Island Readers & Writers Blog

Diversity in stories with Anne Sibley O’Brien

Anne Sibley O’Brien visited three schools in early December to wrap up our fall school programs: Ella Lewis Elementary School, Tremont Consolidated School, and Beatrice Rafferty School. She greeted each school with a Korean “hello” – “Anneyeonghaseyo” (안녕하세요) – and had the kids repeat it back before delving into the idea of culture. “What is culture?” she asked them. “Where you’re from.” “Where you live.” “What a lot of people do together.” The simple definition she told them is, “how people live.”

Annie has written or illustrated over 37 books with a focus on diversity and brings a rich personal experience to share having grown up in South Korea. We worked with her books, “I’m New Here,” with younger kids at all three schools and discovered during workshops that the very youngest had lots to say about differences and inclusion. “Don’t listen to what others say unless it’s that you are beautiful and kind,” said one child. Lovely.

Ella Lewis School

Projects lined the hallways at Ella Lewis School, and Annie told the students how much it means to an author when so much thoughtful preparation is done around a book. Grades 3-5 participated in an illustration workshop, since they had read Annie’s graphic novel “The Legend of Hong Kil Dong.” She taught them how to draw dragons despite the cries of, “I can’t do that!” They could. And they did. And they did it well.

Sixth-seventh grade students created cool book trailers for “In the Shadow of the Sun,” Annie’s suspenseful novel about two kids who get stranded in North Korea, a timely story that sparked many questions from a lively and engaged bunch.

While reading her latest picture book, “Someone New,” to grades pre-K to 2, Annie pointed out that her character in “Someone New” was telling her story with pictures. “Like you did!” a child chimed in. Kids noticed lots of details about the speech bubbles. They liked comparing the two books, “I’m New Here” and “Someone New,” and were thrilled when they received their own copy of “I’m New Here” to take home.

Tremont Consolidated School

At Tremont, all workshops were held in the library where an “I’m Your Neighbor Welcoming Library” traveling book display had been for several weeks. Many companion books focusing on the immigrant experience were available for teachers to use with their classrooms ahead of our visit. Annie read her follow-up to “I’m New Here,” “Someone New,” with kids in pre-K to grade 2, using aspects of The Whole Book Approach to engage kids around the illustrations.

With the third and fourth graders, a discussion around inter-group anxiety took place using the characters from “I’m New Here” as examples. “What is Emma scared of?” Annie asked. “That they might not have anything in common,” was one response. In their workshop, kids drew two scenes: one of someone feeling nervous, followed by an action they might take to help.

Beatrice Rafferty Elementary School

Our final school visit of the year took us to Beatrice Rafferty Elementary School at Pleasant Point. Passing the new school construction site and seeing a buzz of building activity, we knew excitement would be in the air as they have been waiting a very long time for this to happen.

While working with the first and second graders, Annie asked if they’d like to say “hello” in Korean. “Bonjour!” one blurted out, which had us all laughing. In talking about community with these kids, Annie asked what they’d like to be when they grow up. “An artist.” “Work at Walmart.” “Someone who makes things for kids. And a ninja.” “An art teacher.” “A doctor.” “A police officer.” “A train driver.” “A chief.” “A veterinarian.” In the end we realized they had a whole community!

The kindergartners were our last group and Annie got them drawing faces of various feelings. We were impressed how many of them drew all nine of the emotions, although one student veered off course and drew a house that ate 72 clocks! Ah, the imagination at work. What a great way to wrap up our fall visits!

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“The Island of Beyond” with Elizabeth Atkinson

Fifth-eighth graders at Beals Elementary School, Jonesport Elementary School and Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School were ready to dive into “The Island of Beyond” with author Elizabeth Atkinson, and were prepared with art and research projects to share. Each visit began with a large group presentation during which Elizabeth shared how books empowered her as a child. She provided an in-depth explanation of the publishing process, from finding an agent to book distribution and everything in between. After sharing the story of her career that involved multiple rejections, she then asked students what qualities they thought one might need to be a writer. Their responses? Confidence. Patience. Imagination. Persistence. They were spot on!

