Island Readers & Writers Blog

Kelly Cunnane at Vinalhaven

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May Day greeted Kelly Cunnane and IRW Program Director Ruth Feldman with lots of spring sun and a great welcome at Vinalhaven School. Kelly is dynamic and shares many elements of her time in Kenya through her book, “For You Are a Kenyan Child,” and the many artifacts she has collected over the years. The kindergarten through grade 5 students gathered in the auditorium and learned Swahili (Hodi! Karibu!) about dress customs and all sorts of rituals and artifacts that are meaningful to Kenyan culture. The auditorium came to life as each section of the audience made the morning sounds of a Kenyan village; doves, roosters, cows, goats, sheep – all one big cacophony of lively village life.

In workshops throughout the day, kindergartners, first and second graders got a closer look at the sculptures and tools Kelly brought. They dressed up in the kangas and kikois and warrior robes —  typical dress for Kenyans.

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Grades 3-5 heard the story of  “Kenyan Child” brought to life; as they saw it up on the screen, they heard the story behind the story from Kelly. Then it was their turn to develop a story based on a typical day in Kenya by imagining a typical day on their island. Kelly probed them to use descriptive words and to think about all of the various senses; the sounds, smells, visuals and people that one would meet on Vinalhaven.

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“Being with the kids today and their energy made me feel in love with Kenya again, and with Maine,” Kelly said, and she stressed, “No matter how different we all are, we are all people with hearts, we all get into trouble, we all want to be loved, and play. Thank goodness for IRW making connections between writers, teachers, kids, families, and even countries, through books.”

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Mary Cerullo at Islesboro

Islesboro Central School students welcomed IRW and nonfiction author and “curiosity facilitator” Mary Cerullo along with her book, “City Fish, Country Fish,” on April 10.

Mary met with the students in small groups to discuss the book and its focus on habitats and characteristics of tropical and cold water fish.

Kindergarteners and first graders showed off creative artwork inspired by Mary’s book, which lined the bulletin board in the hallway.

Second and third graders had already read Mary’s book and were very knowledgable about it.

Grades 4-5 also displayed projects they had worked on in small groups about each animal in the book. The older students in grades 6-7 were intrigued by the book as they have been learning about pollution effects and sustainability. They learned firsthand about Co2 and climate change!

Each grade level was so attentive and appreciative of Mary’s visit! Mary was impressed by all the students and enjoyed her day on Islesboro. Thank you, Islesboro Central School.



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Edmunds welcomes Russ Cox

Author/ illustrator Russ Cox continued his Washington County tour at Edmunds Consolidated School on April 11.

Prior to Russ’s visit, the pre-K and kindergarten students created space helmets and rocket ships out of junk materials inspired by the outer space theme in “Faraway Friends.”

First and second graders also came ready for the “Faraway Friends” read aloud with their space helmets — and they had even designed their own rocket ships. On a bulletin board, the students displayed their own rocket ships alongside rocket ships taken from the “Faraway Friends” activity sheets designed by Russ.

Upon receiving his very own book, one second grader declared, “When I get home I’m going to run all the way down my long driveway and straight into my room to check and see if the cover does glow in the dark!”

Older students attended Russ’ interactive drawings workshops, with the students taking turns drawing and creating monsters or having Russ draw as they shouted out parts to add to the character. “I’ve drawn the basic shape of a head,” he told them, “now what should I add?” “A skeleton nose!” “Dog ears!” “Four arms!” “A hat!”

Fifth through eighth graders participated in a Q&A session, where they asked Russ some questions such as: “What inspires you to draw?”, and “Why monsters?” and “What kind of pencil do you use in your sketchbooks?” At this point, Russ shared some of the tools he uses and demonstrated on an easel. He also shared difference between working as a graphic artist with design versus working in publishing.

It was a wonderful day. Thank you, Edmunds!

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Russ Cox and “Friends” visit Ella Lewis

Author/ illustrator Russ Cox visited Ella Lewis School in Steuben on April 10 with his book, “Faraway Friends.”

