‘We wrote a book!’

February 1, 2009

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Mississippi has long been recognized as a fertile source of great writers. And, as anyone knows, even literary giants such as Tennessee Williams and Eudora Welty were 4-year-olds once, and on the verge of discovering the magical worlds between the covers of books. 


So when three pre-kindergarten classes at the Catherine Bryan School in West Point became published authors last week, who was to say a future William Faulkner, Willie Morris or Ellen Gilchrist isn''t among them? 


Teachers Michelle Armstrong, Kimberly Allen and Debbie Lancaster knew they had an exciting opportunity to help their four- and five-year-old charges launch an intimate relationship with books and reading by letting each child become author and illustrator of his or her very own page in a full-color, hardbound keepsake. 


Principal Susan Watts endorsed the innovative idea broached to the school by Armstrong, a longtime pre-K educator. 


Armstrong explained, "As a graduate student at Mississippi University for Women, I took a literacy class, and a personalized book was one of our class projects. I shared it with the other teachers, and three of us decided to try it, so we have three different books."  


While the West Point native''s class created "My ABC''s and Me," Lancaster''s students chose "The ABC''s of Christmas." Allen''s boys and girls produced "Cooking the Alphabet." During December, each child received one-on-one help from teachers to select their letter of the alphabet and the illustration they would create to go with it. 


"It was even better than we dreamed it would be," said Armstrong of the process and finished product. That sentiment was born out Thursday evening at a "publisher''s party," when parents saw their sons'' and daughters'' work for the first time. 


Nationwide Learning Inc., of Topeka, Kansas, published the books, which were pre-purchased by parents at a cost of $17.90 each to cover printing and shipping. 




In the classroom 


"Class, what is the person called who draws the pictures in a book?" Armstrong asks her assembled students. "Il-lus-tra-tor!," 20 or so sweet voices chime out, carefully pronouncing the big word. 


The children are excited, holding their books in their hands for the first time. The project seems to have lit a literary fuse in more than a few. 


"My name is Liam, and I did the letter ''B'' ... because I like drawing me!" Liam Mathis says of the "B is for boy" page he "wrote" and contributed a stick figure self-portrait for. 


The fledgling authors eagerly share ideas of books they''d like to pen when they grow up. Karoline wants hers to be about animals; Tanner would explore the world of aliens. Antonio hopes to write of the swashbuckling adventures of pirates. 


In reviewing the process from start to finish, Armstrong laughingly shares what she remembers as the hardest part. 


"It was just what the publisher cautioned it would be -- letting each page be their work." Resisting the urge to "fix" little personalizations like smudges, gaps, coloring outside lines -- and yes, even the occasional sneeze on the page -- wasn''t always easy. "Every now and then I''d just bite my tongue and step back," the teacher chuckled. 




''A is for angel'' 


In early December, when the endeavor began, Lancaster''s students were bubbling with excitement over the approaching holidays, so they chose "The ABC''s of Christmas" as their concept. 


Lancaster endorses the hands-on undertaking. "I really think the children understand now that everybody can participate in making a book." She went on to stress the school''s goal to get the children "ready for reading." "They''re beginning to recognize and sounds out words," she said, "so the book project seemed the perfect complement."  




''R is for rainbow toast'' 


Something''s always cooking in "Mrs. Kimberly''s" room. The creative instructor lets her students "cook" each Friday, making fun treats like rainbow toast, octopus snacks, bone bites or worms in the dirt, a class favorite made with chocolate pudding, Cool Whip, oreos and gummy worms. 


So what better theme for her class than "Cooking the Alphabet"? Each student posed in chefs'' hats and aprons for their page. Now that the book is out, each Friday they''ll follow the letters of the alphabet to select their weekly recipe. Parents pitch in by contributing one ingredient per month.  


All three teachers declare the project a success and look forward to doing it again next year for their new class.  


Whether there are future noteworthy authors among the student ranks, only time will tell. But one thing is certain: the enterprise, through something as simple as the ABC''s, has awakened an eager awareness of just how books, glorious books, come to life. 


And, after all, even John Grisham had to begin somewhere. 




Books to the ceiling, 


Books to the sky. 


My pile of books 


Are a mile high. 


How I love them! 


How I need them! 


I''ll have a long beard 


By the time I read them. 


~ Arnold Lobel ~

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.