Monday, July 13, 2015


Susan L. Roth, the award winning author and illustrator of 45 books including Hands Around the Library, Parrots Over Puerto Rico, and The Mangrove Tree was recently a part of an amazing writing program in Blue Springs, Missouri. In a guest blog, she shares her experiences at Pencil Tips Writing Workshop.  

A summer school writing program involving 900 students was created and initiated by the Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, for the entire Blue Springs R-IV School District (Dr. Annette Seago), later working together with Liz Nealon, co-creator and publisher of StarWalk Kids Media, the E-publisher of many of my books.

The participating children, from grades K-8, were required to write a non-fiction work for an all-program competition. Separate winners were to be chosen respectively, one from each of these three separate age groups: kindergarten-2nd grade, 3rd-5th, and 6th-8th.

All children were then exposed extensively to age-appropriate non-fiction books, and especially, after I had agreed to participate, to ones I had written and/or illustrated. My part in this project was to help to choose the final winner in the 3rd-5th category, and then to illustrate the winner’s book for eventual e-publication.

The writing teachers amazingly sifted through every single one of the 900 entries. They selected five first cut winners for me (and my publisher) to read. Our job was to choose the one that would be best for me to illustrate and for the publisher to publish. 

The plan: to make a REAL BOOK happen.

All five selections were surprisingly excellent, each diverse in subject and style, and each interesting. With difficulty, we finally chose PLANTS AND ANIMALS, written by a 9-year-old named Violetta. This one, we agreed, was perfect for the project. The publisher notified the program coordinators and they, our winner, Violetta, who was ecstatic.

Warning: This is not, everyone admits, a project designed for equal opportunities for each of the 900 children. But it was so successful with its one-to-one design, that I, as well as the others, feel we need to take advantage of the happening and work to find a way to broaden the wonderful experience.

In the attractive library at Daniel Young Elementary School in Blue Springs, Missouri, Violetta and I sat at one of the several library tables for about four hours without getting up! Two writing teachers were also in attendance. Together Violetta and I explored the way to illustrate a non-fiction text, one step at a time.

Together we:
1-read and re-read the text;
2-we divided the text into pages;
3-we made a quick storyboard;
4-we corrected the storyboard;
5-we made a tiny dummy to make sure that our pagination was correct (it wasn’t, we corrected it);
6-we made a small, but precisely proportional-to-the-book-size dummy, and numbered its pages. We cut the text into pieces, and taped each piece to its proper page;
7-we discussed possible images and sketched several possibilities on separate papers;
8-we sketched our ideas directly into the real dummy. Sometimes we disagreed. We talked out our different approaches until we reached agreement. Each of us did this without feeling that one of us was ever dominating the project.

And at that point this amazing 9-year-old child, who had been sitting still for almost four straight hours with a stranger she just met, jumped up and confessed that she HAD to run a little. And she flew from one end of the library to the other again and again until she was out of breath. Then she flopped back down in her chair, renewed.

We went back to work for a bit after that, refining the drawings, but mostly just admiring what we had accomplished together, and then school was dismissed and Violetta was out the door.

And I was swept away to my hotel where I was to create the first page of art to present at the ceremonies on Wednesday.

I must admit that before I went to work with Violetta my feelings about this project were a little mixed. Certainly it is not revolutionary to feel that the children themselves should have created their own illustrations for their own books. Actually, I raised my concerns as soon as I arrived at Daniel Young School. But, I was told, this was not our project this time, even though it might be, another time. THIS summer program in Blue Springs R-14 School District was for WRITING.

And all the children DID write. Their writing efforts were taken very seriously by the official mentors. The participants were individually named and each was individually awarded with a special writing medal and a special certificate at the ceremony on Wednesday. All their writings were exhibited on tables set out in the hallways of the school. Most of the parents came to the ceremony so that there was a good audience for all.

I thought all of this was wonderful. But none of this was my takeaway.

The extraordinary thing that happened was the adult to adult collaboration, one to one, between Violetta and myself as we were sitting together quietly for all those adult hours in the library. It was a genuine collaboration, and our 62 year age difference (who’s counting and none of your business, besides) did not enter into the equation.

Could the other 899 kids ever have a similar experience? Would I, ever in a million years, be capable of repeating this lovely interval another 899 times? NO! is the quick and true answer.

But, the two dedicated and gifted writing teachers who silently witnessed this amazing, lovely teaching event, and I, are all determined to figure out a way to do this (or maybe at least something LIKE this) for more children, more often.

We are starting with a proposed Skype session, scheduled for July, to coincide with an annual writing teachers symposium also to be held in Blue Springs, Missouri.

My most important job is going to be to try to analyze the magic that took place. I hope to be able to transmit the taste of the moment. Our collective goal is to figure out a way that eventually the children themselves will be able to reproduce the one on one exchange, with each participant wearing his own hat: that would be the writer, writing, and the illustrator, illustrating, but with each, LISTENING, and each THINKING, and each COLLABORATING, each, working towards their mutual common goal, TOGETHER.

I suppose this is what is happening, internally, when one is both the writer and the illustrator as I usually am, but somehow, with the two individuals working together the process becomes all the more exciting.

The amazing, happy alliance, the give and take, the discussion and the execution by the two different people, TOGETHER, was all so very special. I hope that this report can convey a little of our shared excitement, and that perhaps it can inspire future experiments, with intense involvement, one on one, but completely together.

As for our own experiment, I’m sure that our day was one that Violetta will hold dear forever. Surely I will as well.

P. S. I am presently working on completing the rest of the art for Violetta’s book. It will be published as soon as I finish, by StarWalk Kids Media. Please look for it! Fan mail cheerfully accepted.

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