At Ella Lewis, students of all grade levels flooded the hallways and their classrooms with art projects inspired by the book’s outer space theme. Many students, teachers and even Principal Joanne Harriman, were dressed up in wonderful costumes as their favorite book character! We saw “Harry Potter” wizards, Max from “Where the Wild Things Are,” fairytale creatures, and many more characters.

In Pre-K and kindergarten, students made space helmets out of paper grocery sacks and decorated them in myriad creative ways. Russ read the book aloud, and the little listeners were so excited about the story. “I want to go to Jupiter!” exclaimed one student.

After story time as Russ signed copies of each book, the students each took turns adding onto a drawing on a big piece of paper for the classes to keep after the illustrator’s visit.

First-grade teacher Mrs. Worcester said, “When Russ read with his space helmet on he became part of the book” and that her students were so engaged with the story. Following a read aloud of the book, first and second graders took turns making an illustration of their own. Russ had the students fold a white piece of paper into thirds. One student started by drawing a head — any kind of head! — on the first section, and then they had to pass it along to their neighbor, who then drew a body, without seeing what had been drawn on the paper before! The kids had a blast with this exercise.

Third and fourth graders showed off some amazing projects they created before Russ’ visit. In Mrs. Finn’s class, third graders built a rocket ship out of wood scraps, and a student in fourth grade created a spaceship out of old appliance boxes and aluminum foil!

Russ did a character-drawing workshop in which he had the students think about aspects of a character they wanted to draw, and to interview the character in their minds to get to know them. He showed some of his favorite characters such as anything by Tim Burton, Shel Silverstein, Disney cartoons and his favorite, the Looney Tunes. The third and fourth graders took that inspiration and came up with some wild and hilarious illustrations.

After the fifth and sixth grade character drawing workshop, sixth graders showed off the outer space corridor they created in the hallway, complete with cut-out illustrations of main character Sheldon and his dog, Jet.

In the 7th and 8th grade sketchbook workshop, Russ explained that sketchbooks are not meant to be for perfect drawings, but for whatever comes into your mind. He showed some of his old sketchbooks that have been wet, stomped on, and worse. The older students were encouraged to “mess up” their books so that they never had to feel what goes in it must be perfect. Russ then gave them each a random object — a Band-Aid, a piece of fake money, a pipe cleaner — and were told to glue it in their sketchbook and create an illustration around it. The illustrators had a blast!

At the end of the school day, every student and teacher in the school stood for a “Hall of Fame” walk, in which Russ (and our very own Program Assistant Alison Johnson) took a walk down the main hallway to the cheers and applause of everyone.

After Russ’s visit, students in grades 3 and up filled out feedback forms to return to us about their thoughts on the day. One student used the back of his feedback form to create some wonderful illustrations!



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Calef Brown at Lubec, Beatrice Rafferty and Whiting

Author and illustrator Calef Brown kicked off IRW’s spring 2018 author visits with three stops at Lubec Consolidated School, Beatrice Rafferty School and Whiting Village School at the end of March. He brought along three of his titles including “How to Hypnotize a Tiger,” “Boy Wonders” and “Flamingoes on the Roof.”

“Calef Brown is so much fun!” is what we heard over and over while touring all three Washington County schools. His word crashes, whimsical and imaginative illustrations, and “combination creatures” mesmerize everyone. At Lubec, the younger students shared some of their own book creations and combination creatures. The third and fourth graders were playing with idioms, metaphors and personification and designed some funny artwork for Calef to complement the word play. They went all out and hosted us for a catered lunch while they also “fed us” with their spoken poems.

At Beatrice Rafferty in Sipayik, grades 3-7 heard Calef’s own story and how he got to be an author/illustrator. He shared his own struggle with how he overcame struggles and obstacles to become a successful illustrator. He also reminded the students: “Something you like when you are little could become an important part of your life later on.” Students in 5th and 6th grade learned about using images in media for clients and how universal symbols play a role in the process. For example, magazine clients give you an article and you have to find images that portray the messaging in the words. “Sometimes questions generate the best answers,” Calef told them.

Mrs. Guire (5th grade) relayed to us that one of her students said Calef was her favorite IRW presenter yet. Apparently, she doesn’t hand out compliments very readily so kudos to Calef! Another Beatrice Rafferty teacher noted the similarity of Calef’s use of combination animals to the images on a totem pole.


