WEST GARDINER, Maine — Jonathan French of Hallowell is one of those lucky people who truly loves what he does.
He has been a transportation engineer with the Maine Department of Transportation for more than two decades. Recently though, he decided to take on a new endeavor that involved a creative purple character and a lot of rhyming.
In April of last year, French began writing a children's book called "Ronda Loves Roundabouts." It's based on a character named Ronda Bout who, as you may have guessed, is shaped like the infamous traffic pattern: a purple body (to mimic the E-ZPass colors) with a green nose and arms and legs to represent the exits on a roundabout.
"I was looking at my son's books and toys and things like that, and I said to myself, 'There are no roundabouts in here,'" French said.
For him, that was a pretty major letdown. He has designed three roundabouts during his career and says they are more climate-friendly, efficient, and safer than other traffic patterns. He said he believes a lot of people in the United States aren't exactly keen about them because of a lack of education and understanding. French said there are only 10,000 roundabouts nationwide but more than 300,000 traffic signals.
"I think right now we're seeing in America, in general, a lack of road user education at an early age," French said. "That affects roundabouts. It affects all kinds of road-user safety issues."
The publication of French's book was made possible through the Build the Era group, established after Pete Buttigieg became Secretary of Transportation to help educate everyday people about what the U.S. Department of Transportation does.
"We all use roads. We all use bridges," French said about the importance of this knowledge.
"There's an opportunity for people to advocate to get roads fixed, to get a bridge built, to get roadways improved," Bill Bagnall, a board member of Build the Era, said.
French said he's hoping to instill this desire in children at an impressionable age.
"If we can get this education at an early age, kids will absorb it," French said. "[Also], not only kids will absorb it. They’ll pass it on to adults who are reading with them or reading to them. That intergenerational learning is really something everybody can benefit from."
French thanked his illustrator Liyin Yeo who lives in Malaysia and worked with him over WhatsApp. He also thanked another Build the Era board member Mackenzie Stratton who worked with him on developing the Ronda Bout character.
"We designed Rhonda to be whimsical and eye-catching for children," Stratton said.
French said this is the only children's book in the country about roundabouts. You can pre-order a copy here.