After the presentation, students participated in writing workshops focusing on character development. Elizabeth got them thinking about the protagonist and the antagonist. They worked with character boards to brainstorm their ideas, and decided on the character’s physical description, background, family or circle of friends, and their character’s thoughts. Next, the kids described what their antagonist did to the protagonist to get them in trouble. Elizabeth set the scene for them: a beachside, luxury hotel where your protagonist works and where your antagonist comes to stay. The writers then put the protagonist and antagonist they created into that world. “As a writer, you need to wear three hats. Why do you think I say that?” Elizabeth asked. The kids quickly replied that you need to understand both the character’s and the reader’s perspective along with your own in order for things to make sense in a story.

Prior to Elizabeth’s visit, students at each school created wonderful projects inspired by “The Island of Beyond” and were fully prepared and engaged when Elizabeth arrived.

This program was made possible by the generous support of the Ferguson Foundation and 29 new donors to Island Readers & Writers who helped reach our goal to match a $5,000 grant from the foundation.

Beals Elementary School

Here, students made paintings depicting various scenes from the book. They also built two miniature villages populated with painted toy soldiers who became the characters for their towns. Grades 5-6 named their village Bayville and created a backstory about a hit-and-run accident.

Seventh and eighth graders named their village Annville, where a mysterious fire occurred at the mayor’s house. They wrote stories about these villages and shared them during office hours with Elizabeth at the end of the day. Many more projects decked the walls (and ceiling!), which showed the depth of their experience. Elizabeth was quite moved by it all. During office hours, kids got to engage on a more personal level with Elizabeth, and a few got the chance to read a bit from Elizabeth’s newest book, which isn’t even out yet!

Jonesport Elementary School

Elizabeth’s name along with a big welcome was lit up at the entrance to Jonesport Elementary School. Before the group presentation, she was introduced to all of the “aspiring writers” in the audience. The writing workshops were full of humor as students read about fanciful characters they created. One outrageously original character was the protagonist “Mason the Jar Man” whose head was a jar filled with beet juice infested with ninja turtles!

Fifth graders created a diorama of a village out of objects found in nature, which featured a broken-down pier “just like the real one around the corner” from their school. But there was a catch: they couldn’t use any glue or tape!

Students in grades 6-8 each created a diorama; either a village from their imagination or a recreation of the island in the book. These creative models were made of cardboard, clay, paper and paint. One even had lights! They also did analyses of “The Island of Beyond” characters with amazing drawings. At day’s end, fifth and sixth grade students shared their writing with Elizabeth. Some of the stories had us laughing, while others had us in tears; there was never a lull in creativity.

Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School

After Elizabeth’s group presentation at Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School, teachers remarked how much they loved what Elizabeth had to say, and how important it was for the students to hear about all the steps in publishing. One teacher appreciated how Elizabeth spoke of not giving up, even when she was disappointed and had failures.

At the teachers’ request, Elizabeth focused on dialogue during small group workshops. With characters like Potato Man who runs fast and is in a war against Tomato Man who can’t run fast, and Daryl Hall, the greedy, money-grubbing singer/songwriter living in 1980’s Swagville, you can imagine the laughter upon hearing samples of their writing. Some even illustrated their work and added speech bubbles. These are such imaginative kids!

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Outer islands with Ben Bishop

Comic artist Ben Bishop and IRW Director of School Programs, Alison Johnson, recently went on a three-island tour to Islesboro, Vinalhaven, and North Haven schools where kids and teachers had read, “Lost Trail,” the graphic novel version of Donn Fendler’s story of survival on Mount Katahdin. Alison and Ben joined the 30 or so students and a handful of teachers for the 20-minute ferry ride to Islesboro on day one. The ride to an island school is a bit different from a bus ride, but the views can’t be beat. We even saw some porpoises! Icy roads made for a one-hour delay and a broken down ferry the following day caused a nearly two-hour delay to Vinalhaven. But islanders are used to hiccups in plans so adapting was a piece of cake.

