The Tale of a Two-Tailed Lizard who Inspired a Lake Worth Beach Writer to Create Children's Books
MONICA NARSIFF IS ABOUT to explain the inspiration behind the series of children’s books she wrote about a two-tailed lizard, an alligator afraid of the water, an opossum afraid of the dark and other eccentric critters.
But first she feels it’s necessary to offer a disclaimer about her fictional world where kids talk to animals and animals struggle with personal insecurities.
“You should know that I think I’ve always been (considered) an odd person,’’ she says with a laugh. “Actually, I think I am fairly normal.’’
While that might sound like a self-deprecating remark, it’s actually a complimentary preface to the story about how the Lake Worth Beach native channeled her personal trials and tribulations into literature for children.
“The Tale of Timmy Two-Tails,” the first of her four self-published books, was born one day in 1990 when Narsiff was a recently divorced mother cleaning houses to make ends meet.
Taking a break outside a client’s home in Boynton Beach, she saw a peculiar-looking lizard lounging on the front porch.
She looked closer and noticed the lizard had two tails. Although not uncommon for anole lizards, Narsiff nonetheless felt a bond with the odd-looking creature.
“I decided to call it Timmy,’’ she said, laughing at the memory. “I started talking to him. I said, ‘Do other lizards pick on you because you have two tails?’’’
The lizard brought her back to her childhood. It reminded her of being bullied at school, where other children sometimes teased her for her dark Lebanese-Italian complexion.
“They called me half-breed,’’ she said. “I never felt like I fit in.’’
Although her parents divorced when she was an infant, she enjoyed a happy upbringing with her two sisters, who called her "motormouth." Narsiff credits the nurturing support of their mother and grandmother.
Her father was Bill Narsiff, the pier master at Lake Worth Municipal Beach from 1960-78. Her mother was Anne Wholf, the design director for Palm Beach Life magazine.
She remembers her grandmother, Mamie Petrunti, taking her to Lake Worth beach and to Sanibel Island every year with Monica’s mother. They brought back seashells that would spill from the shelves of their home.
Her grandmother took her to the Lake Worth library and her mother encouraged her to write well in her school work and to read books. When Narsiff was 9, she read "Charlotte’s Web," a book that would fuel her creative passions.
“That was the start,’’ she said. “Books made an impression on me.’’
Although she always wanted to write, her professional career would take her to the Palm Beach County School District. She worked as the cafeteria manager at Highland Elementary for 17 years and is now a district-wide field manager for the School Food Services Department.
But before she finally got serious about her writing, she was cleaning that house in Boynton Beach when inspiration scampered by in the form of that two-tailed lizard.
OFF AND ON FOR 20 years, encouraged by friends, she worked on “The Tale of Timmy Two Tails,’’ a lizard who “overcomes his fear of being different and champions it, becoming a hero, best friend and a confident lizard in his everyday life,’’ as her website says.
It was 2007 when she finished it on a word document, which she read to children at Highland Elementary. It starts like this:
In a small beach town on the East Coast of Florida called Lake Worth Beach, where a small village of lizards lived, an extraordinary thing happened one day. A special, unusual little lizard hatched from his egg in a large family of lizards. He had many brothers and sisters, and they all looked very much the same — except for Timmy! When he finally grew enough to crack open and crawl out of his little shell, all the other lizards stopped what they were doing and gasped at the sight of little Timmy. No one said a word; they just stared.
She said the kids were enthralled with the story of how Timmy takes two friends — an alligator who’s afraid of the water and an opossum who’s afraid of the dark — on a scary journey to Sanibel Island before Timmy returns to Lake Worth Lizard Village on the back of the Great Osprey.
The 98-page story, with original illustrations by Wellington artist Frank Cochrane, ends with a cute twist that you’ll have to read yourself. (No spoilers here.)
“‘The Tale of Timmy Two Tails’ is about being different and how important it is to just accept yourself and love yourself,’’ Narsiff said. “It has taken me years to learn that. There is so much pressure on children to be accepted and still so many bullies.’’
But for about 12 years, the manuscript sat on a shelf and on her computer files. “I just did not have the confidence to publish,’’ she said.
