Children’s book flows with inspiration from river

Henrys Bend resident Gina Marie Burris has written a children's book that spotlights the Allegheny River and its aquatic creatures. In the story is a life lesson, too, about the meaning and importance of acceptance. (By Judith O. Etzel)

A mother’s tale shared with her young son about the Allegheny River, its aquatic inhabitants and the lessons they offer has been transformed into a colorful illustrated book for children.

“When my son, Jacob, was about 2 or 3, I started telling him stories as we sat along the river bank. There were turtles on a rock and so that formed the story,” said Gina Marie Burris, of Henrys Bend. “Many years later, I decided to take it to the page.”

Burris, a native of New Castle, has written “Tallulah’s Diner,” the story of a turtle named Tallulah who runs an underwater diner, raises a family and promotes kindness and acceptance among her aquatic friends.

The book, published by Fulton Books Inc. and illustrated by professional artist Rabecca Signoriello, of New Castle, is available in bookstores and online.

Why the Allegheny?

As a child, Burris spent considerable time at a cottage owned by her grandparents, George and Kate Woryk, now in their early ’90s and living in New Castle, at Henrys Bend on the Allegheny River.

“My grandfather was fishing one day and he and my grandmother found out there was a cottage for sale there. That was in 1965. They bought it and still own it. In 2015, we held a 50-years-at-the-Bend party there,” said Burris.

As a child, Burris spent much of her summers at the Woryk cottage. Later, she and her husband, Jim, a software developer, and their young son journeyed often to Henrys Bend.

In 2012, the Burris family bought their own riverfront cottage at Henrys Bend. The cottage, owned by the Clark family, of Oil City, was “just four doors down from my grandparents’ place,” said Burris.

A couple years later, they purchased a second property, also at Henrys Bend, for a permanent resident.

“The Allegheny – I couldn’t get away from it. I loved it, we loved it – that’s where we wanted to be,” she said.

While the saga of the river is her book’s leading theme, there are also numerous asides that relate to Burris’ life as a mother, a professional cosmetologist, daughter of a diner owner and more.

“I put this book on the back burner for a long time but then, it was just time to do it,” said Burris. There is so much of me in this book, from the experience of being a mom to loving the Allegheny.”

The personal references are transformed into a number of themes in the book.

– As a youngster, Burris and her friends “spent hours on the river banks painting our nails,” an experience that teaches the lesson of acceptance when Tilly the turtle finds a bottle of nail polish, decorates her shell and is mocked by her brother Toby.

– Tallulah runs a diner for “water critters.” The choice of a diner came from Burris’ experience working in her mother’s diner and pizza shop.

– Harvey the Hoot Owl, the creature whose screech alerts the river dwellers to a nightly river sweep to keep the area clean, bears the family name of “good friends,” said Burris.

– Katie the Clam was named after the author’s grandmother.

– In a reverse move, Burris named her Boston terrier after a book character, Mildred Mudpuppy.

“Most of all, I pulled a lot of inspiration from Jacob – he’ll shine through all the characters,” said Burris, adding that her son, who recently graduated from Belmont University, told her “he loves the book.”

There are two sequels planned and both will “be all about the river, again, because of my love for it,” said the author.

The same illustrator has signed on for the future projects.

“A mutual friend suggested I talk with Rabecca and when we met; her vision blended with mine. It was perfect,” said Burris.

There are more fantasy stories to tell about the Allegheny River, a venue that remains Burris’ favorite spot.

“I have young nieces and nephews and other children who I have shared river stories with,” said the writer. “I love that river and so I think maybe I need to write those stories for more kids.”