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National authors and illustrators visit Beatrice elementary schools
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National authors and illustrators visit Beatrice elementary schools

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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused people to amend several events this past year, one of which being the 25th annual Plum Creek Literacy Festival.

This year, instead of having hundreds of children visit Concordia University in Seward, 13 authors and illustrators visited over 25 schools across Nebraska to talk to students about their careers.

“This is the first festival in history where children haven’t been on campus,” Dylan Teut, the festival’s executive director, said. “We will certainly miss the spirit, energy and enthusiasm the children bring with them, but I am grateful we can have a festival at all. I think the visiting authors and illustrators are in for a treat when they will get to the schools, during a year when visitor opportunities have been limited, many schools are going above and beyond to create an inspiring atmosphere for their students.”

On Friday, three of these author/illustrators - Evan Turk, Steve Light and David Soman - took turns visiting Beatrice elementary schools.

Assistant Superintendent Jackie Nielsen said changing the festival has had an added benefit for Beatrice students.

“In a regular year before the pandemic, we would take our enrichment students to Seward to go to the Plum Creek Festival every fall,” Nielsen said. “However, this year with the help of Plum Creek, we were able to bring the authors into the schools. This is amazing, because it now touches every single child in a school, rather than just a small percentage of the students.”

Turk spoke to students about how he used symbolism, color and patterns to enhance the authors’ stories when illustrating “Muddy: the Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters” and “Be the Change: a Grandfather Gandhi Story”.

“Reading is such a strong part of anything that anyone does,” Nielsen said. “So it is very important that our kids understand how things are created, and see what this is doing is bringing to life a story, bringing to life the concepts such as symbolism, metaphor, simile, all of those things that we teach throughout the year…It really is helping students see that bigger perspective of the concepts that they learn, and maybe struggle to learn or don’t want to learn, how it really is utilized all around us.”

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Turk also talked about how drawing is just like any other skill, and that it takes practice.

“I think sometimes we pick out kind of early on in school who are the artsy kids, and we think ‘if I’m not the artsy kid, there’s no point in me learning.’ But I think that it’s important for everyone to keep drawing and looking at art, because it’s something that can help you in whatever it is you decide to do,” Turk said.

Light talked to students about storyboarding and the process it takes to make a book. He also explained where the ideas came from, including that the storyline from “Swap!” was based on a trading piece in the Museum of Natural History, and that “Have You Seen My Dragon?” partially came from seeing smoke coming out of a manhole cover as a kid, and his dad telling him a dragon lived under there.

Light also showed students a part of “Have You Seen My Dragon?” where he made a mistake and drew a child floating above the sidewalk, and how he fixed it by drawing a statue for him to stand on.

“My teacher did a great thing for me. He took away my pencil and my eraser, and he gave me a pen and said ‘Just draw with pen, and any mistakes you make, make them work. Don’t even start a new drawing, finish that drawing and try to make it work.’ And that really helped me a lot, because I used to spend all my time erasing instead of drawing,” Light said.

“The stories that these author/illustrators bring with them, not one of them said ‘My life was easy. I picked up a pen from the day I was born.’ It’s always about how writing is a process, writing is a struggle, and I think that’s super important for these kids to hear,” Susan Wait, a fourth grade teacher at Stoddard, said. “I think it’s also super important that these authors are writing the kind of quality things that teachers want our kids reading. It’s just a once in a lifetime opportunity that makes this reading/writing thing tangible.”

Wait and Nielsen both mentioned that they had not heard of the visiting authors before, that upon hearing their presentations they wanted to read their books, and that they hoped students had the same reaction.

Wait said she’s attended the Plum Creek festival for several years, since she was a student at Concordia, and that it’s an opportunity to show her students that being a writer is an accessible profession. She emphasized that this event was made possible by the continued generosity of donors to the festival.

“I love doing something like this, particularly this year because we’re going to all of the schools,” Turk said. “It’s so great after this whole year of being over Zoom. Getting to see kids face-to-face is one of the best parts of this job.”

“It’s just so great to see the energy and the excitement of the kids from my stories, and to see what parts of the stories that they’re interested in,” Light said. “Sometimes you make a book about something, but they’re drawn to another part of it, and it’s always really interesting to see the questions and things that they ask about the book making process. It gives you a lot of energy and a lot of excitement to keep working and making and creating more books. It’s just been a really great experience.”

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