To kick things off, Ben shared his passion for writing and illustrating that began at the very young age of four, and was heavily influenced by the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Displaying his earliest work, a story about all the pets he had and how they died, he showed kids how he wrote his bio in pencil on the back of this early, hand-made edition.

Ben’s career path was long and full of obstacles. Pointing out each obstacle along the way he’d ask the students, “Do you think I quit drawing?” They caught on pretty quickly that he is one determined character. Whatever your passion is, “you are born with an interest in it,” Ben told them. “But it is up to you to do it every single day.”

During workshops, grades 4-8 learned how to turn a narrative into comic book action. Ben stressed that the quick sketch is the “thinking” stage and is really important. Gestural drawing (or as Ben calls it, “sketchy and ugly,” helps you process to a better version.

One young man on Islesboro wanted to illustrate the story of a kid getting hit by a paintball and falling over a half wall. It seems like a simple action but it takes some rough sketching to get it just right in your comic frame. Ben helped kids create a “cheat sheet” for their stories. He showed them how zooming in and panning out, just like a movie camera, can really highlight the important elements of a story. Drawing Donn on his knees back to, he asked kids if this was the best angle. “Seeing him from the front would be better because you could see his expressions and show emotions,” piped in one young man. Agreeing, Ben shared how panels can “squish down the action.”

Visiting Vinalhaven and North Haven back to back means an overnight on Vinalhaven. Our host, Pat Lundholm, opens her home to IRW and the teachers host a potluck supper. We were loaned a truck by our Site Coordinator, demonstrating the generosity and easy nature of islanders. It’s a treat to share time together outside of school and hear tales of island living.

At Vinalhaven, we settled into the library for a presentation followed by workshops. Upon entering the room one teacher shared that the book was one of the best he’s ever read with his students, and he’s been teaching a long time! In workshops kids were eager with questions: “Are you still trying to get into Marvel?” “How do you publish your books?”

Kids who signed up for an extra workshop session were tasked with creating a list of animals to swap with a pal and then illustrate.

There was a turtle-blobfish-squid-eel-komodo dragon-shark-jellyfish-elephant-cat lobster who lived inside of a yogurt, and a hairless cat-elephant-baboon-chicken-cow-pig-mole-dog-ostrich.

Crossing the thoroughfare to North Haven the next day was not quite as chilly as the Vinalhaven trip as the wind had subsided. We were warmly greeted at the landing dock and whisked to the elementary school by our Site Coordinator. On the islands there is no worry about not being recognized for pick up. Everyone knows when you come from off-island.

We gathered in a middle school classroom for the day and after sharing his story of becoming and illustrator Ben had the kids create their very own “Maine Mountain Monster” just like Pamola in the book.

Students with a serious interest in illustrating were encouraged to sign up for an elective session with Ben to get more into the details of the craft of comic book illustrating. They learned that:

  • the comic book term for onomatopoeia is SFX (sound effects)
  • a “splash page” is a larger image which makes it more dramatic
  • the final rough is what you see in the book
  • draw lightly at first so you can erase
  • how to place the eyes, nose, and mouth, on a face
  • everything starts with shapes
  • understanding proportions is important
  • after your rough sketch, press harder and commit

Ben was a big hit with these kids who were focused, attentive and interested in his story.

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MDI 7th Grade Read

More than 100 seventh graders from each school in the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS) spent an activity-filled day together at Camp Beech Cliff during the 7th Grade Read in October, with a highlight being the group discussions and presentation with award-winning author Gary Schmidt.

Since the start of the school year, seventh graders and their English Language Arts teachers read and interpreted Gary’s middle-grade novel “Trouble,” a complex story about a teenager working through a family tragedy by reaching the summit of Mount Katahdin.

