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PJ Cowan is the 'Grandma Moses' of children's books

by: BARBARA SHERMAN - AUTHOR, AUTHOR - PJ Cowan creates childrens books for charity despite many hardships.Four years ago, when PJ Cowan was 74 years old, she decided to start writing the stories that had been swirling around in her head.

She found illustrators and has self-published 21 books with such titles as "Penelope Pilkington Had a Dream," "Giggle-Grump-Gurgle," "Popcorn and Wild Nightmares" and "The Kingdom of Deepwood."

"Children's book authors are a dime a dozen nowadays, and books are for sale everywhere, so that isn't unique," PJ said. "I am different because I don't sell my books. I given them away to homeless shelters, children's services organizations and children's hospitals in Oregon, Utah, Colorado, California and Kansas.

"I 'pay' for my hobby with help from my Social Security and a constantly maxed-out credit card. I started in 2008 with one book and my savings account. Ten books later, my savings were used up, and my Social Security became my means of paying for the publishing. Now I have 21 titles and find that I can't stop writing or giving. I am addicted."

by: BARBARA SHERMAN - ILLUSTRATORS AND WRITERS KEY TO SUCCESSFUL CHILDREN'S BOOKS - Even though PJ Cowan has macular degeneration, she uses a computer just fine thanks to her huge monitor that allows her to enlarge both print and illustrations.If all this isn't enough to qualify PJ (Pricilla) for sainthood, she does all this while dealing with macular degeneration, which is the loss of vision in the center of the visual field.

To get around the macular degeneration, PJ has a giant monitor on her computer, where she can blow up words and drawings for her books as big as necessary and also email and do research on the web.

PJ, originally from Colorado, and her husband Vernon, originally from Kansas, moved to "the Royal City" last March when they were downsizing, but before that, PJ and her first husband raised a family of seven children.

"I would make up and tell my children stories, and my son said that I should write them down," PJ said. "My mom told us stories as kids because we couldn't afford to buy books. My mom wrote her stories down but never published them. When she died, I found a big stack of her stories.

"I decided I should publish my stories in 2008. I went in search of a self-publisher and illustrator. I did it originally for my great-grandkids. At the time I had seven great-grandchildren, and now I have 11."

Someone told PJ about the Good Neighbor Center, the shelter for homeless families in Tigard, and she started donating books there.

"I got the names of other places too," she said. "I went online one day and found My Father's House, a homeless shelter in Gresham. I thought it was in Oregon, but it was in Kansas, and I started sending books to them too.

"I have three more books in the works, and now my books are being translated into Spanish. It kind of grew like Topsy."

PJ said that she produced the first 10 books "right away," but then her output started slowing down.

"The stories present themselves to me," said PJ, who notes that she has no college degree in English or literature. "Sometimes I dream them almost word for word. Sometimes I get an idea in my head and start to write it down, but if it doesn't present itself, I stop. I can write a story in an hour or an hour and a half. But I almost always end up changing them.

"I have a list of a couple dozen stories that haven't finished presenting themselves to me that I go back to. They're floating around out there. I am lucky to have a friend who will read them through and make suggestions. If it's a long story and I want someone to look at it, I can send it to my kids. The publisher has an editor on staff, but I have to pay for the service."

One of PJ's favorite illustrators is Mike Motz, and after she sends her finished texts to him, he does the illustrations and designs the publications.

"I order 200 to be printed at one time, because that is all I can afford," PJ said. "Last Christmas I sent out 2,000 books. I'm lucky to have found college kids to be illustrators, and I was fortunate to find a printer to work with me."

The soft-cover books, published by Mira Digital Publishing, are polymer on the outside so the covers can be washed, and the pages are high-quality paper. "They're pretty kid-proof," PJ said.

PJ also has branched out into coloring books that include "PJ's Super Colossal Coloring Book," "The What If Dragons Coloring Book" and "The Happy Dance Day Coloring Book."

PJ is a whiz on the computer thanks to on-the-job training over the years. She was a microfilm processor for the Salt Lake City Sheriff's Office and later in Oregon, for Data Corp, the Port of Portland and Bonneville Power.

"I retired at 62 - I was a supervisor and a dinosaur," PJ said. "I got in at the beginning of data processing."

She and Vernon have been married for 36 years, and he helps her book publishing venture by paying for the shipping.

"I didn't expect this to grow this big," PJ said. "I would love for it to get bigger - I would love to send books to shelters all over the U.S.

"I work on this three or four hours a day - sometimes late at night. Sometimes I'm going to bed, and I have to hop out of bed to write something down. There was a time when I couldn't sleep at night, and the ideas didn't stop coming. It was like they were coming through a door I had opened up."

Of course, PJ's great-grandkids love her books, and "I love doing this," she said. "I'm grateful for the talent. I don't know how I do it."

PJ is hoping to get her publishing venture incorporated as a non-profit organization with the state of Oregon so she can accept tax-deductible donations to further her work.