Sterling Heights muralist Wendy Popko holds a book that she illustrated, “Meet the Pets: Presidential Animals from A to Z,” outside the parking lot of Ventimiglia Italian Foods, where her “Trailblazer” mural is located.

Sterling Heights muralist Wendy Popko holds a book that she illustrated, “Meet the Pets: Presidential Animals from A to Z,” outside the parking lot of Ventimiglia Italian Foods, where her “Trailblazer” mural is located.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Local artist illustrates kids book on presidential pets

By: Kara Szymanski | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published December 7, 2021

 Former President William Howard Taft’s cow, Pauline Wayne, Queen of the Capital Cows, represents the letter Q in a book page that Popko illustrated.

Former President William Howard Taft’s cow, Pauline Wayne, Queen of the Capital Cows, represents the letter Q in a book page that Popko illustrated.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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STERLING HEIGHTS — Socks the cat. Bo the Portuguese water dog. Liberty the golden retriever.

These are a few of the stars of a new children’s alphabet book mixing U.S. history and pets, “Meet the Pets: Presidential Animals from A to Z.”

Sterling Heights muralist Wendy Popko is the book’s illustrator, and fellow Michigan residents Cathy Collison and Janis Campbell are the authors.

According to the authors, their inspiration was President Joe Biden bringing pets back into the White House, and the book was released for publication in September 2021. In the book, 26 animals — one for each letter of the alphabet — are spotlighted. Poems, art and facts follow.

In an email, Collison, who lives in Grosse Pointe Farms, said the book required a lot of research involving newspaper articles and historical documents. She said she and Campbell also talked on the phone with presidential library staffers and archivists.

To make the book appealing and accessible to its young audience, the authors gave the book an alphabetical theme and used poems to tell the pet stories.

“We feel the art and poems make it appealing as a read-aloud to the youngest,” Collison said in an email. “For older readers, and adults, informational bits share more stories on every page. Some adult pet lovers or history buffs might consider this as a fun coffee table book.”

Collison said she was amazed by the ample attention the media gave some presidential pets, such as devoting “dozens and dozens of newspaper stories” to former President William Howard Taft’s cow, Pauline Wayne.

Campbell, who lives in Beulah, Michigan, said in a statement that she learned that former President Gerald Ford was once locked out of the White House when he took his golden retriever, Liberty, outside to relieve herself at night.

The book’s illustrator, Popko, lives in Sterling Heights. She is known for painting two murals in the city. One, “Sterling Pride,” is located at the BP gas station at Utica and Dodge Park roads, and the other, “Trailblazer,” is on the side of Ventimiglia Italian Foods on Dodge Park Road, near 15 Mile Road.

As part of her work for “Meet the Pets,” she illustrated the pet White House residents and incorporated collages with historical records.

In an email, Popko said she learned about the book’s premise from Campbell just before Christmas 2020. Popko had previously illustrated one of Campbell’s books.

Popko said she didn’t plan to illustrate a children’s book at the time due to a full schedule, including plans to paint the “Trailblazer” mural in 2021. But the book’s pet theme lured her in, especially because she loves dogs.

Popko shared the idea with her family, who insisted that she do it.

“I told them the only way I could work two full-time projects at the same time would require them to take over all household chores. I would be painting,” Popko said. “My daughter told me that I could not say no. She loved the idea of the book and felt I would regret it if I turned it down. My family was on board. So I said yes.”

Popko said Campbell and Collison were open to her idea of painting over the book’s featured articles.

“The illustrations took a life of their own, especially when we decided to highlight certain things about the White House, paying close attention to the time of the administration the celebrated pet was from,” Popko explained.  

“We had debates about what pattern should be on the plate used on the ‘U’ page, because Barbara Bush never chose a pattern. She used Truman’s. And then I thought it would be neat to paint the images according to the time period in which that administration was covered in the media: black and white or color. I love puzzles, and it felt like each layer to the process was like fitting the puzzle pieces together.”

Popko said she enjoyed teaming up with the book’s authors, adding that she and Collison would meet in the Ventimiglia Italian Foods parking lot to pick up Popko’s artwork. Popko added that years had passed since she had last illustrated a book, so the presidential pet book gave her a fresh look at the medium that made her appreciate it.

She also included a hidden Easter egg in the book.

“The Michigan state flower, apple blossom, can be found wrapped around the letter U (and) represents the team who wrote and illustrated this book,” she said.

“Meet the Pets: Presidential Animals from A to Z” costs $12.99 for hardcover and is available for sale on Amazon.com.

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