The goal of this annual event is to bring kids from all MDIRSS schools together around a shared book experience, and provide an opportunity for them to interact and form friendships with one another before beginning the high school experience together in two years.

In the past, the event has been a half-day of group discussions with community volunteers as their group leaders. But this year, IRW Director of School Programs Alison Johnson and Camp Beech Cliff Camp Director Matt Cornish brought the book to life by planning interactive stations for each team to complete that drew from themes in “Trouble.”

The day-long event utilized Camp Beech Cliff’s beautiful spaces to their fullest and gave kids the chance to stretch their legs and minds and use their in-class discussions and personal interpretations of the book to complete the challenges.

Throughout the day, 12 teams competed in a series of six stations including the low ropes course that imitated Mount Katahdin’s Knife’s Edge, a relay race, creating an artistic timeline of the book, book trivia, cooking apple crisp over a campfire and having small group discussions and book signing with Gary.

It was great fun to see kids from different schools working together to solve problems on the low ropes course, cheer each other on during the relay race, help each other come up with the trivia answers and creatively connect to make a timeline of the book’s major events. Laughter was heard throughout the campus, as well as shouts of encouragement from one team to another; a friendly game of tag between several teams broke out when a station was completed early.

Kids from each school created imaginative book trailers for “Trouble” that were viewed during lunchtime. At the end of the day, Gary shared with the seventh graders the inspiration for his book and how he approaches writing. As for the old adage, “write what you know”? Forget that, Gary says. That would be boring. He recommends writing what you don’t know and learning something new and sharing it with your audience.

Gary is an inspiring and engaging speaker and we love it when he comes to Maine, a place dear to his heart. Driving to Camp Beech Cliff the morning of the event, Gary was asked why he has featured Maine in most of his books. “When I’m writing, I pick a place that I know I’ll want to be for a long time,” he said. “Maine is so interesting and beautiful, and it’s a place I’m happy to be for a long time while I’m writing.”

The seventh graders enjoyed the new format of the event. “I loved the [event]. It was super cool to meet an author of a book that I really enjoyed,” said one seventh grader. “I really liked the presentation and I never got bored. It was also very inspirational!”

We couldn’t have had such a successful event without MDIRSS Curriculum Director Julie Meltzer and Administrative Assistant Karen Shields, as well as all of the ELA teachers and support staff who prepared their students with wonderful discussions. Community volunteers led each team and we are so grateful for their support! Thanks to Jenna Beaulieu, Michelle Finn, Melissa Haas, Lisa Horsch-Clark, Jenny Jones, Helen Koch, Nancy McKechnie, Jayson Pelletier, Melinda Rice-Schoon, Carol Schaefer and Jeff Young for sharing their passion for reading with MDI kids.

We look forward to bringing a different book to life for the next class of seventh graders next year!

See more photos from the 2019 7th Grade Read in our Facebook album!

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Cynthia Lord visits Washington County

Woodland Elementary School

You know you’re in for a fun day when greeted at the school entrance by a large poster with drawings of characters from Cynthia Lord’s books and the words, “Cynthia Lord, You are a Hot Rod!” This was our welcome to Woodland Elementary School in Baileyville.

Cindy read her books, “Hot Rod Hamster,” “Hamster’s Birthday Party” and “Monster Truck Mania” to kids in grades pre-K to 1. “Vroom vroom” they called as she asked which wheels they would choose.

She was peppered with questions: “Where do you get ideas?” and “Do you think kindergarteners can write a book?” First grade had created a racetrack for their bulletin board complete with colorful, hamster-driven racecars. Cindy gave them all coloring sheets to work on while she personally signed their very own copies of “Hot Rod Hamster” provided by IRW.

