Ten-year-old Devon Parker likes chocolate Pop-Tarts, the Nationals and "jumping the ramp" on his skateboard.
But the Arlington Traditional School fourth-grader loves Flip, his scruffy, banged-up stuffed cat. He loves him so much that the crisis prompted by Flip's brief disappearance in a toy store five years ago became the inspiration for a children's book written by his mother, Sandi Parker.
"Karlchen" which means "little Karl," was published in July by the German publisher Lappan. In the story, young Oliver leaves behind his beloved stuffed kitty, Karlchen, after being distracted by a train set at a toy store.
That's pretty much what happened to Devon five years ago during a visit to Kinder Haus Toys, a specialty toy shop in Arlington. A few hours after leaving the store, Devon realized that Flip was missing, and he and his mother rushed back to retrieve him. They eventually found Flip; he had been placed on a rack among the pristine new toys for sale.
"Here was this raggedy cat sitting up there with all these beautiful plush toys," recalled Parker, who donated half of her book advance to Arlington Traditional's sister school, the Arlington Academy of Hope in Uganda. "I thought it was funny that someone put him up there, but Devon was horrified. The whole way home he kept saying, 'Mom, what if somebody tried to buy him?' "
Flip was once a plush new toy, too, with white fur, bright blue eyes, whiskers, soft pink ears and a ribbon around his neck. But even five years ago, those days were behind him. After years of being swung by his tail and taking baths in the washing machine, Flip had changed. His bright fur turned a hazy shade of gray, spotted with bare patches of fabric where the fluff used to be. The whiskers and the ribbon have long gone, and his eyes are scratched.
"Sometimes when I get scared, I squeeze him real tight," said Devon, who has taken Flip on many adventures over the years, including a roller coaster ride, several scary movies and a trip to Bermuda.
Flip's experience gave Parker an idea. In the story, the other animals tease Karlchen for being so ragged and suggest that his owner didn't want him anymore. But the toy cat explains that the rough edges have developed from years of being treasured and accompanying his owner night and day. Karlchen's certainty in their bond prompts him to go to great lengths to ensure that he is retrieved.
Sue Pyatt, who co-owns Kinder Haus Toys and Imagination Station Children's Bookstore with her husband, Everett, said that while she didn't hear about Devon leaving Flip behind at the time, children often misplace prized possessions at the stores. "It's always a grand reunion" when kids find them, said Pyatt, who plans to stock a few copies of "Karlchen" in Imagination Station's foreign language section, then order more if customers show an interest. "They're always overjoyed when it's there waiting for them."
Parker first tried to sell the book to U.S. publishers and rewrote it at the request of one before it was ultimately turned down. Then Parker's cousin, who lives in Germany and whose husband is a novelist there, visited the family and took a manuscript back with her. A few months later, Parker had a deal. Although there are no plans for an English version at this point, Parker and Lappan are exploring possibilities on both sides of the Atlantic.
Before the Flip episode, Parker -- who works part time at Gecko Traders in Arlington and sells oil paintings on the side -- had never considered writing a children's book. She worked on the story off and on for several years, eventually asking Lorraine Gandy -- who had been Devon's kindergarten teacher at Arlington Traditional School -- for help.
Gandy read several successive drafts of the book to her students, watching their reaction as she tested small changes in the 15-minute story. "They adored it. They didn't have pictures, and when I finished reading the story, they were clapping," said Gandy, who has been teaching for 34 years. "To see their little faces -- they went 'ooh' and 'ahh.' "
Gandy recalled Devon's bringing Flip to class; he had to keep him in his cubby during the day. Even as they grow older, she said, many children continue their attachments to inanimate objects made precious by their imaginations. That's why children can relate to Karlchen.
"Children can really identify with this story -- and the grown-ups, too," she said.
Devon still sleeps with Flip and takes him to important events, such as a recent family wedding.
"Flip was getting really bored," Devon said -- until the end of the ceremony, when doves were released. "Then once he saw those birds, he leaped out of my arms."
Nowadays, Flip sports a purple collar from a pet store. Its heart-shaped pendant has contact information for the Parkers.
The pendant came in useful when Flip was lost again -- this time three years ago at Ellis Island. That adventure, Parker promises, will be captured in her next book.