Everybody’s got a story


Judi Riley was only a few months old before her civil engineer father and nurse mother packed up the family and moved to Hong Kong from Canada. That was hardly the beginning for her rolling stone parents who met in Nova Scotia and lived in England before Judi was born. Judi's birthplace, Montreal, turned out to be a stopover on her parent's itinerary. Before she was two, her family traveled around the world. They flew so often that when her brother got hungry, he pointed at the sky and said, "Let's go up and eat." Her first language was Thai and her first pet was a baby duck that was sadly gobbled up by a wild python. (That's her brother with the ill-fated duck).

Her parents eventually found their way back to Canada and made Toronto a home base. That's when Judi realized a lifelong dream of having a pet that wouldn't be eaten. In the absence of pythons, it didn't take long for her pet population to explode. When her parents said "no!" to another dog (she was set on a great dane) she smuggled a goat into their city home, which plumped her animal count to 24. After neighbors complained, she convinced them her new goat Jesse was really a dog.

Whether by nature or nurture, over the years Judi developed a horrible, itchy case of travelitis. She also learned to windsurf, which exacerbated her condition. For years, she chased the wind to some of the world's best waves. The itch took her to the eastern U.S., Europe, the U.K., Ireland, Venezuela, Mexico and the Caribbean. During high school, she paid for her trips by delivering balloon-a-grams and filling jelly donuts at a local coffee shop. But something nagged at her. No matter where she ended up, she never felt at home. And, she hated jelly donuts...

How'd Judi end up on Maui?

As a windsurfer, Judi was obsessed with Maui's wind and waves, but she'd need to stuff way too many jelly donuts to make it all the way there. Her high school locker was plastered in magazine clippings of Hawaii's windsurfing pro Robby Naish -- freakish for a girl in Canada whose friends favored Tiger Beat posters of Shawn Cassidy, never mind that she dressed Jesse up as the school's mascot for football games. Did I mention, the mascot was a ram? (In case I lost you, Jesse was a goat dressed up as a dog dressed up as a ram.) When Judi graduated from college, her life took a new direction. She was down to just one pet, a geriatric pound dog named Kundera. For the first time, she went west, and followed her windsurfing kid sister to The Gorge in Hood River, Oregon.

In The Gorge, they met sailors from Maui, which sent Judi's case of travelitis into advanced stages. The itch turned into a serious case of full-blown hives that propelled her, uncontrollably, on an impulsive three month windsurfing trip to Maui. (She sent Kundera back to Toronto to stay with friends due to Hawaii's quarantine laws, which, incidentally do not prohibit the importation of Canadian girls with a bad case of travelitis). The moment she landed in Kahului, Judi knew this island was somehow different. She inhaled the fragrant plumeria mixed with a hint of sea air, and inexplicably knew she was home. The hives healed over, the itch disappeared without warning and within 24 hours, she had a car (Das Boot), a shack on the world's best windsurfing beach and she was adopted by an Hawaiian family. She was cured. She was petless, but she was cured.

The 3 month trip came to a close and Judi delayed her flight back to Canada, not once, but six times. Finally cured of her travelitis, but now stricken with her first set of roots, she couldn't pull herself away. Until friends who were taking care of Kundera unexpectedly called. They were done looking after her. So with one phone call, Judi's life changed. She sent for her geriatric dog (who made it through quarantine lockup) and decided to stay on Maui for real. She was home and she had her dog. Life was good. But, how'd she end up writing kids' books?

How'd Judi end up writing kids books?

Let's go back to the beginning. Judi has been writing stories since she was a kid. Her father used to bug her to get her stories published, but she never got around to it. While away at summer camp, she also doodled all kinds of characters on the envelopes she sent home to her father. That's when her Dad suggested she combine her illustrations with her stories to make children's picture books. She thought it was a great idea, but she never got around to it. When she was younger she was too busy looking after her pets. Later, she was too busy chasing the wind.

By the time Judi came home to Maui and was reunited with Kundera, she had made many changes. Sometime between swearing off jelly donuts and burying her pets (who eventually died from natural causes, except for Jesse -- when the neighbors found out that the dog posing as a ram was actually a goat, they had him shipped off to a farm, which is nearly as awful as the day the python ate the baby duck) she took to writing screenplays and commercials and anything else she could wrap her imagination around. Except, she never got around to writing those kids' books. Until she lost something even more precious than a pet.

After Judi's Dad died, she found a stack of envelopes she had sent him from summer camp all those decades before -- her father, the rolling stone who had sworn off possessions, had kept every one of them. That's when she knew it was time to finally get around to it. That's when she wrote her first kid's book -- and you've probably guessed by now that it's about Maui, it's loaded with animals, and it's completely devoid of pythons and meddling neighbors.

Or so the story goes. Judi has lived in rainy Haiku Maui since the early 1990s (she left the beach shack because pets weren't allowed) with her revised family which includes geriatric dog Kundera, great danes Tiki, Sophy and Pirate, and horse Jackson Gray. Judi is also an independent school teacher. She has single-handedly run two independent, private schools on Maui (she teaches every subject but Spanish). Her students have included legendary Hawaiian watermen Matt Meola, Kai Lenny and Ian Gentil, as well as singer Lily Meola, sons of legendary musicians Willie Nelson and Pat Simmons (Doobie Brothers), and Metallica & Tragically Hip Producer Bob Rock's children. Her mum keeps roots in Toronto (but travels frequently), her sister fights off bouts of travelitis with frequent trips to Australia and Europe, and her brother, a pilot, was last spotted catching a bite on a flight to England.

THE END -- Fade to black.

Epilogue -- geriatric pound dog Kundera passed away July 2003, great dane Tiki (who the series is named after) joined her in September 2004, followed by Pirate in 2014. You are missed immensely! New additions to the Riley clan include baby boy Cooper, great dane Mr Ben Barkley, and tortoise Captain Tortellini.

How did a girl from Toronto end up on Maui  (by way of Thailand) writing and illustrating children's books?