At Whiting Village School, everyone was pumped up for the visit since they had made a request for an illustrator visit. While the youngest kids enjoyed hearing Calef’s book “Boy Wonders” read by the author, they also showed their own creativity in a creature design session.

Based on “Flamingoes on the Roof”, 2nd through 4th graders shared the images they had created in words and pictures; haiku like poetry, perspective drawings, and fanciful animal combinations. Some had prepared their very own collections as books, which they proudly gave to Calef.

Whiting 5th through 8th graders had worked with the art teacher to develop their own posters of passion; themes or issues that were important to them which gave the focus to their visual messaging.

Most importantly Calef has everyone joining in the creative process and reminds them in his parting words that they can do this too! He inspired the young writers and artists at each school  by explaining that, “Sketching is like thinking; it’s just for me. The books are like speaking; sharing the thoughts with others.”


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Global Read with Maria Padian on MDI

Forty-five seventh and eighth graders from various Mount Desert Island schools gathered at the High School on Feb. 8 for an after-school program with Lupine Award-winning author Maria Padian.
The Global Read program, a collaboration between IRW and the MDI Regional School System, culminated weeks of preparation by area students, who all read Padian’s novel “Out of Nowhere.”

The story is set in the fictional Enniston, Maine, high school that is upended when a group of Somali refugees joins the boys’ soccer team. Tom Bouchard is the captain and star player, but all that changes when Saeed and his friends, refugees of post-9/11 Somalia, take the field.
During her visit to MDI, Padian explained the inspiration for her book. She said she was moved both by her grandparents’ own immigration story and of nearby Lewiston, which has become a second migration city for refugees escaping war-torn countries, and Lewiston High School, whose soccer team has risen to statewide prominence.
Padian’s novel touches on the themes of race, class, religion, cyberbullying and peer pressure, which she explored with the MDI readers.

Ahead of the workshop, students delved deeply into the story by creating an “Out of Nowhere” timeline with important plot points from the book and preparing questions for discussion and author queries. Teachers brought in traditional Somalian treats such as icun, similar to shortbread cookies, and halwa, a confection made primarily of sugar and butter.

“IRW was quite excited to work with Maria and ‘Out of Nowhere’ because we felt the topic of refugees and sense of community was timely and that her writing expertise and enthusiasm would be a great fit for this group of readers on MDI,” said IRW Program Director Ruth Feldman. “Maria’s presentation was lively and engaging, and students’ reflections, questions and responses expressed their sense of learning and appreciation for her, the book, and the experience.”

Students had the opportunity to participate in a lightning-round workshop led by Padian, in which the writers came up with descriptive sentences and then shared them aloud with their peers. They also engaged in small group discussion about themes in the novel, such as discrimination and judgement.
As with all IRW author visits, the Global Read ended with every student receiving an inscribed copy of the book. Many students took the opportunity to ask Padian one-on-one questions about her writing process and to tell her how much they enjoyed reading “Out of Nowhere.”

“I really liked this book because I liked how real it was,” said Lynx Fabian, an eighth grader at Conners Emerson Elementary School. “I learned quite a bit about refugees and customs and it shined a light on how important things in the Muslim culture are. It helped me go into things with a more open mind.”
IRW is a nonprofit organization based in Southwest Harbor that connects young readers on MDI, the outer islands and in Washington County to great stories and the authors and illustrators who create them. For information, visit

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Mock Newbery at Pemetic Elementary School

Since last fall, a group of 10 fifth and sixth graders at Pemetic Elementary School in Southwest Harbor have been reading away as part of IRW’s Mock Newbery book club. Last Monday, the club members revealed their pick for the Mock Newbery winner and honor books! “Forever Or a Long, Long Time” by Caela Carter was selected as the Mock Newbery Medal winner, while “Exit Strategy” by Lauren Allbright, “Pablo and Birdy” by Alison McGhee, and “The Someday Birds” by Sally J. Pla were all named Mock Newbery Honor Books.

