The Gnomes of Oakland Live On
Author Kamaria Lofton and artist Steven Anderson are revealing nocturnal tales about The Town’s favorite tiny mascot in a new book, The Gnomes of Oakland.
Photo of Kamaria Lofton by Christopher Garry; bottom photo by Paul Haggard
Observant Oaklanders know that a legion of benevolent gnomes occupies telephone poles from Temescal to the Cleveland Cascade. But what they don’t know is that after dark, those gnomes bust free from their wooden confines and frolic at Children’s Fairyland, splash around Lake Merritt, hop on BART, go out for tamales, ride on the wings of Canada geese, and enjoy other Oakland pleasures.
Thanks to local author Kamaria Lofton, their antics are now for everyone to observe and appreciate. Lofton’s new children’s book, The Gnomes of Oakland, chronicles the nocturnal adventures of Oakland’s favorite 3-inch mascot: the hand-painted little people who mysteriously began appearing at the foot of utility poles about six years ago.
“I’ve loved the gnomes since I first started noticing them, but what struck me is that children always notice them first,” said Lofton, a former preschool teacher and mother of two. “Children love getting down low to discover them. And they make up stories about the gnomes. That really inspired me.”
The Gnomes of Oakland is part three of a series of books that Lofton is creating for and about kids in her hometown. Illustrated by local artist Steven Anderson, the books are a guide to the kid-friendly attractions of Oakland and a reminder that the city can be a magical place for the littlest among us. Each book is also accompanied by an iTunes song, written and performed by Lofton and assorted youngsters.
Reminiscent of Little Golden Books, the books sport colorful spines and a place for children to inscribe their names. The first book, My City Is Oakland, is an homage to all things fun in The Town: ice cream sundaes at Fentons, riding the gondola at the zoo, cheering at a Warriors parade, discovering a new mosaic trash can. The second book, Oakland Bird, details the exploits of a sweater-wearing Lake Merritt pigeon who soars around town with his pals, looking for snacks at the old Kwik Way and encouraging people to pick up trash.
But nothing has quite caught the imagination of Oaklanders like the gnomes. The friendly little fellows — colorful depictions on wood blocks and screwed to the foot of utility poles — originally appeared in the Brooklyn neighborhood in 2013, and gradually spread around Lake Merritt, Chinatown, Lakeshore, Jack London Square, and beyond. No one’s quite sure who created them, but they were an instant sensation. Each gnome is different — some are waving, some have polka-dot mushrooms, some wear kilts. All have pointy hats. Fairlyand, where Lofton reads for storytime, immediately embraced the gnomes.
“Of course, we’re experts on fairies, gnomes, that whole area. So we were delighted when these gnomes started appearing,” said C.J. Hirschfield, executive director of Fairyland, noting that Fairyland is the oldest storybook-themed park in the United States.
“And we love that little kids began searching for them,” she said. “We’re so glad Kamaria has turned this phenomenon into a beautiful book.”
Lofton said she was inspired to undertake the Kids Love Oakland! series by her own happy childhood in Oakland. The daughter of a former Black Panther, Lofton grew up with a deep love for the city, its diversity, and its unpretentious quirkiness. And as the city changes and new people move in, she wanted to impart that love — and preserve her memories — for the next generation.
She started working on the series after she earned her master’s degree in early childhood education from Mills College, not long after her son, Levi, was born. Teaming up with artist Anderson, a classmate and longtime friend, she raised money through GoFund Me to self-publish the books.
The results have been more than she hoped for, she said. She’s printed more than 4,500 so far, and demand is steady. The first batch of 175 copies quickly sold out at Walden Pond Books, said children’s book manager Katie Owens.
“Response has been very, very positive,” she said. “Customers really seem to enjoy them. They’re very cute books.”
They’re not the only kids books about Oakland, however. Owens noted that ABC Oakland by Michael Wertz, A Bird’s Tale by James Robinson, and Oakland Tales: Lost Secrets of the Town by Summer Brenner are also popular.
Clearly, Oakland kids and their families are eager to read books about their city. Lofton said she’s been overwhelmed by the response so far.
“People have come up to me with tears in their eyes, hugged me,” she said. “That so many other people love the city as much as I do — I wasn’t expecting that. It’s just been an amazing experience.”
The series will eventually include seven volumes, including an ABC book.
“After I finished the first book, I thought I’d have time to relax,” she said. “But it’s just been constant. We keep coming up with new ideas, and everyone’s been so responsive. I don’t see it as a destination any more. It just keeps evolving.”
The Kids Love Oakland! series is available at Fairyland, the Oakland Museum, Visit Oakland, Grand Avenue Ace Hardware, local bookstores, and at KidsLoveOakland.com.