On the second floor of the Nutley Public Library, the laughter of children echoes down the hallway as they enthusiastically run around a small playroom. Their laughter is directed toward a bright-eyed woman with curly brown hair who holds a stack of colorful flashcards in her hands. Each child gets a chance to pull their own flashcard from the stack and watch as everyone, including the woman, acts out the action written on the card.
Ilene Dudek says she floats in space as she puts her hands out and demonstrates that there is no gravity in space.
“Don’t talk to any aliens or float to the moon,” Dudek said. “Now come back to earth.”
Dudek smiles as another child rushes to her to pick another card which reads, “Walk like a turtle.” Now it is the parents who laugh as they watch the children immediately drop to the floor and give their best impression of a turtle. The flashcard activity soon ends and Dudek then announces that she will be signing copies of her books. She also provides students with a craft area in the back of the library.
Dudek, a Montclair State University alumna and current resident of Nutley, New Jersey, is the author and illustrator of the “Little Ant” series. During her time at Montclair State, she originally majored in business but quickly changed to English. While she loved learning about creative writing and crafting her own stories, after college she decided to play it safe and got a job as a copywriter in advertising.
“I think it was a little intimidating to think that I am going to be an author and how many years will it take for me to get out there and sell my stuff,” Dudek said. “It is nerve-wracking when you are young to say this is what I am going to do.”
It wasn’t until last year when Dudek was laid off from her job that she decided to pursue her dreams of becoming an author. Her inspiration for her stories came directly from home in the form of her two young sons, Matthew and Alex, who are 10 and 4 respectfully.
“These two energetic boys, who are always at the park looking for fish or new trails or restaurants,” Dudek said. “They were always looking for something exciting to do and the ‘Little Ant on the Go’ is the perfect expression of that.”
“Little Ant on the Go” is the first book in the “Little Ant” series. The story is about an ant that gets accidentally flushed down the toilet and the wild adventures he goes through to get back home. Dudek ’s youngest son was the inspiration for this particular story as she wrote it while potty training him. The other two books, “Little Ant Hears a Noise” and “Little Ant Saves the Day,” are also inspired by her sons. They are both stories that Dudek loves to share with other children.
At the beginning of her career, Dudek has visited several libraries and elementary schools, including Bloomfield Public Library, Spring Garden Elementary and My Little University. During her visits, she doesn’t just read her books but also provides games tailored toward her stories. These include flashcards, I Spy and a sound guessing game.
“Dudek likes to have a very interactive story time with the participation of students,” said Lucia Alvarez, a library associate at Nutley Public Library. “[She] follows it up with many games and afterward a craft. So, they recreate a garden with grass and ants like in her books.”
Alvarez is one of the library associates who helps Dudek with her craft area. As Dudek signs books in the front of the room, Alvarez assists several children in creating their own flower pots. One of the children that she helps is a young toddler named Tabitha who refuses the help anyone but Alvarez.
“As a parent, it was a lot of fun watching the games and seeing my daughter pick some of the cards,” said Mark Jacobsen, the father of Tabitha and a former student of Montclair State. “The book was very silly too.”
Tabitha is one of the children that bought a copy of “Little Ant on the Go,” which Dudek sells for $10 at the end of storytime.
On what to expect in the future from Dudek, she said to expect more “Little Ant” stories.
“I really want to continue with the ‘Little Ant’ because there are so many stories within me that are silly, and it’s a good place for me to get it out,” Dudek said.
She also has a desire to write more “Stephen King type” novels, but doesn’t want to stop making illustrations. Her long-term goal isn’t set in stone, but what Dudek does know is that she wished that she became an author earlier in her life.
“I’m 43 years old, so that was 20 years that I was finding myself,” Dudek said. “I have so much joy and appreciation for what I do, and I wake up every morning ready to get back to work that I wish I had done sooner.”