Jan O’Neill’s two children’s picture books have educational themes, one on gardening and the other on geography.
Former Alpaca rancher pens books, teaches from experience
By Monetta Harr
Thirteen years ago, Jan O’Neill was given a tip she wanted to keep secret.
“Don’t tell anyone else,” she made the individual she spoke with at an alpaca national show promise.
O’Neill, of Blackman Township, went home and began acting on the tip: to write a children’s book about alpacas. The vendor told her people were asking for children’s books; there were plenty of llama books (Llama Llama Red Pajama among the most famous) but none about alpacas.
“I’ve always wanted to write and so I knew if I wrote a children’s book it had to be something I knew,” said O’Neill. She knew about alpacas because she and her husband Richard had 40 of them, and she knew about plants, flowers and gardening as a horticulture teacher at the Jackson Area Career Center, now retired.
The first was “Annabelle Alpaca Plants a Garden” and the second, “Annabelle Alpaca Travels to Peru.” Both are available on Amazon and O’Neill said she sells some each week.
Now O’Neill is thinking about writing another book, but isn’t sure it will be about alpacas. Her other two books were children’s picture books, but this will be a chapter book. She has been mulling over the idea for a book but still isn’t sure of its focus. She hopes spending time with second graders at Hunt Elementary School in Jackson will provide that answer in a brainstorming session this month.
O’Neill is a substitute teacher and spent time recently in that school. One day there was a child absent but rumors floated around that he was actually in the building.
“I got to thinking about that idea, of a student not in class and he witnesses things happening to other kids but doesn’t do anything about it,” said O’Neill. She said they were hurtful things like bullying or something that is against school rules.
“Suddenly he is inspired to make the school a better place and does things to correct those wrongs, something any student could do. These would be teachable moments to readers,” she said.
It’s this kind of goal that O’Neill has always had, whether teaching in the classroom or on the ranch.
The O’Neill’s, married in 2000, have 10-acres and as they anticipated retirement, they wondered what to do with their time. Jan O’Neill was waiting for a dental appointment and read a magazine article about alpacas being a good investment.
Alpacas, like llamas, are part of the camel family. Alpacas are half the size of a llama and a female is about 120 pounds, the size of a large dog. They bought alpacas locally and off the internet, and at that time there weren’t many people in the business so the scarcity raised the price of them: the O’Neill’s sold several of their alpacas for $25,000 each.
Then came more people owning them and – even worse – the Great Recession in 2008 and the animals dropped drastically in price. They have since sold their alpacas but still have a year-round store on their ranch where they sell her books as well as items made from alpaca fleece, from socks to balls of it ready for a spinning wheel. Alpaca fleece, explained O’Neill, is nine times warmer than wool, without the itch.
“Now I’m excited to think about writing a chapter book,” said O’Neill late one morning after an exercise class. “This will go off on a different tangent from my other books but you never know if an alpaca will pop in or not.”