow, much less Aspen. Her guide on that trip gave an “Adventures of Fraser” book to his son; several years later, the son sent Sheeley a picture of himself, some books on Africa, and an invitation to have Jill and Courtney become his pen pals. The boy, now 15, still hasn’t seen snow. But, he wrote Sheeley, “I learned to ski in my mind from your books.”Sheeley has found an even greater purpose for children closer to home than to the kids visiting from afar. For seven years, she has been holding the Fraser Creative Writing Contest, open to third- and fourth-graders at Aspen Elementary School. And her presentations in schools have gone from readings and dog-patting sessions to a more focused workshop on the importance of reading, writing and storytelling.
Kids, she says, tend to be hesitant to believe that their own stories are worthy of being told. “They don’t imagine that those thoughts can lead to a book,” she said. “But you ask them two questions, and they can go on for an hour.”You get into these kids’ heads and get them to write. And read. You can inspire them to know that they’re all authors. It doesn’t take much – they’re so open to compliments.” The real Courtney is now a senior in college, and Fraser’s life is filled with chiropractic appointments and glucosamine treats instead of rescue operations. So last year, for the young adults who grew up on Fraser books, Sheeley wrote a new sort of Fraser story. “The World According to Fraser: A Memoir” was a PG-rated personal history that touched on death, bear encounters, and the time when Fraser’s overactive tail destroyed a neighbor’s 14th-century Chinese vase.But Sheeley wasn’t so anxious for the Fraser and Courtney of her books to grow up so quickly. In “The Adventures of Fraser the Yellow Dog,” the characters do age, but at a far slower pace than they do outside the pages. In the new book, “Rescue at Maroon Bells,” Courtney and her friends are just old enough to ride snowmobiles up to Maroon Lake, and Fraser is still spry enough to run alongside. Once there, the typical trouble finds the girls.
The stories remain simple – appropriate for a 3-year-old – but Sheeley is meticulous about getting her rescues right. For the latest book, she consulted with the Snowmass Fire Department to make sure the adventure reflected real life, and that her safety tips were solid. There are even fun facts for an adult to learn. (Did you know that Maroon Lake freezes about once every 50 years? The last time was around 1993, and the book’s back cover features a photo of Courtney skating on it then to prove it.)It is Fraser, of course, who saves the day, earning a trip for all to Paradise Bakery. The real-life Fraser’s hips may be too old to jump up into the car, but the storybook version is frozen in children’s memories as an icon of heroism and adventure.When Sheeley does in-school presentations, it is Maggie who she brings along. “They eventually warm up to her,” said Sheeley. “But they always ask about Fraser first. He’s the man.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org