Cheryl Barnes: Illustrating A Tail of Success

Cheryl Barnes: Illustrating A Tail of Success

Cheryl Barnes is one of those rare people you meet who is doing it all, and in Cheryls case, with style and grace. By all outward appearances, her various pursuits are going well. She is an award-winning writer/illustrator/publisher of dozens of books, co-founder of a successful publishing company, an accomplished and well-regarded public speaker, the former executive director of the Wheelchair Foundation, which has shipped hundreds of thousands of wheelchairs to handicapped people around the world. She is also happily married to Peter Barnes (author of the books Cheryl illustrates and the Fox Business News-Washington, D.C., senior correspondent) with two daughters, and she is strikingly attractive and physically fit. Life is good. Family, faith and fitness are all integral to her life, and Cheryl loves what she does.

Now, just when it seems life could not get any better, yet another new venture is going to shine a spotlight on the talents of Cheryl and Peter Barnes. The Kennedy Center is creating a musical for kids based on the Barnes book, Maestro Mouse and the Mystery of the Missing Baton. Maestro Mouse is a popular book that draws children into exploring and learning about the musical instruments in the National Symphony Orchestra as they help Maestro Mouse find his missing baton so the concert can go on. The National Symphony commissioned the Barnes to write and illustrate Maestro Mouse to continue its tradition of offering something special for children, and more specifically to introduce performing arts to children at an early age. Cheryl and Peter are just beginning to work with the composer, Susan Kander, and playwright, Mary Hall Surface, and the tentative date for the musicals debut is May 31, 2009 at the Kennedy Center.
While the Kennedy Center is busy converting the Barnes book into a musical, Cheryl has thrown herself into working on another book. This time the lively teaching tale is about the U.S. Capitol, the idea for the book coming from the new U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. The storyline is about a squirrel named Cappy Tail, who jumps out of the Capitols Constantino Brumidi murals when he decides that he needs to go outside and hunt for acorns. The Brumidi murals and paintings in the Capitol are chock full of American flora and fauna and are just one of the detailed features of Cheryls new book. In the story, Cappy meets and introduces visiting school students to the many ornate rooms in the U.S. Capitol and tells them about its extraordinary history.
Besides working on the new book about the Capitol, Cheryl did a great deal of public speaking in schools all along the East Coast between September and the November presidential election. Every week, I spoke to at least five schools about American history, the presidential election, the government and how three branches of government work. Now that the election is over, I am only accepting one school speaking engagement per week, Cheryl said. She went on to say that she needed to sit down long enough to focus on her new writing and illustrating venture and VSP Books, the Barnes publishing company.

When Cheryl is not illustrating her latest book, researching her latest topic or speaking to a school-group, she spends her time running VSP Books. The publishing company has sold over three million books since it was started by the Barnes in 1992, and it has enjoyed a great deal of national recognition. Two VSP publications, Heartsongs and Journey Through Heartsongs by the late Mattie Stepanek, were on the New York Times Bestsellers List. In addition, the Barnes received the Capital Book Award for their work The Mice Way to Learn About Government in 2004.

The White House and a number of different television shows and newspapers have featured Cheryls illustrations and the Barnes library of books. In 2002, Cheryl was honored to illustrate the White House Christmas program at the request of First Lady Laura Bush. In 2005, Bush, a former librarian, wrote that Woodrow, the White House Mouse is one of her two favorite childrens books about the White House. The adventures of Woodrow help teach children about the President of the United States and the White House. Television news outlets and national newspapers that have also highlighted Cheryl and Peters books include: The Today Show, Fox News, The New York Times, USA Today, U.S. News and World Report, C-SPAN, National Public Radio and CNN as well as other media and education organizations.

Surprisingly enough, with all the accolades she has gotten for her work, Cheryl has never had any formal training as an artist, architect, author or researcher. Upon graduating from Randolph Macon Womens College with a political science degree, the native Alexandrian moved to Los Angeles where she co-founded an architectural firm with her first husband, Jon Jerde. It was during this time that Cheryl developed a love of architecture and began teaching herself to do detailed architectural renderings. How Cheryl got to be an illustrator involved a bit of serendipity.

A fortuitous event occurred when Peters illustrator quit over his desire for detailed and accurate illustrations. As Peter searched for a new illustrator for his books, Cheryl slipped her work into his review pile. He reviewed every submission without knowing who the artists were of the pieces he was considering. To Cheryls surprise, in the end, Peter selected her work for his illustrations. Had Peters original illustrator not quit or Cheryl not had any architectural experience, they might not have had the same success with their books. Cheryl is an inspiration to those who pursue their passions and dreams and love what they do.
Amazingly, even with walking at least 10,000 steps per day (according to her pedometer), illustrating books, running a publishing company, researching books in progress, and being a long-distance support for two daughters, Cheryl squeezes in charitable work with several teachers organizations and literacy groups. She is a member of the Northern Virginia Reading is Fundamental board, and although she is no longer the Executive Director of the Wheelchair Foundation, Cheryl stays involved because she loves working with organizations who have the capacity to distribute wheelchairs to those in our area who are in need. She continued, saying, I also donate child-sized wheelchairs to many of the schools I go to for author visits. I love my job. It allows me to do well by doing good!

Megan Beyer of Alexandria expressed her admiration for Cheryl when she described her impression of how Cheryl is always thinking, creating and helping others. Beyer said, If Cheryl is not flying wheelchairs to the needy in far flung nations, she is working with the Kennedy Center on the Maestro Mouse, hosting the family at her home in Nantucket, preparing for a book tour, or going to Shrinemont [the Episcopal Retreat Center]. She does it all looking like she just took a nap and with an embracing welcome that says I have all the time in the world for you. Similarly, Catherine Armour, Alexandria resident and dean of graduate students at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, said, The amazing thing about Cheryl is that there is this essential grace at the core of who she is she always finds time to help a stranger as well as a friend, and all this as she juggles a pretty daunting schedule with humor and ease. I know her as a friend and an artist, and think shes one of the most extraordinary people I know.

Cheryl and Peter Barnes are an attractive, dynamic, charismatic duo who seem to do everything well. However, one should note that Cheryl is also a really nice person who is enjoying fabulous success in her own right with whatever she delves into, from drawing to researching to charitable work to public speaking. Moreover, she manages to get 30 hours worth of things accomplished in 24 hours. Alexandria is a better place for having such a versatile, creative, articulate woman such as Cheryl Barnes in our midst.