Kansas City’s colorful mayor was made for the pages of a children’s book, Audrey Masoner said.
He gets his hand-drawn debut in “Mayor Sly and the Magic Bow Tie,” a project co-authored by Masoner and Mayor Sly James’ daughter, Aja James. The book is featured in Startland News’ 2017 Made in Kansas City Gift Guide.
“As I got to know Aja and saw her interactions with her dad — how much he thought of her, how sensitive and caring he is, how he is this larger-than-life, almost cartoon — I thought, ‘Hmm. I wonder if he’d let us turn him into a children’s book character?'”
The mayor agreed. And the rest is history.
In the book, James travels through time to different points in Kansas City’s past, thanks to the magic of one of his trademark bow ties. He visits the original Kelly’s general store in what is now Westport, as well as the Livestock Exchange Building in the West Bottoms and a field that would soon become the Truman Sports Complex. Along the way, James meets historic Kansas City figures, from Harry S. Truman to J.C. Hall.
“There’s lots to see in modern Kansas City, but we thought that it would be better for Mayor Sly to tell the story of Kansas City’s history,” Masoner said. “He would be a great guide.”
James told Startland News he was proud to offer his support for the project as a father and resource.
“I was honored and flattered that Aja and Audrey thought of me as a focal point,” he said, noting the largely background role he played, helping connect the co-authors to some historical experts. “The book is very clever and taught me a few things about Kansas City I didn’t know. I’m very proud of Aja and Audrey and the quality of their efforts.”
In one vignette, James finds himself transported to a hospital, sitting on a child’s bed with an upset stomach. He’s treated by Drs. Alice Berry Graham and Katherine Berry Richardson at what would become Children’s Mercy.
It was the scene that made Masoner the most proud, she said.
“Our initial draft didn’t include any female figures out of Kansas City history, which wasn’t the intent,” she said. “We just didn’t encounter any historical events that encompassed them, so we had to go back to the drawing board and do a little more research about what we were going to include in this book.”
From bow wow to bow tie
Masoner and Aja James’ original concept for the “Mayor Sly” book included a much different premise.
“We thought initially the book would be about him finding a dog,” Masoner said. “Aja had adopted her dog, and we thought being the mayor is a little bit lonely. So he would get a dog and go see different places in the city.”
Two weeks after formulating their plan, however, Kansas City meteorologist Gary Lezak launched a new book, “It’s a Sunny Life: An Adventure Fit for Rain or Shine” — which tells the story of Sunny the Weather Dog.
“You can’t top Gary Lezak and dogs,” Masoner said.
The “Mayor Sly” co-authors went back to work on their concept, but not before identifying and approaching Lezak’s publisher, Ascend Books. (The two books also share the same illustrator, Rob Peters of Topeka.)
Brainstorming for a new premise led to Kansas City history and ultimately time travel, Masoner said, but the writing duo was hung up on what kind of time machine would power the magic.
“We contemplated Mayor Sly going into the Liberty Memorial, but thought, ‘Well, that’s going to be weird if he goes back further than the memorial existed.’ So that wasn’t going to work,” she said.
They also considered taking a page from the 1980’s time travel classic “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” with a booth near City Hall sending James hurtling through history, Masoner said, but something about that idea also failed to click.
“Quite frankly, there was a last-minute thought as Aja was leaving my house,” she said. “I looked at her and said, ‘It’s his bow tie! That’s how he’s going to time travel.’ She was like, ‘Yes! That’s it! It’s the one thing he has on him all the time!'”
Another chapter ahead?
Like any good franchise-starting story, “Mayor Sly” concludes with an open-ended line that could lead to more adventures, Masoner said.
Future books could focus on Kansas City or even branch out to see the character traveling through United States’ history, she said.
“We’re really trying to get the first book out, and we’ve just got a little inkling of where the second book might go,” Masoner said. “Maybe a third book will be in the future or a hop to somewhere else in Kansas City. The way Mayor Sly presents — the character and the bow tie — is too good not to do more books.”
A premier event celebrating the launch of “Mayor Sly and the Magic Bow Tie” is set for Monday at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch. The evening is set to feature the Kansas City Symphony and an introduction and interview of Masoner, Aja James and Sly James by philanthropist Crosby Kemper, Masoner said. A reading of the story with several interactive special guests also is expected, she said.
The book — or possibly book series — is a good fit for the real-life mayor, whose term runs through 2019, Masoner said.
“His platform is education and reading, so even when he leaves office, I think he’s going to have some ongoing teaching, leadership and inspirational roles around early education,” she said. “We’ve created a character and platform that can grow with him when he’s out of office.”
“We talk about the value of reading, and we talk about the city we love,” he said. “This book marries the two.”