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Devin Scillian tells tale of loss from tortoise's point of view

Kurt Anthony Krug
Special to The Detroit News

There are many sides to Devin Scillian.

 Although best known as the lead anchor of WDIV (Channel 4) (this year marks his 25th year at Detroit’s NBC affiliate), Scillian is also an award-winning singer/songwriter and a children’s book author.

In fact, he’s recently released his 20th children’s book, “Memoirs of a Tortoise” (Sleeping Bear Press $16.99), which is also the fifth installment in his “Memoirs” series.

“I knew it’d be a very different book for me. Most of my books — especially the ‘Memoirs’ books — have aimed at the funny bone, but I knew this would be more poignant than that,” explained Scillian, 57, a Kansas native who lives in Grosse Pointe Park with Corey, his wife of almost 34 years. Together they have four children.

"Memoirs of a Tortoise," by Devin Scillian and illustrated by Tim Bowers

In “Tortoise,” Oliver the tortoise has turned 80, the same age as his owner Ike (Ike and another character Ted are named after both of Scillian’s grandfathers). However, Ike stops visiting. Oliver wonders why, so he travels to see his mother, hoping she’ll know.

Scillian conceived the idea for “Tortoise” after reading a story about an elderly couple in Hawaii who were making arrangements for their 65-year-old pet tortoise in their estate plan. Unlike most pets, tortoises can outlive their owners, something Scillian thought was an unusual predicament.

“It was a twist on the story of people who lose their pets. In this case, the pet loses its people. To me, it was a poignant but really important concept for kids to understand,” he said. “I suppose it seems like a fool’s errand to write a children’s book about death and loss, but it also felt to me that there might be a bit of a canyon in the children’s section for books that approach this subject. Yes, it’s about death and loss, but it’s also about renewal and the abiding impact people have on our lives long after they’re gone. The more I thought about it, the more I felt it was an idea worth exploring with kids.”

Devin Scillian

“Tortoise” was illustrated by Tim Bowers, of Mount Vernon, Ohio. This is Bowers’ sixth collaboration with Scillian, having drawn all five “Memoirs” books and “Back Roads, Country Toads.”

“(‘Tortoise’) is our fifth ‘Memoirs’ book and it didn’t disappoint,” said Bowers. “It has the humor and great storyline that the others share but with something more. We worked on the book, not knowing about the challenges that our country would face down the road. The book is about friendship, loss of a loved one, and the appreciation of life. I think it was a perfect story to land in the midst of so much pain and loss that this pandemic has caused. In some way, I think (‘Tortoise’) is a perfect story to remind us of what is important and to focus on the good.”

Scillian and Bowers haven’t met in person but have communicated via numerous phone calls and emails. Usually the publisher will send an approved manuscript to the artist, but the author and artist rarely have much interaction during the book-making process. The publisher has traditionally been the gatekeeper and relays information back and forth, according to Bowers.

Illustrator Tim Bowers

“Illustrators have their approach to what they do. Some want to talk about their approach and get ideas and flesh things out. And some like Tim, I don’t hear from until he’s done,” explained Scillian. “I feel that when you’ve got a creative partnership working, that’s really when it’s at its best — when both are trusting the other person… Tim trusts me and I trust Tim. It’s a really cool relationship. It’s a little bit like opening a Christmas present when the illustrations are all finally done.”

Sometimes, Scillian will see Bowers’ rough sketches before he completes the final illustrations.

“I don’t think I saw anything I needed changing. Ideally, the words and the pictures come together and end up with something greater than the sum of the parts. Hopefully, that’s what we’ve got with (‘Tortoise’),” said Scillian. “Tim is just so amazing and so gifted. He nailed this one just perfectly.”

Thus far, “Tortoise” has been well-received. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review.

“They called it a ‘wonderful and unusual gem,’ which is exactly the way I want people to think of it; it’s an unusual book, but I hope people see it as a gem,” said Scillian. “So far, the response has been exactly what I hoped it would’ve been. It seems to be landing just the way I wanted it to, which is always a great feeling.”

Scillian’s desire to write began in high school in Junction City, Kansas, when English teacher, Deanna Tressin, assigned him to write a children’s story. At the University of Kansas, where he earned an undergraduate degree in journalism, Scillian penned a manuscript that his children’s literature professor, Alan Lichter, believed had publication potential.

“It took a long time to get published,” he said. “(Lichter) encouraged me and believed that I could be a published writer. I had a passion for it. That was 30 years ago. It took 10 years to get the first one published (‘Fibblestax’ in 2000). Now 20 years later, it’s been an average of a book/year. It’s been an absolute thrill. I will forever be thankful to Alan Lichter and Deanna Tressin… Those teachers completely set me on the runway and sent me on this flight.”

Additionally, Scillian has a recurring role on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” as a news anchor during the “Breaking News” skits.

“That’s a nutty thing. Everyone always asks me, ‘How in the world did you get that gig?’ I keep thinking I need to get a better story like ‘Ellen and I were on vacation together in Hawaii…’ The truth of it is it’s kinda boring. They called and asked if I would do it and I said yes. That’s basically it. When they need me, they send the scripts. We tape them here and send them back,” he said.

Scillian had cameos in 2011’s “Scream 4” (starring Neve Campbell), 2011’s “The Double” (starring Richard Gere), and 2011’s “Mooz-lum” (starring Danny Glover) — all filmed in Michigan during the now-defunct Michigan film tax incentive. In fact, the set of “Flashpoint” — Scillian’s Sunday morning news show — was used in “The Double.”

“That was my taste of the Michigan movie business,” he said. “Back when the movies were getting made here, I was getting calls every week about an audition because if you think about it, almost every movie needs a scene with an anchorman or reporter, and (filmmakers) use that as a device to explain the story.”

He has fond memories of working with the late Wes Craven, director of “Scream 4.” Scillian filmed his scene around 3 a.m. Originally, he had two lines but it was changed to a paragraph of dialogue. Craven asked how long it would take him to memorize it.

“That’s where preparation meets opportunity because in the TV business, we have to memorize a lot of things in a short period of time,” said Scillian. “Everybody was waiting on me to get this shot so they could go home. It probably took 1-2 minutes to get it memorized. When I said I was ready, Wes looked at me like I was crazy — ‘Okay, let’s roll.’ I did it in one take and he’s like ‘Wow!’ I told him, ‘That’s what TV news-people do.’”

Craven sent Scillian a bottle of wine as a way of thanking him.

“It was so fun,” said Scillian. “That was my night with the great Wes Craven.”

When he came to Michigan in 1995, Scillian believed he and his family would stay several years before moving on. 

“In the intervening years, we’ve had a number of chances to leave, but it had become home to us,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how to raise four kids in a place like, say, New York. We just looked up one day and realized we were Michiganders — it was home to us. In fact, I grew up in a military family, so we moved a dozen times when I was a kid. This is so far and away the longest I’ve ever lived in one place. It really is.”

Asked how he finds time to be a journalist, singer, author, husband and father, Scillian laughed.

“Fortunately, all four of our kids are grown now — that helps. It sounds like I’m all over the place,” he said. “When you think about it, the one thing all those things have in common is storytelling. I love a good story from writing it in a song, writing it in a kid’s book, or if I’m telling a story about what’s happening in the world around us — which is my main job every day. I love a good story.”