Bil Lepp remembers well the inspiration for his story, “The King of Little Things.”
Eight years ago, he was playing with his son, Noah, upstairs in their home. Noah, now 14, suggested, “Let’s play kingdoms.” Lepp was handed a few small toys — a marble and a jack — while his son claimed the larger ones, including a Tonka truck. Noah told his father, “You can be king of little things.” And a story was born.
The PEN American Center, the largest branch of the worldwide human rights and literary organization, announced Wednesday that Lepp has received the PEN/Steven Kroll Award for Picture Book Writing for his children’s book, “The King of Little Things.” According to a statement released Wednesday by PEN, the award is given to a writer for an exceptional story illustrated in a picture book published in 2013.
Lepp receives a $5,000 prize and will join fellow PEN literary winners at a ceremony in New York City on Sept. 29.
In the statement, PEN President Peter Godwin said, “Celebrating the written word is an essential part of defending it and it is through PEN’s literary awards that we continue to honor some of the most exceptional books and bodies of work that free expression makes possible.”
Although the South Charleston resident has authored a variety of short story collections and a parenting book, “The King of Little Things” is Lepp’s first children’s book. He said the story was adapted from a longer version that he originally meant to be told as an oral story for his full-time storytelling career.
“I didn’t write it to be a book, I wrote it to tell a story,” said Lepp, a five-time winner of the Liar’s Contest at West Virginia’s Vandalia Gathering. “When I wrote it, it was probably 2,000 words long.”
Another storyteller, children’s author Carmen Agra Deedy, heard Lepp tell the story. After hearing it, she came to him with an idea.
“She heard me tell the oral version of the story, [and] she said that would be a great children’s book,” he said.
Deedy had experience with Peachtree Publishers in Atlanta, and she helped to shepherd the book through the submission process. She also served as the book’s primary editor, helping Lepp get his 2,000-word story down to a more suitable size for children. The final version is less than 800 words.
Although varying in length, both versions tell the story of the King of Little Things, who happily reigns over all things small — from candles to paper clips to macaroni. But when King Normous, from a nearby kingdom, decides to become king of the whole world, the King of Little Things — and his subjects — must find a way to outsmart Normous and keep their little kingdom safe.
“Originally, I just thought it was a neat idea that there was a king, a king of little things. I suppose it became pretty evident to me that I was making a message that little things are important,” Lepp said. “Everything has value and deserves respect.
“Part of being mindful of the little things is being polite, just saying please and thank you. [And] if you take care of the little things, then the big things fall into place, as well,” he said.
Lepp — who lives in South Charleston with his wife, Paula, daughter Ellie and son Noah — said the book took eight years from start to finish, but the timeline sped up after illustrator David Wenzel signed on to the project. Wenzel is best known for his visualization of J.R.R. Tolkein’s “The Hobbit” in a graphic novel.
“I didn’t know who he was,” Lepp said of Wenzel. “Once I started looking him up, I was sort of astounded that someone with his clout would want to do it, just by the fact that I assume he gets lots of offers to illustrate books. That he liked my story enough to want to do it that was very exciting. He just did a fantastic job.”
The book is in its second printing after its release last year, with 12,000 copies in print.
According to Niki Knippenberg, associate publicist for Peachtree Publishing, the book has been licensed for translation in Spanish, Catalan and Korean and for apps with Reading Rainbow.
“We are thrilled for Bil Lepp and so proud of his work,” she said. “‘The King of Little Things’ is a special book to all of us at Peachtree. In addition to being rich with clever wordplay and atmospheric illustrations, it’s a story of little things making a big difference — and that theme is really at the heart of what drives us as a publisher.”
PEN notified Lepp last week of his award.
“I was hoping it would be a good fit and, it turns out, it was. I was astounded,” he said. “I’d like to publish another children’s book and I’m hoping this award helps me do that.”
“The King of Little Things” can be found at local bookstores, including Taylor Books on Capitol Street, as well as online at, among other places, Lepp’s website, leppstorytelling.com.
Reach Anna Patrick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5100.