We then entered the third-grade classroom where one little girl exclaimed, “Oh, Hi! Hi Cynthia Lord!” She was obviously excited to meet an author. This class had read Cindy’s chapter book, “Shelter Pet Squad,” created posters to promote donations to Paws Brave Hearts Pet Shelter in Calais along with the second grade. The “Pennies for PAWS” posters were spread all over the school and even the nearby high school. Their brightly colored masterpieces helped raise $500 from this generous community! They even made homemade pet toys to take with them and are planning a trip to visit the animals at PAWS soon.

Fourth graders read Cindy’s middle grade novel, “A Handful of Stars.” She spoke with them about how she gets her ideas for stories. For this book, the ideas came from two places; the idea of a black dog and the blueberry barrens in Deblois. After brainstorming a story together about a kid wanting a dog and all the obstacles to overcome to make it happen, Cindy had them write about or draw a pet they’d like to adopt. They asked lots of questions as Cindy signed a book for each child. A fabulous day was had all around.

Indian Township Elementary School

The next day found us a bit further up Route 1 at Indian Township Elementary School, our newest school partner which has welcomed IRW and our author/ illustrator partners with open arms. The day began with Cindy reading “Hot Rod Hamster” to the pre-K class. Cindy got them all engaged by letting them vote on their favorite car, engine and wheels from the illustrations. While lining up to return to class a young boy, hugging his newly signed copy of “Hot Rod Hamster” to his chest, said: “I’m going to show this to Unk. I’m so esited [sic]!” Calls of “woliwon” (thank you) were heard as they made their way out.

Kindergarten and first grade students made a poster with all the adjectives from the book and another with a list of questions for Cindy. They had the loudest shout of “SURPRISE” as they joined in with Cindy’s reading of “Happy Birthday Hamster.” They were adorable, sitting on the floor with their new books, stroking the pages in wonder. As they left with their signed copies, we heard them exclaim, “We get to have a book!”

Fifth graders each drew elaborately decorated bee houses like the ones Selma and Lilly painted in “A Handful of Stars.” One boy entered the room saying, “This is my favorite book!” Cindy gave a slideshow presentation with pictures of the barrens and the houses in which the blueberry harvesters live. One student said that the boy in a picture looked like an old man and Cindy told him, “That is exactly what I do as an author to get ideas – notice what you see.”

Second and third graders read “Shelter Pet Squad,” Cindy’s book about a group of kids volunteering at a pet shelter. This exuberant crew drew wonderful pictures of their favorite animal while Cindy met each of them and signed their copies of her book.

The third grade already visited the shelter in Calais and had a lot of stories and photos to share. They even got to make braided toys for the kitties while they were there! They were so excited to meet Cindy that their teacher had to explain, “They are not usually like this; this is how much they love this book!” She was also very excited to hear Cindy tell the students that she edits her work five to eight times. We all had a fun day at Indian Township School.

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Anica Mrose Rissi in Washington County

Anica Mrose Rissi lit up the imaginations of kids in Washington County when she returned with IRW to visit Edmunds Consolidated School and Princeton Elementary School in October.

Edmunds Consolidated School

To kick things off at Edmunds, the whole school gathered in the library for a reading of Anica’s picture book “The Teacher’s Pet.” Mrs. Calder, the 5-8 grade ELA teacher, was a hoot to watch as she reacted to the story. “I’m so worried,” she said when Mr. Stricter got eaten. Giggles erupted upon hearing, “He farts for show and tell.” “You are a very fun audience!” Anica declared.

During the Q&A session, a student asked if he could name the hamster, the  new class pet at the end of the book. “Write me an essay arguing your point,” Anica said, and reeled off her mailing address. Speaking of writing, she told the kids to pay attention to the voice inside that says,  “Oh, that’s interesting to me,” when writing.

Grades pre-K to 4 were participated in writing workshops with Anica and they had done some impressive work preparing for her visit.

Pre-K and kindergarten students students wrote their own book, “The Class Pet,” which Anica read aloud. They also got to hear a reading of “Watch Out for Wolf,” Anica’s most recent picture book.

