It was in 1995-96 at Mt. Lebanon High School when LouLou made her stage debut. The play was Alice in Wonderland, and after weeks of tough rehearsal, she put on her razzle-dazzle smile, sauntered into the spotlight and stole the show
LouLou was a pig … literally. The production included a role for a real-life swine. Theater student Dannie Maiolo, class of ’96, just happened to have a father who owned a boarding stable in South Park that was home to a very charismatic pig. LouLou was more than qualified for the job. “She was so happy and upbeat,” says Dannie. “She looked like she was smiling up there.”
Fond memories like this are what led Dannie and her brother Steve, class of ’02, to write a series of children’s books, Joe and the Little Red Barn, based on the larger-than-life animals of their childhood.
“We tried to incorporate each animal’s personality into the books,” says Steve. LouLou is the funny pig with a positive attitude; Dundee the dog is kind, loyal and brave; Opie is an aloof, silly goat who has no idea what’s going on around him; Crackerjack is a sure-footed, trustworthy horse; Licorice is a tough old pony who loves chocolate cake and will steal French fries right out of your hand. All of these animals were real—they all lived in the Maiolos’ red barn, and they are the cast of characters in the siblings’ first foray into writing.
The animals have been further immortalized as plush toys. Dannie and Steve released four books, which come in a barn-shaped cloth carrying case filled with mini versions of the characters to encourage kids to imagine and play.
Their favorite character is Joey the farmer, named after their late father. The real Joseph Maiolo grew up in the city, but was a country boy at heart. He spent long hours indoors as a pharmacist and dreamt of coming home to a place where he could tend to his horses and enjoy some fresh air. His wife, Toni, didn’t want to live in the country, so they compromised—they raised their family on Sunrise Drive in Mt. Lebanon but also opened the boarding stable in South Park to help support his passion for animals and the outdoors.
Joseph died in 2006, and the Maiolos sold the farm in 2015 because it became too difficult to manage along with Dannie and Steve’s busy careers.
Steve lives on Vallevista Avenue and teaches seventh grade at Peters Township Middle School. He credits his Mt. Lebanon baseball coach, history teacher Patrick McCloskey, for sparking his interest in becoming a teacher. “We stay in contact from time to time. You know, to trade trade secrets,” says Steve. Dannie lives in Cedarhurst Manor and works as a lawyer and organizational coach. She has a 2-year-old daughter, Carson, who already shares her family’s passion for animals. “We have a horse now, called ‘Huckleberry.’ Carson absolutely loves him,” says Dannie.
“The books are a nice way to tell Carson the stories we grew up with and introduce her to her grandfather,” says Steve. Joey is the only character in the series who talks directly to the reader. It is another way that they have chosen to honor their father’s memory.
“It is sad for me that Carson never got to see the barn or meet him and the animals,” Dannie says. “It has been really nice that she gets to experience our stories the way we like to tell them.”
Each book highlights a theme the siblings believe is important for kids. The first book, Where is Opie?, is about keeping a positive attitude. Joey’s Jump for Opie teaches persistence, Where’s that Silly Goat? teaches courage, and Opie being Opie brings all the lessons together with the theme of decision making. “Book three really resonates with me, because it is about pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. It’s a message I would really like to hit home for my daughter,” says Dannie.
Dannie and Steve both have personal experience with that lesson, as writing a children’s book has proven challenging. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes. . Our first draft was absolutely horrible,” says Dannie, “We had to go through a number of iterations. But for two people who have never done anything like this before, it has been interesting. We learned lessons and had a lot of fun doing it.”
At press time, three of the four books were available at www.LittleRedBarnBooks.com and on Amazon. Steve and Dannie expect all four will be available, plus the barn-shaped carrying case and animal toys, by the time this is published.