One Saturday morning in 1995, Janet Batchelor took her coffee out on the front porch of her country home east of Willis, where she lives with her husband Tom. It was summer, but the temperature was still pleasant, so Janet sat down on her porch swing to enjoy the wooded beauty of the property. Without warning, a lizard appeared on the arm of her swing, and the two beings—one human, one reptile—startled each other. Not being one to shy away from talking to animals, Janet recovered quickly and said, “You look like a little alligator!” She noticed that, thanks to her Texas accent, “alligator” sounded more like “owligator.”
The creative part of Janet’s brain kicked in, and after a few minutes, she realized she had plotted a children’s book her grandchildren might enjoy. So, she went inside and began to write the story in rhyme. “I bet it took an hour,” Janet says. “I felt like it was a gift, because it’s usually not that easy.” Janet entered her manuscript, Al and the Owligator, in the Woodlands Writers Group’s regional contest for children’s fiction. When it won first place in its division, Janet realized perhaps her story had merit. She didn’t want to publish it until it was illustrated, however, so when she ran into snags, she put it aside. But it remained on her bucket list—for 25 years.
Janet, now retired, is in her 70s. In 2020, she realized, “If I am ever going to do this, I had better do it.” So, she contacted an online illustrating company that represents several artists. She was pleased when the owner of the company, Mike Motz, a Canadian artist, liked her book and suggested he do the illustrations himself. He also recommended Will Robertson, who owns the independent publishing company Will Makes Books.
Janet navigated the entire publication process of her book online during the pandemic, and Al and the Owligator was released on November 13, 2020. “I am the only person I know who would publish a book on Friday the 13th in 2020,” she says with a laugh. “One of the grandkids I had in mind when I wrote the book now has children of his own. When you wait 25 years to get to your bucket list, that happens!”
Janet was born in Velasco, Texas, near the Dow Chemical plant where her father and grandfather both worked. “You can’t tell people you were born in Velasco,” Janet says, “because it was blown off the map by a hurricane.” (Today, the area is known as Freeport.) She moved with her family to Louisiana when she was about four, but moved back—to the East Texas town of Woodlake—when she was nine. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven. There were woods and trees,” she says. “I was an outside girl. I was such a tomboy. When I was very young, I asked for a crowbar for Christmas one year.” Janet hasn’t moved away from Texas since.
When she was still a child, Janet discovered she possessed a unique gift. “I have two older sisters, and they are pretty and smart and all the things any little girl would want to live up to,” she says. Janet found her own voice through humor. “I found early on I could make people laugh. It became my shtick,” she says. “I enjoy making people laugh.” This ability served her well. She married young and had four children in 10 years; she jokes that her higher education was “learning from life.” Once, on a “wear your college colors to work day,” she wore black and blue.
Over the years, Janet worked in a variety of positions. “I’m a jack of all trades, master of none,” she quips. Her first job, which she held at a questionably young age, was cracking 300 eggs for breakfast at the Piney Woods Baptist Encampment near her home. Since then, she has worked in the fields of human resources, purchasing, and accounting. She also worked for a plastics company for 11 years. At one point, she lamented the company’s lack of a good system to keep up with raw material inventory. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this,’” she says. So, she invented an inventory system that was so efficient, the company adopted it for use at all its locations. Janet traveled to Denver to teach employees there how to use the system. “Apparently, it worked well,” she says.
Janet’s favorite job was in Cleveland, Texas at a regional hospital that hosted a group for seniors. For 12 years, until her retirement in 2012, Janet coordinated the group’s activities. “I never worked so hard or had so much fun in my life,” she says. The group’s membership swelled to 600, and Janet was able to travel to places like Italy, Scotland, Ireland, and the Canadian Rockies with “30 or 40 of my best friends.” She learned to speak before large groups of people, which was something she never dreamed she’d do. And she made them laugh. “If I could make them laugh, it would make my day,” she says. She also enjoyed helping the seniors participate in activities they wouldn’t do on their own. “Once a year in June, we would get bushels of peas. Eighty-eight people sat around in a circle and shelled peas,” she says. “There were 44 conversations going on.” She reports with a chuckle that her job also equipped her to become an expert Bingo caller.
Always a storyteller, Janet learned during her school days she had a flair for writing stories and poems; while working with the group of seniors at the hospital in Cleveland, she sharpened those skills. She wrote for the group’s newsletter, and her articles, often about travel and health, were also published in the hospital chain’s national publication, Inside Circle, as well as Liberty County Outlook magazine and the Cleveland Advocate newspaper. “I would get such feedback and reaction, it was very gratifying, so I just kept doing it,” she says. She sometimes wrote about the humorous side of growing older, and also found inspiration in everyday occurrences she found funny. For example, once she checked into a hotel, but when she opened the door to her room, a man was asleep in bed. Another time, in search of a public restroom, she went inside a county courthouse and was ultimately locked inside. “Crazy things happen to me,” she says, “and I write about them when they do.”
A few years ago, Janet picked up a copy of Postcards Magazine and subsequently queried publisher Karen Altom. Since then, she has written many articles for the magazine. Some are about travel, such as her piece on Oak Island, Nova Scotia. Other are about personal experiences. For example, she once wrote about her visit to former Houston Oilers’ head coach Bum Phillips’ ranch, where she rode Bum’s horse, Mouse. (Bum was her husband Tom’s junior high and high school coach in Nederland, Texas.) Her article “Pretty Is as Pretty Does,” about the greedy, mean-spirited hummingbirds at her backyard feeder, hilariously theorizes that hummingbirds get drunk on sun-fermented sugar water.
When she’s not making people laugh, Janet enjoys lots of outdoorsy things. She and Tom are fond of their border collies, Boo and Daisy, and they enjoy their 15 acres, which are within the Sam Houston National Forest. “I found a home in the East Texas Piney Woods, and I’m not leaving,” she says. The property is not fenced, so deer, foxes, armadillos, ‘possums, and coyotes often pass through. (So do lizards.) At one point, a feral cat adopted Janet and Tom. “I think he’s meaner than the coyotes,” she says, “so I think he’s safe.”
Janet and Tom also own a 1953 Jeep CJ3B Willys. Several years ago, they had his-and-hers Harley-Davidson motorcycles. “We’ve been over every mountain pass in the west,” she boasts. When they sold the motorcycles, they continued their travels in a Shelby Cobra they built in 2001. Carroll Shelby himself autographed the dash. “I wired the car, and the electrical actually worked!” Janet says. The car won its class in Houston’s AutoRama twice. At 50, Janet took flying lessons and soloed. She and Tom, a retired professional pilot, also built an airplane. At 60, she learned to SCUBA dive. It seems nothing is too outrageous for Janet.
Next on the bucket list
Currently floating around in Janet’s head are another children’s book, a novel, and a humorous book about her family. She also promises a sequel to Al and the Owligator. Meanwhile, the original is available at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and walmart.com. Janet discourages spoilers, but agreed to disclose the book includes examples of problem-solving and shows how the characters learn to accept their obvious differences. The book contains a cleverly-disguised life lesson for children, she says, because “kids don’t like you to try to teach life lessons.” For more information, visit alandtheowligator.com.
Meanwhile, Janet’s goal is for her book to ultimately become a classic. If it takes after its creator, it will.