Children's authors write for the love of it


Four local writers talk about their creations By Cindy Richards

Illustrations by Madeleine Avirov

Summer time is reading time--at the beach, in the yard, during those long car rides to the cabin. And it's not just a fun way to pass the time. It's an important education tool: Research shows kids who don't read regularly over the summer can lose as much as 25 percent of the reading skills they gained during the school year. Reading is at the heart of all learning, yet 40 percent of American children aren't reading at their grade level, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Children who can't read well, can't learn. That's why every teacher, librarian and reading expert agrees: Reading with your children, offering them a variety of things to read and making sure they see you read regularly are the keys to helping them learn to read. To kick off the summer reading season with a Chicago flair, we offer a glimpse into the psyches of four of the many Chicago area children's authors. Here's what they had to say about their books, their writing and the drive that keeps them going. So much more than feelings Sadness is a cloudy, tired feeling," says the young guinea pig in the charming children's book, When I Feel Sad, by Cornelia Maude Spelman. The Evanston author wants to let all young guinea pigs--and of course, all young children--know that it's OK to feel sad...or angry...or jealous...or scared. The simple story is told from the point of view of a very young guinea pig who is sad when he gets left out, loses something special or gets hurt. When his mother allows him to share his feelings and comforts him, he begins to feel better and concludes, "When I feel sad, I know I won't stay sad!" When I Feel Sad was chosen for a Golden Award from the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio and was featured on "The Early Show" on CBS last fall in a special on the 9/11 anniversary. This is Spelman's fourth book in "The Way I Feel" series, focusing on helping preschoolers accept their emotions. Spelman, a consultant, author and therapist specializing in child abuse and neglect, believes acknowledging feelings, especially the uncomfortable ones, is the first step to becoming an emotionally healthy person. The series started in 2000 when Spelman approached her publisher, Albert Whitman, with the book, When I Feel Angry, and then offered to write similar books based on different emotions. Her editor chooses the illustrator for the books, and although Spelman has little input into the artwork, she offers suggestions after seeing the first sketches. The fifth book, When I Feel Good About Myself, has just been published. When I Feel Jealous is pending. Spelman also is working on an adult book that delves into her own family's past that is "part memoir, part mystery." She is an artist as well, and hopes to someday illustrate her own children's books. Her Web site,, features a monthly newsletter, Helping Children, that includes articles on "Listening to Children," and "Keeping Children Safe from Child Abuse." Spelman hopes the books will help parents as well, and includes a full-page note at the beginning of each book. "My objective," she says, "is for parents to find some healing through these books as well as young children. After all, many of us did not experience being understood and listened to." Spelman suggests that parents accept their children's feelings rather than denying them, help them to put a name to their feelings, let them know that their feelings are normal and reassure their children that they are accepted and loved. And her advice to parents in this post-9/11 world? "Protect your kids from too much TV, including and perhaps especially the news. You wouldn't open your window to a hailstorm...why would you let your young children listen to reports that promote terror? Our job as parents is to help interpret the world for our children and to be calm ourselves. Read your children nice stories, have dinner with them, go on walks together. Keep a garden of peace." Shelley Sutherland An author thanks her mom A little goldfish named Chelsea was bent on creating big waves in her little artificial pond. She knew her mind and didn't give up until she got what she wanted. Chelsea's New Home details the adventures of the little fish as it works towards making its dream come true. Created by Buffalo Grove mom and author Kimberley Levy, Chelsea has a dream: To live in a natural pond, to be free. A part-time bookkeeper, Levy's early writing experience was mostly rhyming toasts delivered at family gatherings. Levy's mother Bobbie Gerol, who had been raised to stick to what was deemed appropriate for girls, didn't want her daughters to have boundaries. She urged her to go past toasts and take a writing class at Northwestern University in Evanston. Chelsea was born there when the fish tale was written as an assignment. "When I began writing it, I didn't have the whole theme in mind or the moral of the story worked out. It unfolded on its own," says Levy. "But Chelsea is unafraid to go after what she wants. I am like that, too, and have given her that part of my personality." The story sat in a drawer for a year and a half. Levy says she was too close to the character to risk sending it to publishers. "I sent out eight other manuscripts, but would hate to see Chelsea rejected as well, so I didn't send it," she says. When typed out, Chelsea was six pages long--at least two pages more than children's book publishers typically want. And the tale is written in rhyme, another detail publishers aren't receptive to. After her mother died in 1998, Levy decided to self-publish 3,000 copies of Chelsea's New Home. "My mother wanted to have a book dedicated to her. And she always wanted me to write a children's book," says Levy. "I had read the story to my children and even though at that time it was just a manuscript without pictures, I had managed to hold their attention," she says. She had the same experience in a classroom of youngsters. Those children even asked questions about the character, which Levy considered to be proof the book was worthy of print. Levy's daughters, Courtney, 12, and twins Mackenzie and Cassidy, 8, were her first critics. They initially had a problem with how the fish could live outside water. "And I would explain to them how there was fiction and non-fiction. And Chelsea could exist just as much as Winnie-the-Pooh and dragons in Dragon-land," says Levy. The book is available in Chicago area children's book stores and on the Web at Levy also offers it for school fundraisers--a partnership that gives