Happy the Crab’s grand adventure begins when he asks himself that very question. He decides playing with a puppy will make him happy, so he stretches himself out of his shell and wanders in search of the puppy that will bring him joy.
The first step in Happy’s adventure is not only the start to an adorable, beautifully illustrated children’s book, it’s also a nod to how Happy came to be in the first place. Christian Rohrbach, Tampa Avenue, created and designed Happy the Crab in 2012 when his daughters, Siena, then 8, and Sage, then 6, were incessantly asking for a puppy, and his solution was to distract them with questions about the origin of happiness.
“When I asked why they needed a dog, they always said ‘We need a dog to be happy’,” says Rohrbach, who works in his home studio as a painter and was worried about the time he would spend training a new pet. “My question back to them was ‘How does anything outside yourself make you happy?’ We have pet hermit crabs, so I started sketching their crabs in the word ‘Happy’ … The character became a conversation piece. We would all sketch the character doing activities that the kids enjoy.”
Drawing Happy the Crab became a regular activity for the Rohrbach family. It was not until Rohrbach learned about the Mt. Lebanon Partnership’s Mini Grant program, which the organization offered in 2014 to help local artists connect their work with the community, that he started thinking about what he could do with the concept.
“I didn’t plan on writing a children’s book,” says Rohrbach, but the Happy the Crab booth he set up at Mt. Lebanon’s Earth Day in 2014 as a sort of concept test study helped him to realize its potential. “Once I saw other kids drawing the character and having conversations about it, I saw the appeal it might have for other families—to slow down the pace of things and draw together.”
His Earth Day experience also revealed that kids are more likely to see the letters that make up Happy’s design than their parents. Often, a kid will simply pick up a marker and begin drawing the character using the letters, with no questions asked. Then, a couple of minutes later, the parent would exclaim “Oh my goodness! That crab is made of the word ‘happy’!”
The Partnership accepted Rohrbach’s grant proposal and he began working on the book with his wife, Stacie, a communication and design professor at CMU. Christian wrote the story, developed the concept and used his painting skills to create the background spreads, while Stacie worked on layout and Happy’s placement on the various backgrounds.
“The biggest challenge I ran into was trying to decide how everything should look so that it’s still approachable for kids. I wanted to keep the simplicity of the character, a character that any kid can draw if they know their letters, while also making sure it is not completely different from some of my other paintings,” says Rohrbach, who paints primarily in the abstract style.
Happy Wanders and Wonders was published in May 2015, and is available for purchase on Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com and Rohrbach’s website, HappyTheCrab.weebly.com, where you can also request a signed copy at no charge.
Rohrbach has been quite busy since the book’s release. He presents at book readings, including the library’s summer reading kickoff in June, where he has learned that Happy tends to appeal to children age 7 and under. He has also started to think about potential Happy the Crab sequels. Proceeds from his Happy Wanders and Wonders sales will go toward funding a second book.
“I still find time to paint, too,” he says. “And I’ve also made time to walk the dog.”
Rohrbach lost the getting-a-dog-battle in 2014, when they welcomed their yellow lab, Speck, meaning “bacon” in German, into their home. Their love for Speck only narrowly trumps the family’s shared enthusiasm for the popular breakfast rasher, and Rohrbach noted that walking Speck is one of the best ways to work off all the bacon.
“I realized that, since I was the initial holdout on getting a dog, I was being the crabby one,” he says. “I considered writing a story about a hermit crab who wants to get a dog to be happy, but then he gets a dog and is miserable. But that just didn’t feel right… So instead I wrote a story about a crab who is looking to find physical things that he thinks will make him happy, but in the end, it’s the act of the searching that winds up providing his happiness.”