First and second graders created profiles of their dream class pets. They adorned the walls of the hallway and were vibrant and creative: a giraffe named Lila, a leopard named Mr. Putty, an elephant named Violet and more. They also created pets they thought their teacher, Mrs. Garnett, would like. A spooky live pumpkin named “Auto bot” was one example, because he could help kids on the bus. Or Sunshine because she is cute and can cook her own food. Oh, how we love the imaginations of kids!

Third and fourth graders came armed with questions about “Anna, Banana, and the Friendship Split.” “Have you ever had a friendship split before?”, they asked. After sharing how a real life friendship split helped her write the story, she got the kids asking their own questions based on title prompts so they could write their own stories. The title “The Day My Sister Came Back,” drew out some pretty wild ideas of where that sister had been. Taking note of the friendship theme, the kids created a friendship chain that was displayed outside their classroom with lots of messages on how to be kind and inclusive.

Princeton Elementary School

Next up was Princeton and the IRW team drove towards the blood orange sky in the wee hours of the morning to get there bright and early. After arriving, a middle grade teacher with a sparkle in her eye told Anica, “Because of you my kids want a komodo dragon as a class pet!”

Princeton students had great questions during the Q&A with Anica:

Why the name Bruno?

What breed is your dog?

Do you like snakes?

Does the teacher even realize he’s a hippo?

How could a hippo fit through the door? (Anica suggested they figure that one out in science class!)

After that, it was off to workshops and discovering what rich research had been done by the kids.

Grades pre-K and kindergarten joined the first grade class where the kids had chosen pets they thought were appropriate for each class in the school. They had posters explaining their logic. Again the questions flowed with excitement with a preschooler asking, “Why did the hippo eat Mr. Stricter?”

Anica surprised the kids by asking “Would you like to be the very first kids to hear my newest book?” It was a real treat to hear her read an advanced copy of “Love, Sophia on the Moon.”

Grades 2-4 participated in creative story workshops where they brainstormed ideas using several titles pulled from a hat. Let me tell you, these stories got wild and Anica had the room in stitches as she brilliantly remembered each little detail and retold them in dramatic fashion. Anica knows how to get those wheels spinning to generate fun and silly stories that delight her young writers. We hope they had as much fun as we did!

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Gary Schmidt visits MDI

Over sixty kids and parents living on Mount Desert Island, Trenton and Islesford participated in the Island Readers & Writers (IRW) Community Book Club last month.

Children living on MDI or attending Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS) schools along with a parent or other adult were invited to participate in this free, month-long program.

Each adult/child pair received two copies of “Pay Attention, Carter Jones,” the latest middle-grade novel by award-winning author Gary Schmidt, and were encouraged to read the book together and discuss it at home.

“The IRW Community Book Club is about adults and kids sharing their love of reading with one another,” said IRW Executive Director Jan Coates. “We are thrilled that so many families chose to get involved in this shared book experience.”

Book-related activities leading up to the Oct. 24 presentation with Schmidt helped bring the book and its characters to life, thanks to collaboration with MDI nonprofits and libraries. MDIRSS contributed to the purchase of books.

The Seal Cove Auto Museum invited book club participants to ride in a vintage Bentley, a car that plays a major role in “Pay Attention, Carter Jones,” and free admission to the museum for the day.

“The easiest way to put a smile on someone’s face is give them a ride in an antique automobile, and we were thrilled to provide that opportunity for book club families by tracking down a 1958 Bentley for them to cruise around in, chauffeur and all,” said Jenna Beaulieu, the museum’s curator of education.

The Southwest Harbor Public Library and Northeast Harbor Library hosted book discussions, in which adults and kids delved into the book’s main characters.

The day of Schmidt’s presentation at the Northeast Harbor Library, a butler – just like the one in “Pay Attention, Carter Jones” – served kids and adults from a silver teapot in porcelain teacups, the way the protagonist Carter Jones is served at home. One wide-eyed boy was particularly taken with the English butler and the array of “biscuits” (British for cookies). Program Assistant Lisa Herrington polished her silver and the library provided beautiful ceramic tea cups and saucers. The part of the butler was played by Andrew Simon, artistic director of the Barn Arts Collective.

