In her newest children’s book, her 66th, Nancy Carlson writes and draws with humor about coping with humiliation.
It’s a feeling she’s come to know all too well.
Minnesota’s most prolific and beloved picture-book author is about to declare personal bankruptcy. She hasn’t had a bank account since the IRS seized hers a few years ago. She dodges old friends to whom she owes money.
That’s not the worst of it.
“I’m lonely. I lost the person I talk to everything about,” said Carlson. “We were such a good team for such a long time.”
Carlson’s husband, Barry McCool, is in a Hopkins nursing home, living out his days in confusion.
Three years ago, at age 61, he was diagnosed with frontotemporal degeneration (FTD), a form of early dementia that causes profound personality changes. By the time McCool was diagnosed, the couple’s finances — and the life they had built together — were in shambles.
Instead of enjoying her legacy, Carlson is struggling to rebuild her life — and to do what she can to help others in the same situation.
“I want to talk about this so people can catch it before their loved one destroys their life, like Barry did,” Carlson said. “If I had only known, I could have stepped in so much sooner and could have saved us this awfulness.”
Carlson, 61, does have a legacy. With more than 4 million books in print, “she’s proven her staying power,” said Holly Weinkauf, owner of the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul. “Just this morning, a mom with two little ones was here for story hour and bought a few Nancy Carlson books. She said they had been her favorites when she was a kid.”
Whether she’s tackling tough childhood topics such as bullying or having a new baby in the family, Carlson manages to find a reassuring approach, said Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Children’s Literature Research Collections at the University of Minnesota Libraries.
“Nancy gives voice to the everyday lives of children,” Van Drasek said. “She respects their emotions and their fears. It’s funny, you laugh, but there’s something at the core that she nails, that you recognize as real. It’s her gift.”
A team approach
Carlson and McCool met when they were in their 20s. Carlson, who had just graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, was working as a lifeguard at the Blaisdell YMCA, where McCool swam.
After they married, her books quickly found a broad audience. By the time their third and final child was born, Carlson had more than a dozen books in print and had become a popular speaker in schools and libraries.
She was so successful that McCool sold the design company he had formed to oversee the sales and marketing of her books, schedule her appearances and negotiate her contracts.
“Both of my parents worked at home, and that was unusual at the time, but it was great for us,” said their son Mike McCool, now 25. “She was the artist and he was the organized, precise, punctual one.”
By all accounts, they were a happy, busy family, enjoying their Bloomington home with its back-yard pool, their cabin, their summertime road trips in the family van.
“I had the best childhood ever,” said their daughter Kelly McCool Rebhorn, 31. “My parents were supportive, loving, hardworking — great role models. My dad started a business from nothing, and my mom, well, she created a whole world.”
Carlson can’t quite pinpoint when McCool’s descent began, but the husband she’d regarded as mild-mannered gradually turned moody, silent, sometimes belligerent. She wondered if the changes were the result of aging or a part of a couple’s recalibration as their children left home.
For the first time, they quarreled over her career.
“I was so angry with him. I thought he was spending time on the wrong things,” she said. “He had this idea about licensing my characters, and he wouldn’t give it up even when it became clear it wasn’t going anywhere.”
Rebhorn saw it, as well. “He was causing problems and he wouldn’t explain himself. We didn’t understand that he couldn’t.”
McCool got behind on bills, which ran up late charges and put them deeper in debt. He stopped paying taxes, mismanaged his children’s college loan payments, then began taking out loans in his wife’s and children’s names.
“When it finally all came out, it was pretty catastrophic,” Mike McCool said. “It was like when you have an injury and at first you’re afraid to look because you don’t want to know how bad it is.”
The royalty checks no longer covered the losses, which started to pile up. Eventually, they lost their health insurance. Barry McCool hustled to find work, but couldn’t hold a job. The couple moved six times in two years, landing in an apartment complex where McCool took on maintenance and cleaning chores to reduce their rent. Carlson wound up doing much of it, shoveling snow for hours.
One day the building manager stopped her. “She said, ‘I just found out who you are. My kids know all your books,’ ” Carlson recalled. “Then she looks at me and goes, ‘What in the heck are you doing here?’ ”
Missing ‘the detail guy’
It wasn’t until late 2012 that McCool’s condition was finally diagnosed. For Carlson, it was devastating — and a relief. “I could stop being mad at him,” she said. “We could see that this wasn’t his fault.”
She said she considers the months right after the diagnosis as their last good time together. While her husband went to day care, she had time to recharge and refocus on her work. But within a few months, he declined again.
“I wasn’t strong enough to control him,” she said. “He was impulsive; he could make a run for it.”
Now Carlson visits McCool at the nursing home almost every day, even though he recognizes her less often. His speech is limited and he shows little expression, except when Rebhorn arrives with her two young daughters. “His face lights up when he sees my girls,” Rebhorn said. “I think he knows.”
Through it all, Carlson has never put her pen down. She kept drawing, and even built an online audience for the sketch she posts on her website (www.nancycarlson.com) every morning. She writes and gives readings and holds workshops. She’s also preparing for a show and sale of her work in December. (She plans to donate 20 percent of the profits to the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration for research into the disorder.)
In the bedroom-turned-studio of her apartment in Bloomington, her drawing table sits next to a window that overlooks a parking lot.
“Barry would have caught that,” she said. “He was the detail guy. Before we would have rented this place, he would have walked around the building and said, ‘No, let’s find a unit with a better view for you.’ ”
Carlson acknowledges that it’ll take her years to right her finances and to get used to being on her own. But she’s confident that she can do it.
“As long as I can keep drawing, I know I’m OK.”
Kevyn Burger is a freelance writer.