Lauren Castillo always loved her home in New York City.
Her apartment in Brooklyn was small, but all her friends were nearby. It was where she had attended art school and her career as an illustrator and author had taken off.
But eventually the big city life began to wear her out more than it inspired her.
“I was burnt out from living in that city,” Castillo said. “It was hard because I had to leave friends behind.”
She headed west with her brother in search of a new start, but relocated soon after, when artist friend Jonathan Bean told her about an open apartment in Midtown Harrisburg.
With a new studio space, Castillo was ready to pick up her brushes and pencils to start a book that had already been swirling in her mind.
“Shortly after I moved to Harrisburg is when the story started unfolding,” she said.
Usually, when Castillo writes a book, she begins with a story idea and the rest unfolds from there. That’s what happened with her previous books like “Nana in the City,” which won her a Caldecott honor in 2015.
This time was different though.
Throughout her journey from New York to California to Harrisburg, a little hedgehog kept appearing in her doodles on napkins and corners of paper. She felt a connection with this character that journeyed with her through seasons of losing and making friends and feelings of isolation and uncertainty.
It was only fitting her next book, with the cute but prickly hero at the center, would follow a similar narrative.
“It paralleled losing my community of friends and having to find new community,” Castillo said.
The author’s new book, “Our Friend Hedgehog: The Story of Us,” tells of Hedgehog’s journey to find her best friend, Mutty, the stuffed dog who was carried away by a storm. While looking for her friend, Hedgehog meets an array of friendly woodland creatures and a young girl, Annika May, who help her along the way.
“The story is about friendship, bravery and making our way,” Castillo said. “I hope [readers] can relate to what it’s like to really find those people that hold you up and sustain you.”
The story of Hedgehog is formatted in a chapter book style while still heavily incorporating Castillo’s playful illustrations, giving the story life.
She said this was her first time writing a chapter book, but hopes it serves at a gateway for children growing out of picture books and moving into chapter books.
“That was a piece of the book market that was missing,” Castillo said. “Illustration and picture books taught me how to read—picture books were really precious to me.”
With a story that anyone can relate to, Castillo hopes readers of all ages will find a way to identify with Hedgehog and his lesson in the value of friendships.
Although the COVID-19 crisis has forced the author to cancel book tours and rethink the book launch, she’s just happy to be putting out another story for children to enjoy.
“The themes in this book are really fitting for the situation right now,” she said.
Midtown Scholar Bookstore is hosting Lauren Castillo for a virtual reading on May 3. Visit https://www.midtownscholar.com/events for more information. To learn more about Castillo and her work, visit www.laurencastillo.com.