News Column

Author takes kids back to naturePetaluman Nina Gruener's stories hark back to her own childhood enjoyed tech-free outdoors

June 15, 2014

By Diane Peterson, The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.

June 15--Nina Gruener of Petaluma grew up spending summers at Pinecrest Lake with her grandfather, aerial photographer Robert Cameron, whose many books feature bird's-eye views of cities across the globe.

In the summer, when she yearns to unplug from modern life, she grabs her family -- husband, Chris, and kids Wes, 7, and Audrey, 4 -- and heads back up to that rustic lake 30 miles east of Sonora.

"We go up to the mountains where we don't get service," said Gruener, who with her husband, owns Cameron + Company, a boutique publisher in Petaluma. "It feels like the land that time forgot."

The alpine lake, stocked with rainbow trout and nestled in a pine forest, was the inspiration for her fifth children's book, "Lulu & Pip," released in May by Cameron + Company.

Part "Pippi Longstocking" and part "The Velveteen Rabbit," the book is a tribute to a time in the not-so-distant past when kids played outside all day and let their imaginations run wild. Somewhere along the way, that childhood got hijacked by electronic devices, and Gruener is not happy about it.

"Childhood should be wireless, but in the truest sense of the word," she wrote in an essay. "Camp-outs and crackling fires, road trips and kick-the-can 'till the streetlights come on, flushed cheeks and dirty fingernails."

Like Gruener's 2011 book, "Kiki and Coco in Paris," "Lulu & Pip" centers around a little girl (Lulu) and her beloved rag doll (Pip). Both books feature the whimsical photographs of Stephanie Rausser of Petaluma.

"The way she captures children is so sweet but almost mysterious in a way," Gruener said. "Her work is kid-friendly and colorful, and kids are drawn to it."

Lulu is a spunky redhead who leaves the busy city to go on a rustic camping trip. In the city, Lulu and Pip are surrounded by cellphones that keep people from seeing the world around them.

In the country, Lulu and Pip set out on an alfresco adventure, setting up a teepee, cooking a hot dog over a fire and making friends with a donkey.

"He becomes her new friend," Gruener said. "Even though animals can be smelly and intimidating, it's good to explore with that childhood spirit."

The next day, Lulu and Pip dangle their feet in the water, float on a tire tube, go fishing and climb a tree. Then, in a moment of pure bliss, Lulu gazes up at the sky, her doll in her arms.

"For me, it feels like the moment where it finally clicks," Gruener said. "There's nowhere else she'd rather be."

"Lulu & Pip" was shot in San Francisco and at a ranch in Grass Valley owned by Rausser's father.

"It's a beautiful ranch with a river running through it," Gruener said. "It was the perfect backdrop."

"Kiki and Coco in Paris," now in its third printing, grew out of a photo shoot Rausser did in Paris with her daughter and a doll made by nationally known artist Jess Brown of Petaluma.

The dolls in both books were made by Brown, who designed a similar doll for her own daughter. When her daughter held its hand, the doll's feet would skim the floor.

"It was crafted specifically for a child," Gruener said. "So it was about being made for each other."

Slightly limp, with colorful frocks and hair made from old cashmere sweaters, the dolls remind Gruener of the 1956 French film, "The Red Balloon."

"The relationships between the balloon and the boy, that definitely informed 'Kiki' and 'Lulu,' " Gruener said. "The doll is an imaginary friend."

Gruener wrote "Lulu & Pip" out of a growing frustration with the way her kids now prefer electronic devices to simple toys and outdoor play.

"With each new age they reach, now they want to do this on my phone, and play that game," she said. "How much is too much?"

This summer at the lake, Gruener is determined to reclaim her kids' childhood. She carries crayons and a box of Uno cards to occupy them when they're bored.

When the weather is warm, she sends them outside to play and provides incentives for hiking, promising a swim or a picnic at the end.

"My son loves to find lizards and insects," she said. "So he'll often have a jar with him."

As a prop for "Lulu & Pip," Gruener borrowed a vintage fishing pole from her great aunt, who caught her first fish with it at Pinecrest Lake.

"Her petrified fishing wire, though old and brittle, felt timeless in my hand, like a link back to my own childhood," she wrote. "This is the line I want to toss to my children."

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or


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Source: Press Democrat, The (Santa Rosa, CA)

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