Penelope J. Miller, narrator of Girls Rule

Ashley lives in California.

Dallas writer shares positive story

 

 

by KATHERINE GOODLOE

 

The Dallas Morning News, February 13, 2005

 

        If Ashley Rice were to tell you her story, she probably wouldn't do it herself.

        Instead you might see here Penelope J. Miller, a brown-haired, stick-like

narrator with a pentagon-shaped face whom Ms. Rice created to lead readers 

through the books she writes to encourage young girls. 

        Ms. Rice, 31, has pusblished a collection of books with Blue Mountain Arts,

including the lime-green-colored Friends Rule and the hot pink Girls Rule, which sold more than 150,000 copies. 

        But as Penelope would point out, the real story begins further back.

        The first thing Penelope would show us is a scene from Ms. Rice's high school days at the all-girls Hockaday School in Dallas, where she decorated her friends' lockers in bright posters for track meets, swim competitions and test days. The decor basically amounted to "big greeting cards," she says. 

        And maybe Penelope would let you in on a secret: Ms. Rice was pretty good at this, and in a few years she would have two lines of her own greeting cards. 

        Or maybe she'd take us forward a few more years, to an office building in La Jolla, Calif.

        As a 21-year-old junior at Princeton University, Ms. Rice came to California to intern at Blue Mountain Arts, where she was to find quotes for future greeting cards. But as she collected them, Ms. Rice decided two things: Most of the quotes didn't convey the feelings she wanted, and she preferred just writing the cards herself.

        And so she did. 

        Ms. Rice began giving her boss copies of her own creations alongside the researched quotes, all decorated with colored-pencil sketches of yellow flowers, pink hearts and playful cats. "I just made them as if they were cards," she says. 

        The company decided to test Ms. Rice's designs -- and they did well. 

        Perhaps Penelope would hint at another secret here: The cards tested so well that they would become Ms. Rice's first greeting card line, titled "Backyard Poetry" because of its folk-art feel and emphasis on Ms. Rice's own writings. 

        Or maybe she would take us forward another year, and to another part of California. 

        In 1996, after graduation, Ms. Rice moved to San Francisco to work for Blue Mountain Arts, updating the cards she created as an intern. 

        Among her sketches for the "Backyard Poetry" line was that small sticklike girl with bright clothing, who likely first appeared in a card about friendship. Back then, she didn't even have a name. Still, Penelope "was there almost from the beginning," Ms. Rice says.

 

Encouragement

 

        The next part of the story takes us to Boston three years later, where Penelope's own development would truly begin.

        Ms. Rice began working towards a master's degree in fiction writing at Emerson College while keeping her full-time job as a greeting card designer. But along with her cards on friendship and creativity, she slipped in cards on a new theme: encouraging young girls. It was just as the "girl power" movement was picking up across the country. 

        The idea sprang from her time at the all-girls high school, which Ms. Rice says reminded girls that they could be anything they wanted. But it startled her to meet others who didn't know that -- and Ms. Rice began writing the cards to encourage them.

        "I feel like I, personally, have something to say with the girls' cards," she says. "I feel like it's important for girls to know there's a lot of oportunity out there."

        And having hot pink as her favorite color? "It helps," she says. 

        While in Boston, Ms. Rice began collecting her cards to be published as books. Her first, Girls Rule, would become a top seller. But to make it work, Ms. Rice needed a narrator to weave the cards together. So she turned back to that stick-like young girl and gave her a name.

        "She was the natural narrator for the book," Ms. Rice says. "Some people say she has characteristics of my family."

        And this is where Penelope just might blush.

 

Back to Dallas

 

        But to finish her story, Penelope would have to take us one more place: to a two-story house in Dallas, where Ms. Rice now works in a light yellow studio covered in stencils of butterflies and roses.

        Although steadily creating cards and books, Ms. Rice has a few side projects under way. She's writing short stories for several literary reviews and has kept a novel in the closet since graduate school. She's also writing a book about her grandparents, who owned an Arkansas hog farm.

        "That one is important to me," she says.

        She's also working on a second line of greeting cards, called the Ashley Rice Collection. Her bosses at Blue Mountain Arts say her cards are popular for their optimism and creativity, and her books became popular for the same reasons.

        "Everything is very uplifting," says Doug cLarke, who handles acquisitions and licensing for the company. "It puts a positive attitude on everyone."

        Along the walls of her studio, a small bookshelf holds many of those uplifting stories, including the ten books Ms. Rice has written. Her stories have been published by 25 countries, but only four of the books are out in English, she says. The rest are on the way. 

        Among them is Teens Rule, which will star Penelope's older sister, Amanda K. Miller. But Ms. Rice isn't sure how often the Miller family will be making guest appearances.

        "I keep getting letters from little girls wanting to know more about Penelope," Ms. Rice says. "I think she's the one they relate with."