Final story by Pelican artist now in print

Joan Jarvis Ellison
Special correspondent

Teresa “Tess” Carlson died in Nashville in November 2016, after a difficult on-and-off struggle with mental illness. Among the writer, performer and former pageant queen’s many dreams was to publish a children’s book. With the 2017 Christmas season, her dream has been realized –with the help of family and friends–as her story “Harold the Angel of Christmas” has been published. Locally, the book is available at Mercantile on Main in Pelican Rapids. Tess was a graduate of Pelican Rapids High School, and also competed in regional and state pageants. Her emotional challenges were well known to her supportive family and friends; who had described her as a “starving artist” who was ambitious, hardworking and driven.

Tess Carlson began her storytelling career when she signed up for the speech team at Pelican Rapids High School back in 1985.

It came to a beautiful conclusion one year after her death, when her parents, Larry and Carol Carlson, in collaboration with art student Bethany Hellem, published Tess’s children’s story “Harold the Angel of Christmas.”

In high school, storytelling soon became Tess’s passion. “She excelled at it,” said Carol. On the speech team she had 15 minutes to read a story and make it into a wonderful story in her own special way. Then she would retell the story in front of judges.

“During study hall,” Carol remembered, “Tess would go to the elementary school and tell stories to the students.”

When she lived in Eden Prairie she also told stories in the schools. “She’d go out to a school,” Larry explained, “and there’d be maybe 250 kids all talking, and she’d start telling these stories and the whole building went quiet. She told old stories,” he added.

“Kids don’t hear those kind of stories anymore.” Tess graduated with an elementary education degree from Moorhead State University, but really found her niche in graduate school at East Tennessee State University and received a Master of Arts degree with a specialty in Storytelling.

“She went to the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro Tennessee,” Carol said, “and fell in love with the storytelling culture and the area.” Tennessee, Nashville in particular, was a gathering place for song writers and storytellers. When Larry and Carol visited her there, they were astounded.

“The gardener was pulling weeds with a guitar on his back,” Carol said. “The tour bus driver was a song writer and he sang his songs while he did his tours.”

Surrounded by creativity in Nashville 

Tess was surrounded by singers, song writers, storytellers, all hoping to succeed. Most of them hit brick walls, but they kept trying, and so did Tess.

“She was in so many things, you couldn’t keep up with her,” Carol said. “She wasn’t scared to do anything,” Larry added.

Tess also wrote her own stories. Sometimes they turned out as poetry, sometimes as songs, but song or poem, they always told stories. She wrote cowboy poetry and participated at the Cowboy Poetry Convention in Medora, North Dakota in the summer of 2015.

“She wrote so many stories and songs,” Larry said.  “She was always writing.”

“Tess had so many dreams,” her mother said, “so many disappointments.”

She wanted to get her songs published. She worked on her children’s book, Harold the Angel of Christmas, for almost five years, sending it out to publishers, writing and rewriting the story, talking it over with friends.

After Tess died, a friend sent the story to Larry and Carol. The friend had framed it and it was hanging on his wall. Carol found other versions of the story in Tess’s papers.

Allen Westby read the story at Tess’s funeral.

Pelican artist Paul Johnson enlists student-illustrator 

Larry and Carol decided to try to publish the book themselves. Books for children need illustrations, so last winter Carol turned to artist, illustrator and teacher Paul Johnson. “We went to the top,” she said. Paul asked if he could assign the book to his students as a project. At the end of the quarter, Paul presented Carol and Larry with 11 two page spreads from the story, 11 students’ ideas of how they would illustrate the book. Paul, Larry and Carol all agreed that Bethany Hellem’s art work best fit Tess’s story.

“Bethany illustrated it and put the book together,” Larry said. “She did a miraculous job on it.” Carol added. “Bethany reminds me of Tess. She drew 147 angels for the book. The illustrator kind of took over.” Bethany created the illustrations, did the layout for the book and found them a printer.

“Bethany’s dream was to illustrate a children’s book,” Carol said. “Tess’s was to publish a religious book for children.” Carol smiled, a tear tracking down her cheek. “We didn’t expect to make money on this book, we did it to fulfill one of Tess’s dreams. With Harold the Angel of Christmas, we put together two dreams.”

Harold the Angel of Christmas is available at Mercantile on Main in Pelican Rapids.