ISLAND BOOKSHELF: ‘The Sheltering Cedar’ is an Ocracoke Christmas story for children


As I write this, I’m snug in my old house, while outside the wind is howling and rain is beating at my windows. My dog just scratched at the door, but when I opened it, the gust of chilly air made him change his mind about needing to go out. It’s the kind of night that’s made for staying in.

Let’s imagine that Ocracoke is having a staying-in kind of night that just happens to be Christmas Eve. A nor’easter is blowing, and island folk and their pets are hunkered down in warm houses waiting for Christmas morning. Just like tonight, everyone on Ocracoke has taken shelter from the storm, but what about the wild critters out there in the wind and rain? Where do they go? Where’s their warm and cozy hiding place?

In the new picture book, “The Sheltering Cedar,” author and illustrator Anne Marshall Runyon of Garner, N.C., shares the story of the animals’ Christmas Eve, as they find shelter in the sturdy branches of a cedar tree in the sand dunes. When the storm passes over and Christmas morning dawns bright and sunny, the red birds chirp their morning song. An island family spreads cheer by bringing seed for the bird’s holiday feast.

“The Sheltering Cedar” is a gentle and lyrical picture book, with soft watercolor and ink paintings that complement the writing. The story almost echoes “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with its cadence of “five red birds,” “four small beetles,” “three mantid egg cases,” “two toads,” and “one wet cedar,” but the similarity never seems contrived. Other Ocracoke wild creatures survive the storm – including a rabbit, mice, a ghost crab, dolphins, and several species of birds.

In addition to the story, the title page shows a map of the Outer Banks, and the last page includes a fact-filled guide to cedar trees and a list of the animals in the book.

The island in “The Sheltering Cedar” is a quieter, greener version of Ocracoke, as Runyon remembers it from her childhood summers. The lighthouse is there and so is the Methodist Church.  But the harbor is mostly undeveloped, and skiffs are tied to stakes in the shallows. The old house, with its historic cistern, is the one her parents, the late Charles and Robbie Runyon, bought when she was a girl. Runyon and her brother own it now. She has very vague memories of her first trip to Ocracoke, but after her family discovered it, they spent every summer on the island.

“My parents were friends with the Rondthalers,” she said, “and Alice Rondthaler told me that once you have Ocracoke sand in your shoes, you’ll always come back.”

Runyon was inspired to write “The Sheltering Cedar” during a winter visit to Ocracoke in the early ‘90s. She went outside early one morning and saw cardinals flying out of a cedar tree.

“They were so beautiful,” she said. “My mother told me they were spending the winter in the cedar.”

Runyon turned that inspiration into a nature activity for kids about where animals find shelter, and eventually the idea began to form into her first children’s book.

“I’ve wanted to write and illustrate stories for children all my life,” she said. “There’s a childlike quality to my work.”

It took five years for “The Sheltering Cedar” to grow from an idea for a story to a book, and Runyon is very happy to have found a home at Portal Press.

Runyon’s work has also been published in the children’s section of Wildlife in North Carolina magazine. Runyon writes and illustrates articles for the magazine, and creates nature activities for children. She does artwork for environmental education exhibits in parks and museums, and has most recently been designing an exhibit for the North Carolina Parks and Recreation building at the Dismal Swamp. She is already working on her next picture book about the life of a long leaf pine.

“I love the work I do,” she said. “I get to go to the neatest places ¬– from the mountains down to the coast, and meet people and see wildlife.”

Runyon’s son, Nate, who’s now a sophomore at North Carolina State University, was the inspiration for her nature activities for children.

“When he was 4 or 5 years old, we would sit around the kitchen table and make paper sculptures together. I create the paper sculptures for Wildlife in North Carolina magazine, and I love to share them with kids.”

Runyon has designed four paper sculptures to go with “The Sheltering Cedar.” They can be downloaded and printed from her publisher’s website (

Runyon will be sharing her book and her sculptures when she visits the island in early December. She’ll meet with students at Ocracoke School and will also be making sculptures and signing books at the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum’s Wassail Party on Wednesday, Dec. 5. The book signing begins at 4:30 p.m., followed by the Wassail Party and Community Tree-Lighting at 5 p.m.

Books will be available at island shops for the Thanksgiving weekend, including the OPS Museum gift shop, Books to Be Red on Ocracoke, and Buxton Village Books on Hatteras.



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