Then in 2019, during a conversation with a friend at work, she mentioned the story she’d written in 2007. The friend, Nanique Gheridian of West Palm Beach, asked to read it.
“My reaction was that she had a hidden gem,’’ said Gheridian, who encouraged Narsiff to do whatever she could to publish the book, either herself or with a publisher.
It turned out to be just the motivation Narsiff needed to resurrect her writing.
THREE MORE BOOKS followed, starting with “The Turbulent Tale of Timmy Two-Tails.”
Next was “The Tale of a Cat,’’ about animal abandonment, a theme close to Narsiff, who rescues cats. The fourth book, “An Alligators Tale,” touches on animal poaching in Florida and stars a boy who can speak to animals.
A fifth book, “The Tale of a Manatee,’’ is in the works. She also collaborated with Cochrane on a coloring book, featuring images from the story books, that will be released this week.
When she started looking for artists to illustrate her stories, she said the submissions she received looked “too cartoonish” — not at all in tune with the book’s serious themes.
A cafeteria worker at Pahokee Elementary suggested her husband, who is an artist. And that’s how Narsiff found Cochrane, whose style was a fitting match for the story.
“Frank’s illustrations were perfect,’’ she said. “He read the story and he got it.’’
Kathy Worth, a close friend, edits the books.
Many of the characters in her stories are based on actual people and animals. In “The Tale of the Cat,’’ the protagonist is Big Tom, named after an outdoor cat, one of the many ferals Narsiff cares for.
“The Turbulent Tale of Timmy Two-Tails” has a six-legged flying creature, called a Dragomoth, named Nanique — after the friend who encouraged Narsiff to keep writing.
In “An Alligator’s Tale,’’ a character named Ellis is based on her grandson of the same name, which is a whole separate story on its own but is summed up here in the next six paragraphs:
Narsiff’s grandson was named after Ellis Marsalis Jr., the father of award-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who was an influence on the career of Narsiff’s son, musician Charlie Porter.
When Porter was in sixth grade, his mother encouraged him to play the trumpet. A year later, his grandmother, Wholf, took him to a Wynton Maralis concert.
“We went backstage and she told him that I played trumpet. I could have killed her,’’ Porter recalled years later in a Palm Beach Post story. But Marsalis’ response would change Porter’s life.
“He gave me his trumpet (to play for him) and told me some stuff. That moment changed everything,’’ he said.
Porter graduated from the Palm Beach County School of the Arts (now known as the Dreyfoos School of the Arts) and earned degrees from The Julliard School and Manhattan School of Music.
In January 2020, Porter won a Grammy for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album for his collaboration on Songplay, opera star Joyce DoDonato’s crossover album.
WHOLF DIED IN 1996 from lung cancer, and Narsiff said she misses her every day. With her dying mother’s wishes, Narsiff filed a lawsuit against several tobacco companies in 2008. She can't comment on the suit, which is still open.
Narsiff is honoring her mother through the books she writes, stories Anne Wholf helped inspire.
Once she started writing her books, Narsiff said she didn’t pursue a publisher because she didn’t have an agent. Since this was her own personal passion project, self-publishing on Amazon was “the most cost-effective way to create my books and share my stories,’’ she said.
The books are available on Amazon for $8.99 each.
But Narsiff, who has spent about $5,000 on her books project, has donated many of them to the Lake Worth Little Free Libraries. And this week, she will drop some off at the Palm Beach Children's Hospital at St. Mary's Medical Center.
She plans to present the books to the School District in hopes of getting them in school libraries.
She’s marketing the books on social media, where Timmy Two-Tails has his own Instagram feed.
And she hopes to do a reading at the Lake Worth Library and to host a storywalk in Boston, where her cousin lives.
Gheridian, who works in the School Food Services Department, said she hopes the books can find a wider audience.
“Everyone in our department has read them and has a copy, many of whom have young children. And my co-workers tell me their children love the stories,’’ Gheridian said.
“I think there's a great deal of potential in the books. It’s a lovely story. It’s relatable to adults and children, and it’s great storytelling.’’
Narsiff laughed when asked if she might earn enough in book sales some day to retire and focus on her writing full time. She said she’s just happy to be exploring her creative passions.
“I think my stories are fun,’’ she said, “and I think they can help make small humans grow up to be good big humans.’’
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