The Mock Newbery Club had met once per month in the Pemetic library at lunchtime since October, where librarian Tracey McCarthy along with IRW staff and IRW volunteers guided the readers through different topics that the actual Newbery Medal committee looks for when selecting its top books, such as: interpretation of theme or concept; presentation of information including accuracy and clarity; development of plot, characters, setting and style.

Since there was a plethora of books to choose from in 2017, a dozen IRW volunteers scoured through Newbery eligible titles (must be published by an American author by an American publisher) all last summer and ranked their favorites. We narrowed that list down to 15 books for the Mock Newbery club members to choose from, and they were required to read at least three from that list, although some chose to read many more and one student even made it her goal to read all 15 books!

Members of the IRW Mock Newbery Club at Pemetic Elementary toss around a beach ball that prompted questions about aspects of books the students read.

The Pemetic students were so impressive with their comments, questions and feedback about the books — and were quite opinionated as well! We encourage everyone to check out the IRW Mock Newbery reading list. All 15 books will be available to Pemetic students and will be available to check out at the Southwest Harbor Public Library and at Harbor House.

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Extreme Survivors with Kim Ridley heads to Whiting

This fall, IRW led a book-based Literary Links to Science program called Extreme Survivors, focused on Kimberly Ridley’s latest book, Extreme Survivors: Animals that Time Forgot. Four schools in Washington County learned about ten creatures that have withstood eons of challenges, and how many of the challenges they faced (such as ice ages) were evident in the landscape around them.

Earlier this fall, they ventured out on a field trip with their teachers and IRW staff to learn about ice ages and explore traces and indications of glacial movements in their own backyard.

Last week, after visiting Pembroke Elementary, Kimberly Ridley and IRW staff set off for Whiting Village School to explore Extreme Survivors together with all students in Grades 2 – 8.

Before the visit, teacher Stephanie Higgins had worked on a large timeline of the animals with students that connected the big picture of millions of years and time periods with the creatures in Extreme Survivors. Students had also researched the different animals in the book.

Science teacher Ann McGhee tasked her students with completing research projects based on the book. Students shared with Kim their experiments with viscosity and where some of the creatures live – Sunlight level, Twilight, Midnight, Abyss, and Trench (portrayed in different bottles with colored liquid representing where the creatures live using rubbing alcohol, blue food coloring, baby oil, dish soap, and corn syrup).

Just like at the other schools, Kim shared with them that they were the very first kids in the whole world to read her book and how exciting that was!

Students knew all about tardigrades and were able to identify many of the details of horseshoe crabs, comb jellies and the many chambered nautilus.

Similar to her Pembroke visit, Kim zoomed in from the Macro scale to the Micro scale, and talked about how the creatures in Extreme Survivors had overcome eons of glacial movements and other geologic changes. She led workshops with students and guided them in how to become Ace Reporters.

In the Grades 1 – 4 group, there was great imagination around the writing and understanding about ACE reporting techniques. Colin said,  “It can never be finished” (because you always polish your work). They also watched a tardigrade video together to make observations, and students provided detailed, close observations: “microscopic,” “chases stuff,” and “Does it have a tail?”

In the Grades 5 – 8 group, “Extremeophiles” shared their research projects with highlights that most intrigued them, such as “Comb Jellies have tentilla; tentacles on their tentacles!”Conversation even went to life in other universes and how tradigrades survive in space.

When they observed as ACE reporters, they came up with juicy words –Slither, Squirm, Waddle, and Wiggle!

Their news stories nicely incorporated the “Why care” element after the opening prompt of “An amazing animal lives in our town….”

They had lots of questions about what gave Kim inspiration, how the decisions get made for some of the visuals, and they were desperate to know how she narrowed it down from her original 20 animals to the 10 in the book.

What a wonderful experience for all of us! The teacher, students, Kim, and IRW staff all enjoyed learning together and discovering new things about the wild world we live in.

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Beatrice Rafferty students learn all about Extreme Survivors

This fall, IRW led a book-based Literary Links to Science program called Extreme Survivors, focused on Kimberly Ridley’s latest book, Extreme Survivors: Animals that Time Forgot. Four schools in Washington County learned about ten creatures that have withstood eons of challenges, and how many of the challenges they faced (such as ice ages) were evident in the landscape around them.

