Brighton couple Karen Bell-Brege and Darrin Brege inspire a love of literacy in Michigan’s kids with their children’s books
By Gabriella Burman
March 13 was a big day for author Karen Bell-Brege and illustrator Darrin Brege, the Brighton-based husband-and-wife team behind several popular children’s books. One, the pair accepted the 2021 Gwen Frostic Award for literary influencers from the Michigan Readers Association, and two, they received their Covid-19 vaccinations. In a sign of the times, they attended the award ceremony via Zoom from their car — in a Rite Aid parking lot. “We were ready to carry our laptop into the pharmacy with us,” Karen says with a laugh. “We were not going to miss either appointment.”
”The duo are the first self-published author and illustrator to receive the award named for the late Michigan artist and naturalist Gwen Frostic, a Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame inductee whose stationary goods and prints continue to be sold today, and who bequeathed $13 million to her alma mater, Western Michigan University. The duo was recognized for their literacy influence on students, teachers, and administrators. “Gwen was a fascinating and driven artist and entrepreneur who worked well into her 90s, at a time when many women did not, and we were honored to receive this award for our dedication to literacy,” Karen says.
That dedication translates to inspiring a lifelong love of reading in children. The couple has collaborated on 15 picture, chapter, and motivational books — Karen writes them, and Darrin illustrates — working out of separate offices in their home. The Mick Morris Myth Solvers series for elementary and middle school readers, for example, puts a spin on the “choose your own adventure” books popular in the 1980s and 1990s. After reading several chapters of a wild ride that may involve children facing off with gremlins and aliens, “taking kids to another universe,” as Karen explains, readers can choose among five endings, from scary to silly to super-hero-style. “The intent is for kids to become immersed in a story with relatable characters who embody teamwork and friendship, and in so doing, get our youth excited about reading,” she says.
The longtime entertainers, who each worked as voice-over talents, regard writing as another form of art that engages audiences. They met 30 years ago through Karen’s professional improv troupe, which performed at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle in Royal Oak. They shared a love of laughter and children, and ventured together into children’s books while raising their son, Mick, now 25, choosing to self-publish rather than be beholden to the whims of publishers and marketing metrics. “It’s been far more gratifying to have control this way,” Karen says, and the books, printed in the U.S., are available at both independent and online retailers.
Darrin, a former Warner Brothers animator (he created original characters for Space Jam) who now works as a creative director creating digital experiences for Fortune 500 companies, calls Karen the “driving force” of their business. She handles both the writing and marketing, while he illustrates at night and on the weekends, but the inception of each book is a collaborative effort: “We talk a lot,” Karen says, and their shared sense of humor, interest in myths, and precise comic timing lead to storylines, jokes, beats, and dialogue that bounces off the page.
In a typical year, the couple brings their act to schools across the state, promoting literacy with laughter, reading, writing, and art.
During a live drawing session, as students watch Darrin sketch, they are reminded of the important lesson of learning from mistakes and putting forth one’s best effort. “We reinforce teachers’ messages as we entertain,” Karen adds.
The couple paused live interactions with students during the pandemic, and made the difficult decision to not offer online visits. “Our live shows rely on drawing and movement, improv and humor,” says Darrin. “Those things don’t translate well to a virtual setting.” Still, they have remained creative this year, working on Biggie and Birdie, a follow-up to Bigfoot and the Mitten, a picture book for young readers. In the earlier book, Bigfoot and Robin (Michigan’s state bird), scour the state’s most famous places looking for Bigfoot’s lost mitten, only to find he had it all along. In the new book, forthcoming this summer, the pair’s differences stand out until they realize that they’re the same on the inside, and can be friends. “We feel the theme is relevant given the times we’re living in,” Karen says.
The new book, like its predecessor, is geared toward kindergarten through second graders, but Karen says the notion of writing to a “level” is less important than writing a story that a child will want to read. “Forcing a child to read something because it’s for their grade level stops them dead in their tracks,” Karen says, recalling that she wasn’t a big reader herself until a teacher introduced her to Nancy Drew, who became a beloved heroine.
“If I get caught up solely in phonics and mechanics, my writing will be curtailed,” she says. “I want the words to flow, to spur a child’s imagination. Especially now, when children have been isolated, educated online, and are slipping behind, our goal is to give them a reprieve from reality, a push to get comfortable with reading, and a path to being engrossed in a good book.”