Schmidt, who lives in Alto, Mich., shared with the audience his path to becoming a writer despite not excelling in school as a youngster, and about his work as a college professor and success teaching writing to incarcerated men. He also discussed the game of cricket, how it is played and why he gave it such an important role in the novel.

Adults and kids were delighted by Schmidt’s humorous and meaningful book, and rapt by his words in person.

“The book was funny to my daughter and me,” said an IRW Community Book Club parent. “It was poignant without being melodramatic. More importantly, Gary Schmidt is a wonderful, funny and engaging speaker. My daughter really enjoyed his presentation.”

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Looking up with Annette Cate

Whiting Village School

IRW brought Annette LeBlanc Cate back to Maine this fall to work with two Washington County schools using her award-winning book “Look Up: Bird-watching in Your Own Back-yard.” Scott Johnson, principal of Whiting Village School, asked if we could arrange for his kids to go to the Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park and we were thrilled to make that happen. We’ve worked with Ranger Mackette before and knew she’d help us put a good plan in place. We weren’t disappointed!

Arriving on a gorgeous sunny day (before a torrential rain and windstorm that night!) kids in grades 2-8 piled out of the bus and into the Moore Center to learn about the special place they were visiting. These kids were familiar with the idea of “Leave No Trace” and one young fella noted, “We’re in a museum in a way.”

Annette got them excited about birdwatching using a handmade, brightly colored poster. Caring about the birds and their healthy habitat here in your own backyard helps you make connections to the wider world, she said. You think about where they go when they leave and wonder if their habitat is healthy there as well. Besides, birdwatching is fun and good for your brain.

Out on the trails, with binoculars provided by the park in hand, kids got a first-hand look at both woods and ocean habitats. IRW provided each child with their own mini sketchbook for taking quick notes and making drawings of their observations. While at the shore, a boy asked, “Is it unusual to see an eagle on the beach?” When Director of School Programs Alison Johnson went to reply, an eagle coincidentally flew over the ocean, dove for a fish and flew off over the trees. Nature answered his question for him.

Along with an eagle, some lucky students saw a loon, gulls, a few cormorants, and a pod of porpoises! After lunch, IRW broke out art supplies and the kids created wonderful pictures of birds they had seen or ones they imagined. Loaded on the bus heading back for Whiting, Annette and Alison waved goodbye and even the big kids in the very back waved, too. So sweet!

Milbridge Elementary School

On the second day of Annette’s visits, the weather was not so cooperative. With 70 mph wind gusts and driving rain, the prospects of outdoor birdwatching went out the window at Milbridge Elementary School, where Annette worked with kids in grades 3-6. Unfortunately, Hazel Stark from the Maine Outdoor School had a downed power line across her driveway could not join us as planned. But the wet weather didn’t dampen our spirits.

The whole school gathered for Annette’s presentation as she shared her background and love of birdwatching. When drawing, she noted that “When you draw things it makes you think about them in a different way. You pay attention and begin to understand their environment.”

The kids asked Annette some good questions during the assembly:

Is a roadrunner a real bird?

What about an ostrich?

Did you know that bald eagles can dive at 90 mph! (They’d done some research!)

Great projects were prepared in advance of our visit, including a scavenger hunt based on the book made by third graders, a Birdmon (similar to Pokemon) card game developed by fourth graders. Fifth and sixth graders had done some cool and informative scientific bird biographies. Annette was impressed that they illustrated the birds themselves. They also had nature journals and had done sound maps. The Maine Outdoor School had worked with both third and fifth grades on their Thursday Forays and they all got to visit Birdsacre in Ellsworth the week prior to our visit. Thanks to the Maine Outdoor School for helping to bring Annette’s book to life! It was obvious these kids had spent some time thinking about and researching birds.

