Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Nonfiction Author's Dream

When I arrived, the royal court was assembled in full fancy dress. I was instructed to hide behind the castle wall. The crowds rustled and waited. Someone handed me a tiara and a wand. "You'll need to wear this," she said. Ha, ha! I'd always secretly pined for a tiara. I donned my finery and walked out beneath the crossed swords of the counselor and the voice therapist. Music blared. Crowds roared. I was seated on a throne.

Trumpets sounded. "We declare the next three days to be April Pulley Sayre days in the kingdom of Libraria!" The crowd went wild. Performances began. First the staff (all in royal dress) conducted a play celebrating alliteration and other writing techniques that create compelling nonfiction, specifically mine.

Could a nonfiction author ever hope for such a reception? Yes. This really happened to me last week at Battle Ground Elementary in Indiana. And, no, that's not me in the queen outfit. That's a teacher! This staff is extraordinary. They love words. They not only read my books; they analyzed the books and studied the writing techniques. Their classrooms are full of active writing. Even the smallest child there knows onomatopoeia and alliteration. The staff had training in many areas of writing. And they were actually using it.

After the faculty put on the play, classrooms and grades stood for their contributions. Songs of bumblebees and feeding larvae. Songs to celebrate Trout Are Made of Trees. Chants about libraries. Songs about reading, accompanied by percussion and conducted by the music teacher. A multi-part rendition of Ant, Ant, Ant: An Insect Chant, complete with homemade paper insects on sticks. Trout, Trout, Trout: a Fish Chant was performed by pairs of students who sported fish headbands. They had created hand motions appropriate to each fish name. Thirty or so students with recorders stood up and played to accompany one piece. Students with beautiful bird masks spoke the words to Bird, Bird, Bird: a Chirping Chant.

Surely this was fiction or at least a dream. Hadn't I just been to a school where none of my books were in the library, no one knew my work, and the classroom teachers were in a meeting during my talk? Well, yes. Two weeks before I had been to one of the worst schools of my career. This amazing school, in the very same state, had to be a hallucination.

Yet it was real. Making reading and writing joyful is not a one day effort to show off for a visiting author. The royal play I had witnessed was part of a year long theme. Original mini-plays celebrating writing and reading are written by teacher Jolene Freeman and conducted three or four times a year as part of a huge reading celebration that culminates with a community event involving parent volunteers.

This is a public school. It is not a rich school in a fancy area. They save up to bring in an author every other year. They are in the countryside. They have a relatively high proportion of Title I students who face varying challenges. This is a staff that works very hard to create this learning environment. They are daily, creatively bringing out the best in their students. They do this even though this year they are split between two buildings down the street from one another. One librarian with two libraries. One principal with two school buildings. I saw the principal pitch in and help with anything and everything that needed doing—all the way to clearing plates and setting up books for a signing.

Thanks to an extraordinary art teacher, the walls were blooming with gorgeous art related to my books. Art animals migrated everywhere in honor of my book, Home At Last. Sponge-print whales swam the hallways. Chalk and glue-relief turtles flippered past. Block print lobsters walked along the floors. Butterflies with see-through tissue wings fluttered in the air.

Educators created poetry, nonfiction books, science diagrams and other projects to go with Trout Are Made of Trees, The Bumblebee Queen, and other books. Connie Hayman, the well loved, practically legendary librarian who had invited me, had retired. Yet the new librarian, Mrs. Sturgeon, embraced this author day with gusto. When some faculty were less than excited about a nonfiction author coming, she wrote promos to get them interested in the books. Soon, all faculty members were on board. They love lyricism and narrative techniques. A few were surprised to find it in nonfiction. Of course, as INK readers, we know better. Great nonfiction techniques are on display in the books discussed here every day.

I have been fortunate to visit many schools that go the extra mile to celebrate nonfiction and incorporate writing into students' lives. I share their photos and ideas on my website. But this school? Well, I'm kind of still glowing about it. This experience should get me through hard work ahead.
Yes, I still have the plastic tiara. I think I'll put it on and go write a book.


Gretchen Woelfle said...

Lucky children! Lucky you! I'd love to hear about the presentations you give to the kids. BTW, the tiara suits you!

Infant Bibliophile said...

I just left your site an "award" on our blog (

The Book Chook said...

Thank you so much for posting about this school. I feel as if I experienced it all with you and I'm so thrilled!

It is heartwarming and inspirational to read about centres of learning where there is such joy and creativity. Congratulations, too, for being their inspiration.

MJ Murphy said...

I will share this with the staff at my school, and immediately look for your books in our library.
Any books that create so much enthusiasm and creativity are must-haves. I am so happy that you were treated with such respect and admiration.

Mary Lee said...

What a dream school! And high time someone crowned you, Princess April!

Rebecca Shandera said...

Wow what a wonderful experience! I would so love for my son to go to a school like the one you described. It made me want to be a part of that school.

ReadingTub said...

Oh how wonderful for everyone! Thanks for sharing this fabulous visit.

carolyn said...

What a wonderful school! And they sent you home with a tiara... Dreamy.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad that you liked my school. We had so much fun hosting you! It's really nice to read that you liked your visit so much.
--1st grader, BGE

MotherReader said...

Inspirational. Thanks for sharing it.