Former newspaper journalist and Bloomington resident Jillian Duchnowski was quick to see the magic in Allerton Park & Retreat Center when she started visiting the Monticello-area landmark two years ago.
As she learned about the history of the art-loving Robert Allerton and his trips across the globe to procure art for his estate, which he donated to the University of Illinois in 1946, Duchnowski was inspired enough to convert those magical feelings into a children’s book.
“What if he brought home more than art from his travels?” she said. “So the fairy character in the book – the Lost Fairy – is originally from Germany and became a stowaway when Robert Allerton came back from one of his trips.”
With that, “Cassidy and the Lost Fairy of Allerton” was born, and was released recently as a self-published work on Amazon.
“The story came to me when my husband and I were walking through the formal gardens,” Duchnowski said. “I love how Allerton Park brings together so many elements — structured formal gardens next to unfettered nature, a grand estate and a desire to experience the woods, large sculptures set next to spaces virtually untouched by humans.”
She was especially motivated after peeking inside some hedges in the formal gardens, a space that affords children – and possibly fairies – a place to play.
Duchnowski, 38, formerly wrote more gritty stuff, having worked, among other things, the crime beat for Chicago area newspapers that included the Northwest Herald in Crystal Lake, Yorkville Patch, the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb and the Journal Standard in Freeport. She currently writes for Townsquare Media, the third-largest owner of radio stations in the United States.
Her latest work is meant for four- to eight-year-olds, so she toned down illustrations of statues that come alive within its pages.
“One of the things we tried to balance was to make the statues clearly recognizable for people who are familiar to Allerton, and also making them more children friendly,” she noted.
That also means the statues in her book are, shall we say, less scantily clad than the real thing.
“The statues are wearing more clothes in the book than they wear in real life,” chuckled Duchnowski, who graduated from the University of Illinois in 2003 but did not discover Allerton until finding it as a good meeting point with her father, who lives in Coles County.
“Cassidy” is her second book, the other being an illustration-rich history work on Bloomington she undertook five years ago for Arcadia Publishing.
She and her husband have been to Allerton “a handful of times” in the past couple of years, and Duchnowski says it never wears thin.
“We discover something different every time we go there,” she said.
And, like many others, she finds the life of Robert Allerton to be intriguing.
“He had the means to do anything he wanted. But the life he chose to build was in the middle of nowhere, very into the aesthetic, and put gardens next to nature. He mixed things from different cultures together,” added Duchnowski.
Strangely enough, fairy gardens are part of a children’s garden being considered for Allerton, a 1,600-acre park complete with walking trails and the expansive Allerton mansion. An estimated 1.6-acre children’s garden project that would also include water play and woodland walks for families was outlined last August, but park officials noted it would be years before it cold become a reality.
The book is also available at Hartfield Book Co. in Monticello.