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April 12, 2016

From bedtime story to children's book: Philly native writes of barefoot racing in South Philly

The Arts Books
Barefoot Races Illustration Aaron Boyd/Dan Paley

An illustration from Dan Paley's Southwest Philadelphia-set children's book, "Luigi and the Barefoot Races."

Dan Paley's son loves to ask about Philly. 

As if wonderstruck by a faraway kingdom he couldn't set foot in (they live in Irvine, California), Paley's 4-year-old son poked and prodded him one spring night in 2013 about his Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood: who his friends were, what his surroundings looked like, etc. Paley, having grown up in the 1980s in what he describes as a racially tense neighborhood, typically steered clear of answering his son's questions outright.

But this night was different.

"I started telling him about my childhood friend Luigi who I’m still friends with and made up this story. We used to run barefoot on the street, these relay races, and some kids -- not all, but some -- were barefoot," Paley, 36, told PhillyVoice. "I started telling these stories and eventually it grew into a bigger and bigger tale, and I started fictionalizing it quite a bit and adding different things."

His son's eyes lit up with every added detail, he explained. At some point, it stopped feeling like just another casual bedtime story.

"He just loved it and kept asking for it every night and, eventually, I realized I might have something," Paley said.

What he had was "Luigi and the Barefoot Races," the tall tale of Luigi, a scrappy Philly kid pegged as the fastest runner in his South Philadelphia neighborhood. In the 32-page children's book, published in October by Tilbury House, a kid from a surrounding neighborhood challenges Luigi to a race as a sort of lighthearted turf war; Luigi wins but is then challenged again by a mystery racer whose identity is revealed at the story's end. 

Aaron Boyd/Dan Pale

The cover of 'Luigi and the Barefoot Races,' written by Dan Paley and illustrated by Aaron Boyd.

Luigi's story, Paley said, was meant to play on Philly's "underdog mentality." A section of the book following the story even goes into a bit of detail about tall tales and the city's history as one of those underdogs.

"Luigi really embodies that kind of attitude — that 'I’m not going to back down from a fight, and I’m going to give it everything I have and he wins out in the end' mentality,” Paley said. "It's a kind of civic pride I wanted to draw out of the city."

Paley, a West Chester University alum who moved to California for work in 2006, said the book recalls a time when iPads and the internet didn't exist. As one of seven kids, his parents would constantly encourage him to play outside with neighborhood children. There, they would collectively come up with games to occupy themselves -- freeze tag, basketball and, of course, relay races. 

Dan Paley/Dan Paley

Dan Paley, author of 'Luigi and the Barefoot Races.'

“I hope kids will see, or just appreciate, playing outside with other kids," Paley said, explaining the message of his book. "My kids don’t do that very much these days, and I hope they get a sense of the community about being outside together -- simple things like that, I think, are very valuable to childhood.

"But also some themes about courage," he added. "Luigi shows quite a bit of courage in racing against this [mystery racer]." 

Paley will swing by several local bookstores in May for a tour of the book; dates and locations are still to be announced. He's also hard at work on his second book, "Sweet and Salty: A Love Story."