Earlier this fall, they ventured out on a field trip with their teachers and IRW staff to learn about ice ages and explore traces and indications of glacial movements in their own backyard.

Last week, after visiting Pembroke Elementary, Whiting Village School, and Lubec Consolidated School, Kimberly Ridley and IRW staff arrived at Beatrice Rafferty School to explore Extreme Survivors together with all fifth graders and some sixth graders.

Just like at the other schools, Kim shared with them that they were the very first kids in the whole world to read her book and how exciting that was!

She tied in the Ice Age Trail and how now she was zooming in, zooming in, zooming in. As she had at the three previous school visits, she turned students into ACE Reporters (Accurate/Creative/Edited) and shared her own love of reporting.

They were eager to share the knowledge they gained from their own research. “Did you know a nautilus is also related to the snail and the clam?” one student shared. We loved how much they had engaged with the subject material, and seemed to thrive on their newly-acquired knowledge.

Kim led a writing exercise and inspired students to write a News Flash for their community – “An Amazing Animal Lives in Our Town.”

Kim also helped students think about reliable websites and sources, telling them, “May the force source be with you.” They were certainly not bored by Kim’s research, and one young fella asked, “Could you read us some of the book?”

During workshops, many eager hands went in the air with questions and comments. “How do tardigrades live in Antarctica if there is no moss there?” A discussion on cryptobiosis ensued. “It’s like barnacles because they close up with the water in them!” “Could you imagine being frozen for 30 years and still be able to survive?” Kim asked them.

After watching a scientific video of a water bear wiggling along on a glass slide with some difficulty one student observed, “That’s a complicated way of moving.”

Upon receiving his very own signed copy, one young man declared while hugging his book, “I have my own book.”

And so do one hundred and forty other youngsters in Washington County! IRW is very grateful to Kim Ridley, the four schools and their incredible teachers and students, and Dr. Harold Borns, who led a training sessions with teachers on the not-so-hidden secrets of the Downeast Ice Age Trail!

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Mittens and books with Robin Orm Hansen in Washington County

What “ordinary thing” can turn into something extraordinary? How do you find your way home? What do the knitted symbols on mittens mean to the people who wear them?

These and other questions were a part of the conversation when Robin Orm Hansen, master knitter and author, visited Pembroke Elementary, Charlotte Elementary, and Beatrice Rafferty School last week. Robin met with students in K- 2 grades, and up to 4th grade at Charlotte’s combined small school classroom. Before her visits, children from Pembroke and Charlotte schools had visited Done Roving Farm, and got to see the process from sheep to fleece to spinning and dyeing.

Some had drawn their own mitten patterns; the 2nd – 4th graders at Charlotte had written alternate endings to Ice Harbor Mittens or focused on a particular story element. Illustrations accompanied their writing and brought the stories to life.

The younger children had shared real life examples of other mittens that had been brought in by teachers and all enjoyed seeing Robin’s collection of different designs, textures, and sizes of mittens. When they worked with Robin, their own stories incorporated kids lost at sea, magical whales and dolphins, and supernatural compasses that helped their protagonists find their way home. Some commented on “how big and warm” the mittens were, and all were excited to contribute to the storytelling and practice finger knitting! “This is cool,” and “we’re making a really long knitting,” accompanied the excitement as each student got to try their hand – literally – at knitting!

At Beatrice Rafferty, the rooms of the K-2 grades were each decorated with colorful mittens, some with the Passamaquoddy words associated with the story, and one was made to look like Aunt Agnes’s store from the story! Students heard a bit of the story summarized by Robin, and about why and how she came to write the book (all had read the book with teachers in advance of the visit). They got to color mitten book marks that would accompany their very own signed copy of Ice Harbor Mittens. More than one student exclaimed, “ You mean this is mine to take home?” They filled Robin’s ears with their imaginative and creative story ideas and spent time writing them down to share. These and the books will hopefully remind them of finding their way home and staying warm along Pleasant Point till our next visit to Beatrice Rafferty in the spring.

Thank you to all schools for welcoming us – we appreciate your support of IRW programs, and we love bringing authors and books to your schools!

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