her another sales outlet and gives the schools 10 percent of the proceeds. Taking Chelsea into classrooms, Levy speaks about following dreams. "I take a stack of all the versions of this book to schools so that the children can see that the published story wasn't written in a single sitting. There were lots of edits," she says. "Chelsea, too, faces many hardships but she never gives up." Teachers have used the book to calm their students' fears about change. "When talking to her class of first graders, one teacher read the book to comfort her students who were going to the second grade. It allowed them to talk about change and how Chelsea handled it, how she eventually made new friends and liked her new environment," says Levy. Levy says children seem to love the story. "They think it's cool that the fish can live outside water. They like the fact that things the fish finds scary are really funny things and aren't really so scary," says Levy, referring to Chelsea's reaction when she sees a boy skateboarding. "No matter how difficult the hurdles, at no point does the fish look really terrified and panicked. She never gives up. Kids like that." Naazish YarKhan Inspiring creativity As educators, Romeoville residents Wendy Streit and her husband, Caleb Bland, frequently find themselves battling creative inertia in their students. "If all you do is consume someone else's creative accomplishments, then it starts to crush your creative spirit," says Bland, an illustrator and teacher at Illinois Institute of Art in Schaum-burg. "Our goal is to find a balance that will breathe life into the creative spirit." This was the inspiration for a series of children's books introduced last year. Well, at least one of the inspirations. Streit, a middle school language arts teacher, was getting her master's degree and used a class assignment to develop the books which incorporate their Christian religious beliefs. The planned eight-book Great Lakes Series is aimed at 8- to 15 year-olds. The books combine stories and activities to connect with kids through eight different learning styles. (First presented by Howard Gardner in his book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, those styles are: linguistic, mathematical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, spatial, kinesthetic, musical and naturalist.) Each story is set in a Great Lakes state and focuses on a single learning style. A short story shows someone "modeling" that style. Accompanying activities and blank journal pages encourage readers to create their own corresponding works. While the books are written from a Christian perspective, kids of any background can relate to the themes. Book I, Skarskantuana follows a young woman's search for folklore about mysterious "skarskantuans"--trees able to get up and walk. Themes of identity and stewardship of nature are woven in the story and the activities that follow. But each book--while based on the same idea--is different. For example, Book 1 is targeted to a "naturalist" learner--someone who likes the outdoors, is an observer and works best alone or with one other. The hard cover has an earthy look and the text is printed on natural fiber paper. A recycled newspaper pencil is included. Book II, Flossmire for the "spacial" learner, has a black vinyl cover, illustrations reminiscent of Sharpie marker drawings and an overall grimier "industrial" look for the mechanically-minded. In the story, two junior high boys living in a has-been industrial town have a dilemma: Should they confront conflict in their neighborhood, or run away from it? Using their mechanical abilities, along with a little "magic," they escape from their dreary town and learn some lessons in prudence, wisdom and courage. In each book, the short story is meant to engage readers of all creative styles and get them more interested in reading, writing or creating. However, Bland says, "If it happens to touch a deeper level because it reflects their own learning style, kids are even more likely to want to do the activities, to journal, to create, to explore and do their own stuff." The couple plan to issue a new book every nine months or so. Book I and Book II are currently available for $21.95. Call (866) 647-8201 or visit Lara Krupicka Whimsy tells the story Some books entertain you, others tell stories you identify with and still others remind you of the important things in life. Writer and illustrator Charise Harper, 39, is the author of books that do all of that with whimsy. A freelance illustrator before she had a baby, Harper now writes and illustrates books while her infant sleeps. When I Grow Up has characters trying to grow up confident, caring, generous, adventurous and fair. "Those things are so much more important than professions," she says. "They are qualities that one has to constantly aspire for no matter what one's age. The qualities are based on real people, friends of mine that have those traits." Parts of the illustrations are childhood photographs of those people. There Was a Bold Woman is dedicated to her mother and tells the tale of a bold woman who aspired for the stars and wouldn't rest until she had pocketed one. "I have a really great mother," says Harper. "As a child, we didn't have much money, but my mother spent so much time influencing us to be creative and to be positive that this was a 'thank you' to her." Harper's mother, Doreen Boitard, lives in Canada and makes sure all nearby bookstores carry her daughter's books. Harper's third book, Imaginative Inventions, written during a holiday vacation, tells of the beginnings of roller skates, piggy banks, high heel shoes and even chewing gum. Along with the facts are quirky illustrations and some artistic license with the truth. "It's been really easy," she says of her experience in selling her books. "My strength is in combining [writing and illustrating]. I've written 25 books, sold three so far. My agent doesn't send out everything I write, but I love the challenge of coming up with a proposal," she says. Harper, a Canadian native who has lived in Chicago for the last 11 years, has other books in the pipeline as well. The Trouble with Norma is about a squirrel who wants to be a secret service agent. The moral of the story: It's OK to be different, to look different or have different rituals and to aspire to be different. Another tale is about the Itsy Bitsy Spider deciding to do something about getting rained on each time it climbs the water spout. "I enjoy doing it. I love the challenge of each one being a little different from the last," she says. Naazish YarKhan



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