Vail Johnson’s writing lives on in newly published book
The cover of the newly published children’s book weaves together an intricately detailed story without a single word.
Wrapped front-to-back in a deep and star-studded indigo, the cover art features a bright-eyed little girl with a bubblegum pink superhero cape billowing behind her. She’s captured forever in time, wildly tossing her hands in the air as she rockets through the atmosphere on a shimmering star.
The book is called “Vail’s Tales”— it showcases the world according to Vail Johnson, an avid writer and storyteller whose insight brims with sweetness, vivid colors and the reality behind make-believe. She died when she was nine years old, passing suddenly in her sleep.
“The day before Vail died, she told us exactly what she wanted,” said Susan Chance, mother of the ferociously happy kid depicted on the book’s cover. “She wanted to get her books published, and she wanted to be an author when she grew up.”
Though her time on Earth was short, Vail left behind a legacy. She filled pages upon pages with books and stories, poems and jokes and whimsical ideas. Through her words she created a unique world— Vail’s World— where things are bright and people are good.
Almost three years after Vail’s passing, her dreams of becoming an author have finally been realized.
“Vail’s Tales” is the first collection of Vail’s stories now available to the public, and with the book comes a window into the dreamlike fantasyland of the nine-year-old, full of profound wisdom and thought-provoking perspectives.
Her parents, Chad and Susan, teamed up with Ed Payne and Britt Sekulic, an author and illustrator respectively, to rewrite some of Vail’s original stories.
They knew they wanted to publish Vail’s work, but were unsure how to begin the process. It was daunting, Susan recalled, adding, “There was a lot we didn’t know.”
“We knew nothing,” Chad agreed.
They did know one thing: it seemed like the big publishing companies wanted to own the rights to Vail’s stories, and that was no good.
“I didn’t want that,” Susan said. “I was very much: ‘I want it done the way I want it done, told the way I want it told. And I want it to be ours.’”
Eventually Susan’s cousin offered to reach out to a work colleague of hers, someone she knew had experience writing children’s books. That person was Ed Payne.
“After talking with Susan on the phone and getting a chance to read the four stories that became ‘Vail’s Tales,’ I knew I had to be a part of the project,” Payne said. “There’s a special soul to these stories. Something beyond the experiences of a little girl who would die before she turned 10.”
Based in Atlanta, Payne is an Emmy award- and Peabody award-winning journalist, as well as the author of three children’s books in the “Daily Rounds of a Hound” series. Despite never knowing Vail personally, Payne accepted the project and used her words to fuel and inspire his own.
“I’m honored that the family entrusted me with something so precious and special to them,” Payne said. “These stories are their gold, I just polished it up a bit.”
Payne worked closely with Susan and Chad, exchanging emails to make sure Vail’s voice was accurately represented in his adapted stories. It was through Payne that Susan and Chad met Britt Sekulic, an illustrator, and the group of four began the long process of creating a book together.
“My favorite part of everything was getting those emails,” Susan said. “We bawled with every email he sent. And every time Britt sent us an illustration, it was like Christmas. Getting those stories and getting those sketches was like opening a gift.”
“Vail’s Tales” consists of four stories: My Little Star; If I Were a Tree; A Good Friend and Mermaids. Each story includes Vail’s original, handwritten draft and pictures alongside Payne’s adaptation and Sekulic’s illustrations. Her parents love every story, they said, but they do have a favorite: If I Were a Tree.
“It’s her understanding of the gospel,” Chad said. “It even says: ‘If I were a tree, I would be a stool.’ Why a stool? Because a stool can be so many things for so many people.”
If I Were a Tree goes on to talk about Vail’s love for Jesus and her experiences in church. It’s a comfort to Chad and Susan, they said, because it reminds them that they know exactly where Vail is. There is even more comfort in the assurance that they’ll see her again someday, they added.
There are so many personal details in the 80 pages of “Vail’s Tales” that it’s hard to keep count.
Vail’s character is designed with her in mind. Sekulic referenced pictures of Vail to mimic not only her look, but her goofy, fun-loving energy as well. From the way she dresses to the shape of her ears and the part in her hair— even Vail’s favorite boots are represented in the book. The characters of her friends were created based off of photographs, as well. Vail’s horse Pistol is a common character in the pages, as are her parents and sister.
So far, the published book has seen success. Available on Amazon and the Barnes and Noble website,
“Vail’s Tales” was the No. 4 top selling Children’s Christian book the day of its release.
“She would love this; I know she would be so proud,” Susan said. “She was a dreamer, and this is a dream.”