In one sense, The Witch Princess is a colorful new children’s book about an ambitious girl who sets out to achieve her goals and overcome others’ expectations for her. But in another, it’s a memorial to a beloved friend, daughter and community leader whose tragic passing came entirely too soon.
Desiree McCloud’s family and friends describe her as many things: encouraging, passionate, confident. “When she decided she was going to do something, she was going to do it,” Penny McCloud, her mother, said.
Desiree grew up in Indiana (her family currently resides in Bloomfield) and attended Purdue University, where she graduated with a degree in behavioral neuroscience. She then moved west to Seattle to continue her work in the field, even interviewing for a research position at the Allen Institute for Brain Science. While in Seattle, she grew close with many of her friends.
“There’s a phrase we’ve chosen among our friends here: ‘Chosen kin are chosen family,’” said Brittney Geleynse, one of Desiree’s close friends. “All of us had transplanted to Seattle, and we just became chosen family together.”
Geleynse met Desiree while the two were playing Dungeons & Dragons. “We were kind of a silly group of nerds who just got together.” Desiree was also a big fan of trading card game Magic: The Gathering, and Star Wars, even getting a tattoo of the Rebel Alliance insignia.
When Desiree and Geleynse attended GeekGirlCon in Seattle together, the two heard about a shortage in leadership for the local Girl Scouts. On Desiree’s request, she and Geleynse formed their own troop – one of Desiree’s proudest accomplishments.
“[As a child,] she couldn’t believe that her scouting experience was so much different than [her brother’s],” Penny McCloud said. So, Desiree made sure her troop was able to practice the outdoor skills she always wanted, like camping and building fires.
“She didn’t have to start a Girl Scout troop – she wasn’t married, she didn’t have kids,” Penny McCloud said. But Desiree wanted to help. It was all part of her mantra, “Be awesome instead,” a line from a TV show that she had tattooed on her wrist. Her parents and brother now have the same tattoo.
In spring of 2016, Desiree was riding her bicycle in Seattle when, at some point in the ride, she lost control of her bike and crashed. Although Desiree was wearing a helmet, she died later as a result of head trauma. Friends and family all believe the street’s trolley tracks played a role in her death.
There’s a story from a Girl Scout camping trip that Geleynse has told a few times. They were teaching the girls fire safety and how oxygen can reignite a flame. Desiree covered a candle with a glass jar, the flame went out, and when she moved the jar, the candle flickered back to life.
“The girls were in awe,” Geleynse said. “After that meeting, she comes up to me and [jokingly] says, ‘I want to convince the girls I’m a witch.’”
At Desiree’s memorial service, Geleynse read a version of that story, reimagined in the form of a children’s tale.
“It starts with this beautiful princess, Desiree, and how she secretly wanted to be a witch,” Geleynse said. After unsuccessfully trying to convince adults of her newfound profession, the princess gathers a group of children and performs the same candle trick, this time under the guise of magic.
Mark Scherschel II, a longtime friend of Desiree’s who had moved to Seattle with her, loved the story. After the service, he spoke with Geleynse about adapting it into a full children’s book. When she agreed, they started pulling the project together. Scherschel served as product manager, Geleynse as author, Adrienne Silva as illustrator and Sara Chandler as art and story director.
Desiree’s friends weren’t the only ones who wanted to see her celebrated in the book. The creative team took the project to Kickstarter, where it met its $1,500 goal in just a couple days and closed out its campaign at over $5,300. Penny McCloud said she barely had enough time to send the page to the rest of her family before the goal was achieved.
“It’s definitely inspiring and validating. It’s been a lot of work,” Scherschel said. “[We could’ve] printed something up, got it bound and it would technically be a children’s book… But there was a lot of potential to make a good children’s book.”
While putting the story together, one of the team’s biggest tasks was ensuring that Desiree’s personality was represented without sacrificing it for mass appeal.
“We spent a lot of time talking about [getting her personality right],” Scherschel said. “It definitely is a memorial to her. We didn’t want to lose the essence of the true story behind it.”
Plenty of Desiree’s passions are at the forefront of The Witch Princess. Desiree’s tattoos take the form of the princess constantly decorating herself. Her Girl Scout troop is represented by the group of children in the story. Even her cats, named Pterodactyl and Lemon Pancake, make appearances.
“She would love the fact that her love of science is all throughout it,” Geleynse said. “And her stubborn willpower throughout, the unwavering desire to get what she wants and work for it.”
Penny McCloud said the willingness of Desiree’s friends to carry the project to completion is just a testament to how much of an impact her daughter made on people’s lives.
The story of Princess Desiree will start making its way to Kickstarter backers in late November. The book is expected to be publicly available closer to January.
The success of the campaign also allowed the team to release a coloring book in tandem with The Witch Princess. And Scherschel says a percentage of the profits will go to causes close to Desiree’s heart, like Girl Scouts of Western Washington and possibly Planned Parenthood of Washington and Western Idaho.
When asked what she hopes children who didn’t know Desiree might take from the book, Penny McCloud starts to get choked up. “I hope that the message comes across that they can do anything, be anything, dream anything,” she said.
“And a little part of me wants everyone to mourn the fact that this was a very bright light that got snuffed out way too soon,” Penny McCloud said. “Who knows what she could have accomplished?”
For more updates on The Witch Princess and its release, you can find it on Facebook.
Find more stories from Peyton Knobeloch on digital1229