The first time Sage Stossel sat down to pen We’re Off to Harvard Square, she gave up.
Stossel wanted to write and illustrate a children’s book, and figured the easiest way to go about doing so was to write a story and then sketch out the drawings to accompany it. The longtime Harvard Square resident had recently moved away from Cambridge, and looking back, she says she must have missed it. “For whatever reason, when I sat down to come up with something, what I ended up doing was a kind of Dr. Seuss-y, rhyming tribute to Harvard Square,” she says.
But Stossel was young—just out of college—and on her first attempt she didn’t get much further than the poem. “When I sat down to then try to do the pictures, I realized Harvard Square is actually a really complicated thing to draw,” she recalls. “I was kind of in over my head, so I just stuck it in a drawer.”
With time and practice, Stossel honed her skill, eventually gaining the confidence to return to her project. She’d ended up moving back to Harvard Square, and she started posting up throughout the neighborhood with her pen and sketchbook. (“I guess I was braver then,” laughs Stossel, who has since illustrated more children’s books—using pencil.) Locals would come up and talk to her as she committed the square’s landmarks—the Coop, Pinocchio’s Pizza, Out of Town News—to paper, including one homeless gentleman who provided continuous encouragement as she fleshed out her drawings.
We’re Off to Harvard Square was first published in 2004, but it didn’t sell as well as Stossel had hoped. She preferred not to color her illustrations, but at the request of her publisher she added color to the drawings adorning the book’s front and back jackets. A Coop employee, clearly not one for pulling punches, told her that the vibrant binding and black-and-white interior made the book look almost like a misprint. It went out of print in 2007, and the publishing house folded shortly thereafter.
“I thought, ‘Okay, well, I guess this book just wasn’t meant to be,'” Stossel says.
Thanks the recent popularity of adult coloring books (and the Internet), We’re Off to Harvard Square is getting a second life. Stossel realized that the very thing that made shoppers overlook the book the first time around—its uncolored drawings—meant that it was practically a ready-made coloring book. She self-published the story through Amazon Createspace in December under her own imprint, Cantabrigia Press.
While a handful of the landmarks that make an appearance in We’re Off to Harvard Square are no more (some as of very recently, RIP, Yenching Restaurant), Stossel says she likes it that way. The book serves as a kind of record of the square, a paperback time capsule that pays tribute to the longstanding businesses that have helped shape this changing neighborhood. And, like the square itself, the book has something for everyone—as its cover boasts, it’s a Cambridge souvenir, a rhyming picture book and a coloring book for both adults and children.