A green dragon with a fondness for literature and an Elijah Lovejoy pipe waited years before Collinsville attorney Mark Levy brought him to life on paper.
Levy's dragon, Prof. Ufot is one of the many characters that populate his book "Fishbone the Potter," a young adult novel penned to introduce children to what Levy considers to be the area's most underappreciated historical site, Cahokia Mounds.
"It's the most undervalued and underappreciated asset in the St. Louis area," Levy said.
Published in 2007, Fishbone is part of what Levy calls the Cahokia Mounds Dueology. He is already at work on the second book in the series, although it may be harder to write than his first book, he said in an interview Thursday.
"Writing the second book is more difficult than writing the first," Levy said. "With the first book, you can leave loose ends."
Local history, family ties inspire stories
Levy's novel is set in a number of Metro-East locations including Caseyville and more specifically at the Mounds.
Cahokia Mounds is a United Nations' designated World Heritage Site. It is believed to have been home to up to 20,000 Native Americans at its peak. At its height, the Mound city was larger than London, England.
According to Bill Iseminger, the assistant site director at the Mounds, Cahokia reached its peak around 1050 to 1100 A.D. It declined beginning in the 1200s before it was abandoned in the 1300s.
Isenminger said that a number of theories exist about the decline. Factors such as the depletion of natural resources, climate changes, and increased warfare all could have played a part, he said.
Levy's family ties to Cahokia Mounds can be traced back to well before Illinois became a state. His ancestor, Isaac Levy, was a doctor who served with George Rogers Clark in the American Revolution, he said. Isaac Levy was granted 400 acres for his service. That acreage forms what today is part of the park at Cahokia Mounds.
Isaac Levy's children then sold the parcel and it later was donated to a group of monks. Monk's Mound, the most visible of Cahokia's attractions, takes its name from that group.
Mark Levy, meanwhile, practices law in nearby Collinsville and his wife, Elizabeth, is a Madison County Associate Judge.
However, Mark Levy said he was not aware of the Cahokia ties until he began tracing his family tree.
He became involved with the Cahokia Mounds Museum Society in 2006 because he said it seemed interesting.
That same year, he combined his love of local history with the characters he'd created years before while driving his children and their friends to school.
"I had my daughters and their friends on my back for years, trying to get me to make a book," Levy said. "One of the hardest things about writing is getting started."
A twisting plot to keep young readers' interest
The book features dual plot lines involving two modern day children, Gertie and Tommy, investigating a woman's strange bequest and the story of a young witch, an ancient potter and the lost literature of a civilization during Cahokia Mounds' heyday. Aided by Prof. Ufot, a dragon masquerading as Caseyville's head librarian and his abolitionist pipe, the modern Gertie and Tom face intrigue and learn the secrets of local history along the way.
The stories interweave and each chapter leaves off one plot line while the next picks up a different thread.
Levy's goal, he said, was to hold the reader's attention from start to finish.
"It's supposed to be for reluctant readers," Levy explained.
Although Fishbone only took Levy eight months to write, the task took a toll on his writing skills.
"I naively thought that because I was an attorney, I thought my grammar was pretty good," Levy recalled.
After a good friend edited to the book, Levy realized writing for children was far different than writing legal filings. He recalled that "almost every other sentence," needed work and joked about his "tyrant of an editor."
While writing the book, Levy said he strove to make scenes vibrant with details, something he remembered from his own English courses and from his years in the courtroom.
"Like in a wrongful death action," Levy explained, "the person can be a statistic or a picture."
All of the book's characters are modeled after real people and members of his own family, including his daughters, Rachel and Jessica.
Second coming but no hints about plot yet
After finishing the book, Levy approached the Cahokia Museum Society about publishing the novel. It came out in 2007 and the Mounds held an author signing.
His nephew, Jack Levy, did the cover art.
More than a thousand copies have been sold and the book is being used in over two dozen schools locally, the author said.
Levy said he's started the second book in the series but declined to comment on its plot yet.
While he said he enjoys his law practice immensely, he's found writing to be a hard but rewarding second career.
"When you write a children's book, you can absolutely turn your imagination free," Levy said.
Iseminger said he enjoyed the book, the first young adult novel that the museum society had ever published.
"I think it's very well done," Iseminger said. "It certainly gives a different perspective that the youth will appreciate."
Levy's book is available on Amazon.com, at libraries locally such as the Collinsville Public Library and at the Cahokia Mounds museum store.