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Book from Meriden boy and his mom tells story of hope

  • (Kim Burwick and her son Levi Goodan, 9, of Meriden, N.H., are authors of the children's book "The Raincoat Balloon," based on the true story of a famous cyclist who defects (with his wife, two children, and his bicycle) from former Czechoslovakia in a hot air balloon sewn together by raincoats collected over two years. The pair put the book together over a month's time during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Levi Goodan, 9, of Meriden, N.H., illustrated a story told by his mother, Kim Burwick, that has become the children's book "The Raincoat Balloon," published by Levellers Press in western Massachusetts. (Courtesy Levellers Press)

  • Levi Goodan, 9, of Meriden, N.H., illustrated a story told by his mother, Kim Burwick, that has become the children's book "The Raincoat Balloon," published by Levellers Press in western Massachusetts. (Courtesy Levellers Press)

  • Levi Goodan, 9, of Meriden, N.H., illustrated a story told by his mother, Kim Burwick, that has become the children's book "The Raincoat Balloon," published by Levellers Press in western Massachusetts. (Courtesy Levellers Press)

  • Levi Goodan, 9, of Meriden, N.H., illustrated a story told by his mother, Kim Burwick, that has become the children's book "The Raincoat Balloon," published by Levellers Press in western Massachusetts. (Courtesy Levellers Press)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/1/2021 9:03:47 PM
Modified: 1/2/2021 8:45:49 AM

MERIDEN — Who in the past 10 months hasn’t dreamed of floating away, above the pandemic gloom and to a soft landing in a sunnier, happier place?

A full escape from the global pandemic is impossible, at least in the short term. But from one day to the next there are moments of solace.

For Levi Goodan, 9, one of those sources of comfort has been looking at and making art. Another has been hearing stories from his mother, Kimberly Burwick.

Last spring, the two of them combined those activities and wrote and illustrated a story designed to foster hope in young readers. The story is now available as a book, The Raincoat Balloon.

“I’ve been painting a lot recently, so I kind of wanted to make a book,” Levi said in a recent interview over Zoom from their home in Meriden.

More than other children, Levi understood the mortal fear that COVID-19 might stir in young minds. He has a bicuspid aortic valve in his heart, which is causing his ascending aorta to enlarge. The condition is not readily treatable, and it is invisible, unless his aorta bursts.

“I think it does make him more sensitive to kids who are struggling,” Burwick, 45, said in a phone interview.

Early in the pandemic, Burwick, whose fifth book of poems, Brightword, came out a year ago, was searching for stories of hope to tell Levi at bedtime.

She remembered a true story she’d been told when she was a recent college graduate, in the 1990s, teaching English in the Czech Republic. A famous Czech bicyclist escaped from behind the Iron Curtain with his wife and two children, and his bicycle, in 1983 in a balloon he and his wife made from raincoats.

“I had forgotten about it for a long time,” Burwick said. Levi had asked how long it takes people to get through hard times, and the bicyclist story came to mind.

They looked at each other and knew this was a story they wanted to write and illustrate.

At the time, Burwick was home from work — she and her husband, fellow poet Kevin Goodan, teach writing at Colby-Sawyer College in New London — and Levi was being homeschooled rather than continue with remote learning at Plainfeld Elementary School. They spent the month of May on the book.

“We didn’t do much math that month,” Burwick said in the Zoom interview.

They started with Levi telling the story back to his mother, so she could type it out.

A 1979 escape by two East German families, also in a homemade balloon, is better known; Disney made a film about it called Night Crossing.

The Czech family’s escape did make the front page of The New York Times on Sept. 9, 1983. Robert Huytra, 38, had been a member of the national cycling team. He, his wife, 36, and their 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son escaped to Austria in a balloon they’d sewn out of raincoats, according to the Times’ account.

The version Levi retells starts with the bicyclist, riding through scenery, until totalitarian restrictions descend. “The man started to feel hopeless. Every day seemed flooded with gloom,” the story says.

For two years, the bicyclist and his wife bought raincoats, a few here, a few there to avoid detection.

While Burwick made outlines of the illustrations, Levi had a free hand to design and paint them. He chose to paint over tissue paper, then coated the resulting image with modge podge (the commercial stuff is called Mod Podge).

“However he wanted to design the book, whatever materials he wanted to use, there were no restrictions,” Burwick said.

They didn’t think about seeking a publisher until the book was finished. Levellers Press, in Amherst, Mass., published the book recently. It’s available for $18, with half of the proceeds going to environmental causes.

The pandemic caused a spike in anxiety for children and parents alike, Levi included. How would catching COVID-19 affect someone with his heart condition?

“That was one of the first questions he asked,” Burwick said. They tried to focus on steps they could take to avoid it. He’s been back at Plainfield Elementary this fall.

In reckoning with his heart condition, his family has had to consider life’s biggest questions. Brightword is largely about Levi, both his condition and his environmentalism.

The hours they spent on the book were relatively carefree, Levi said. “Time goes by a lot faster” when he’s painting, he said.

Levi sees the book as a kind of hope delivery device.

It took years to sew a hot-air balloon out of a mountain of raincoats. It will take time for the pandemic to loosen its grip, and when it does we might feel like we’re floating to safety.

“In the ending,” Levi said of the book, “everyone pretty much wins.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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