When a good friend announced she was pregnant, local author Zac Duval wanted to give the baby something beyond standard baby gifts.
"I didn't want to give clothes the baby would outgrow. I didn't want to get toys she would ignore," Duval says. "I wanted to give her a gift that represented the role that I might play in her life, and that role is an educator."
That's how the children's book series "Ren and Marie" about the wild adventures of two lion cubs began.
Duval brought artist McCal Joy Johnson on board to illustrate the first "Ren and Marie" book in 2016. Now, the pair is adding the finishing touches to the sequel, "Ren and Marie II: Stepping Off."
In it, best friends Ren and Marie explore the other side of the waterhole, meet new friends and encounter unexpected obstacles while learning about their world.
A children's book series is a different venture from Duval's 100,000-word military science fiction novels. But he says he "doesn't do anything small."
Instead of one book, Duval and Johnson are creating seven books in the series that will advance in reading level and offer different life lessons for children with each book.
Ideally, Duval says the lion cubs will "grow along" with the child who inspired the series until she's 12 years old (she just celebrated her second birthday).
"Ren and Marie: Stepping Off" is intended for ages 2-7.
"I realized that (the age range) is not just about the book being read to the child. It also works for early readers," Duval says.
Before he began the series, Duval consulted parents of young children to see what kind of books they read to them.
He discovered most books taught colors, ABCs, numbers and other quantitative lessons, so the "Ren and Marie" series intends to teach qualitative lessons like emotions and values to young readers.
Friendship was the theme in the first book while "Ren and Marie II" explores the importance of curiosity and encourages children to ask questions.
"I might be the bane of parents across the country for that," Duval laughs.
Johnson did her own research into how to draw a quintessential lion cub that did not resemble lions from Disney's "Lion King," which proved to be a challenge.
"Disney used the best features of the lion cub for their characters, so I just reversed everything," says Johnson, who drew all images for the second book entirely on an iPad Pro.
Usually female lions have lighter fur and slimmer snouts than males, but Johnson drew Marie with dark fur and pink eyes. Ren, who has a more "dorky" personality, has gray fur with a bright orange puff of fur on his head.
"I tried to stay away from the stereotypical colors lions are because there are so many different colors and species," she says.
Johnson used traditional watercolor and ink to illustrate the first book, but will continue to use an iPad for the remaining "Ren and Marie" books because it allows her to create at a faster pace.
"(Creating art digitally) makes me feel really good about the quality of work I can give to people in the time they need it," she says.
Duval is thrilled with Johnson's work so far and is excited to see the finished product.
Duval and Johnson, who are publishing the book independently, set up a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for printing the book at Knight Printing.
Through Kickstarter, backers can choose from different reward tiers to pre-order the book (which will be directly delivered to them once it's printed), purchase "Ren and Marie" merchandise or make a donation to help the local creators reach their goal.
This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit theartspartnership.net.