When Rhys Griffin was in intermediate school, he had a dream. Walking through Barnes & Noble, he spied a book cover with a little green train named Tucker plowing through a blizzard.
When Griffin woke up, he grabbed his idea journal.
“I wrote the idea down, drew the character, and saved it so I could put it to future use,” he said.
Fourteen years later, the San Jacinto College alumnus has brought the little engine to life in his children’s storybook “Tucker and the Christmas Train.”
Trains have fascinated Griffin his entire life. Long after his peers had moved on to other interests, he still enjoyed watching “Thomas and Friends.”
“I wanted to learn more about trains, see how they worked,” he said. “My interest grew from there.”
Griffin also connects the fascination to his being on the autism spectrum and having attention deficit disorder. Growing up, he struggled making friends and daydreamed during classes.
“It was very hard for me to be social as a kid,” he said. “My interest in Thomas -- it stuck with me longer than it would have with most kids.”
Griffin faced his share of bullies in school, so it’s no surprise he turned to his idea journal. He often recorded ideas, from movie and book plots to video games. Even before college, he dreamed of filmmaking and voice acting.
“One thing I loved as a kid was telling stories,” he said. “I personally think film is the best way to do that. Watching a story on the big screen is an amazing experience.”
Ticket to new destinations
As Griffin entered his teen years, his interests moved beyond trains.
In 2012, he enrolled at San Jacinto College for a general studies degree. With his interests expanding to “Transformers,” “Supernatural,” and “Sons of Anarchy,” he found more to discuss with new peers.
“People were a lot more mature, laid-back, cool,” he said. “I was able to talk to people about more things. It just became an easier experience for me once I reached college.”
Elective video courses strengthened his dream of a filmmaking career. After earning his associate degree at San Jac, Griffin completed a bachelor’s degree in communication.
Today he builds his portfolio through contract work and voiceovers for Spectrum Fusion Media, a team of adults with autism who provide creative media for corporations like Johnson & Johnson.
Locomotive comes to life
In 2019, Tucker reentered the picture. Griffin decided to spin a tale for guests at an upcoming Spectrum Fusion Christmas party.
Recalling Tucker, he finally penned the story about the little engine pulling Christmas cargo through a blizzard. At the party, he sat down with a poster-sized sketch of Tucker and shared the story for the first time.
“The people loved it so much that they wanted it to become a book,” he said.
Inspired, Griffin worked with Spectrum Fusion founder Heidi Ham and editors to revise the story for children. He laughs that he had to scale back on his train expertise.
“I had to make it more accessible -- not so much train fan knowledge,” he said.
Ham connected him to New York illustrator Liz Pritchard, who is also on the autism spectrum. They emailed her a rough drawing of Tucker for inspiration, and within minutes, she had emailed back a sketch that is now the book’s cover image.
By November 2020, Griffin had all Pritchard’s illustrations in hand and sent the formatted pages to a self-publishing company.
Danger on the rails
Rhys Griffin, on achieving your dreams:
"Even if people criticize you, don't let that get you down. Use that as motivation. Prove the naysayers wrong and listen to your supporters."
Although Tucker draws inspiration from Thomas the Train, “The Polar Express,” and “The Little Engine That Could,” he could represent Griffin himself.
Tucker dreams of hauling large railway cars filled with holiday supplies like yule logs and hot cocoa to the North Pole. When the little steam engine gets a chance to pull the cars through a blizzard, he must overcome his fear of crashing.
“Something that people on the autism spectrum have is fear of failure,” Griffin said. “In the book, another train crashes. Tucker witnesses that and thinks, ‘Oh, no! What’s going to happen to me if I go through a blizzard?’”
Griffin relates this to his own fear of fire. As a boy, he hurt his finger after sticking it in a candle flame.
“Working with Spectrum Fusion, I was able to learn how to handle fires, how to light candles safely,” he said. “I’m still working on my own fears.”
Full steam ahead
Published in December 2020, “Tucker and the Christmas Train” sold as a hardcover on the Spectrum Fusion website.
“It feels like I accomplished something really big,” Griffin said. “It’s overwhelming but exciting -- the fact that something you made is being shared around town and other places too.”
He has also completed a second children’s book, “The Hungry Lady and the Bear,” coming out in early 2021. But Griffin has bigger dreams: directing films. Like “The Little Engine That Could,” he steams ahead with the motto “I think I can.”
“Even if people criticize you, don’t let that get you down,” he said. “Use that as motivation. Prove the naysayers wrong and listen to your supporters.”