Maplewood illustrator recreates classic fables

Mike Wilke, writer and illustrator for Cornerstone Stories, says his favorite fable he’s done is “The Bearded Fool,” a story about a man who decides to burn part of his beard off after reading that all men with long beards are fools. “I did relate to it,” Wilke laughs. (Kaylin Creason/Review)

Maplewood illustrator Mike Wilke exhibits comics from his book “Watermelon Bones: The Sequel.” (Kaylin Creason/Review)

Political cartoonist Mike Wilke, 58, has been drawing for most of his life, but he’s never done anything like this. For the past year, Wilke has been illustrating fables for children’s books.

Wilke is a featured artist for Cornerstone Stories, a newly launched social business that allows people to create personalized storybooks from a selection of illustrated fables.

“Our mission is to preserve, promote and pass on these stories, these fables that are neglected, and to help build cross-cultural understanding and awareness,” says Cornerstone Stories founder Jeff Ochs, a resident of St. Paul’s East Side.

Wilke. a Maplewood resident, started collaborating with Cornerstone Stories about a year ago after a friend introduced his work to Ochs.

Now, Wilke has written and illustrated half a dozen fables for Cornerstone Stories, more than any other artist for the company. Wilke finds inspiration from a variety of old tales, from Aesop’s fables to Greek stories to Indian parables.

“I never thought about doing a children’s book,” he says, “until (Cornerstone Stories) came up.”

Wilke’s creative start

Wilke’s interest in illustration began when he was a kid.

“I wanted to be a comic strip artist,” he says.

He sent his comics to newspaper syndicates, but none of them made it to the presses. That’s what inspired him to get in touch with his local paper. Though he was hoping to draw storyline comics for the paper, he didn’t miss a beat to say that he could draw political cartoons when the editor asked him, even though he’d never drawn one before in his life.

Now, nearly four decades later, he’s still drawing his distinctive one-panel cartoons. He has even won statewide awards for them, one from the Minnesota Newspaper Association for a cartoon that ran in the Review.

He says recreating fables is very different.

“It’s a different process,” he says. “I’ve got to rethink a lot of what I want to put in there.”

It’s often an exhausting effort: he storyboards the work, consults with the publisher and then revises his work again and again until it is just right.

“I erase a lot,” he laughs.

Fable-writing is also a much longer process - each story is 8-10 panels instead of the one-panel political punchlines he usually writes for the paper.

But the end result is worth it - for Wilke and Ochs both.

“It’s my take on the world of fables (and) I enjoy that,” Wilke says.

“Every artist kind of gets to take their own style, their own vision to the story,” Ochs adds. “You end up with a diverse set of styles in the same catalog, and yet there’s a lot of beautiful consistencies. It’s just a really beautiful project.”

Cornerstone Stories’ story

Cornerstone Stories is a self-described “social business,” one that exists to make a social impact and a profit.

“Right now, thousands of fables and parables from around the world are disappearing from our collective memory,” the website explains. “Because these stories belong to the public, most companies do not invest in them. The result is that much of the world’s wisdom is trapped in library archives and never illustrated.”

Ochs, who launched Cornerstone Stories in 2013, is known for pioneering  businesses that make an impact. In 2003, he founded Breakthrough St. Paul (now Breakthrough Twin Cities), a summer program that helps under-represented and low-income students prepare for college. In 2011, he and graphic designer Patricia Hayes Kaufman developed the MENSA award-winning educational game, Snake Oil.

When Ochs, with  help from Kaufman, started developing Cornerstone Stories in 2012, he was inspired by a need he saw in his own family.

Cornerstone Stories came out of a “personal desire for my wife and I to have a way to take ownership of the books we would put in front of our daughter.” Ochs says, adding they wondered what kind of value system they wanted to raise their kids with.

Each of the fables offered by Cornerstone Stories illustrates a moral lesson, something which Cornerstone Stories’ customers appreciate.

“I love stories that provide a moral, and I think the four stories that I included in my grandson’s book were applicable to things we had discussed in some way or another in the recent past,” says Lynn Holly, who purchased a book for her grandson for his fifth birthday.

She says that while the fables may be available in the public domain, the ability to personalize the books makes Cornerstone Stories unique and valuable. Not only do customers get to select the four stories they want to include in their child’s book, but they can also personalize the cover and the page in each story on which the lesson is written out with the child’s name.

Cornerstone Stories provide “a very nice, high quality, personalized book of stories that parents, grandparents and children can share and learn from,” Holly adds. “Their value is in being able to select a number of applicable, well-illustrated stories that kids can relate to their own lives.”

Ideas keep coming

Cornerstone Stories currently offers 20 fables in English, Spanish and Chinese, but Ochs hopes to expand that selection this year.

“It’s hard to say right now how quickly we’ll be able to add (new stories), but I’d like to be at 50 maybe by year end,” Ochs says.

Wilke adds that he has plenty of ideas for new stories when the company calls for them. For now however, he is content to work on his own projects. 

Writing and illustrating Cornerstone Stories is a new challenge for Wilke, but this isn’t the first time his work has been published in book form.

Twenty-five years ago, he self-published an anthology of cartoons in his book, “Watermelon Bones: Part One.” Three months ago, he wrote the sequel.

His cartoons cover a hodgepodge of topics, from the dating scene to Scrabble to texting and driving.

The ideas “just kind of come to me,” he says.

He is currently working on part three of “Watermelon Bones.” so hopefully readers won’t have to wait 25 years between books this time.

Wilke will be selling “Watermelon Bones” parts one and two at the North St. Paul History Cruze Car Shows on Friday nights throughout the summer.

To read Wilke’s fables on Cornerstone Stories, or to purchase a book from Cornerstone Stories, visit

Kaylin Creason can be reached at or at 651-748-7825.


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