During workshops with Annette, they all got to create bird-inspired art using water color pencils; they were a talented and focused bunch! “My mother told me I had a talent inside me,” a youngster noted while showing his work, “but I never believed her. I never knew I could do something so big.” Keep drawing, kiddo!

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Russ Cox and “Faraway Friends”

Author/ illustrator Russ Cox kicked off our fall 2019 programs with visits to Charlotte Elementary School, Pembroke Elementary School and Trenton Elementary School in mid-October.

Charlotte Elementary School

While discussing ideas for Charlotte’s fall visit Principal Peggy White said, “Let’s do something different.” This is just the challenge we love here at Island Readers & Writers and Russ was equally excited. As Charlotte students are experienced book creators, (last year they wrote and published, “Moosehorn Secrets,” available for purchase on Amazon), we knew they could rise to the challenge when Russ suggested they take turns writing, illustrating and coloring a short story in pairs.

The day was dedicated to Russ and IRW and we were welcomed into their morning circle to start the day. The whole school walked in wearing their homemade space helmets inspired by “Faraway Friends” with their new art teacher. Once settled, younger kids were paired with older students, allowing for mentoring and they traveled through three stations together throughout the day. In the first station each pair wrote a rough draft of a story. Next, they switched places and illustrated a different team’s story. The third switch had them adding color to the illustrations of yet another team’s story. The last station was back to their original work to finish details.

At the end of the day, we shared each story and reflected on the day. Finished stories included “The Potty Monster” and “Jimbo, the Tree of Life” and “Beach City Bad Girls,” to name a few. Letting go while someone else illustrated your words proved challenging to some but this is how the world of publishing often works, as Russ reminded them. The students liked writing and the creative process, making up characters and illustrating. One teacher noted how fun it was to see how illustrators’ interpretation of the words could be so different than the writer’s intention.

Pembroke Elementary School

Q&A sessions after an author/illustrator presentation at Pembroke are always EPIC! These kids are curious. Russ shared his path to writing and illustrating children’s books, a bit about his studio (including a cat that sneezes on everything- ew!). The questions came fast and furious.

“What companies have you illustrated for?”

“How long does it take you to finish a drawing?”

“What type of tablet do you draw on?”

After answering as many questions as possible, we moved into the classrooms. Pre-K and kindergarten kids had read Russ’s book “Faraway Friends” and created little globe galaxies and gave one to Russ to take home with him. We nearly bounced out of their room on the energy they had!

Grades 5-8 participated in a sketchbook workshop in which Russ asked them to break out their new sketchbooks given by IRW. Eyes were held wide when they saw the things Russ does to break in a brand-new sketchbook. “Make it your own,” he encouraged them. They drew all kinds of silly things to get warmed up and began to fill the pages with a chili pepper with a bad attitude, a lemon snorkeling in a bathtub, and more.

Grades 1-4 had fun drawing with Russ – but not in the “normal” way. “Draw a scene above the line of your paper,” Russ instructed. “Now switch hands and draw the same thing below the line.” “What???” they replied. “Now use both hands on your pencil and draw.” Giggles and excited sketching ensued. Their favorite activity might have been when Russ scribbled a line onto their paper and told them, “Turn it into something.” The results were impressive; a hand saying, “Yum, yum, yum,” a unicorn, a dinosaur with a hat, a tiger covered with eyes.

Trenton Elementary School

It was an alien invasion as kindergartners arrived to Russ’s presentation wearing alien headbands. It’s a good thing Russ came prepared with his space helmet. It was an active and vocal group and when he asked if they knew the book, “Faraway Friends,” the response was a loud and clear, “YESSSS!!!” One youngster told Russ that she wanted to be an author or illustrator when she grows up, to which Russ replied, “Good, you can put me out of business.” “Ok,” she said.

It was another fun-filled day of drawing. This time when Russ went around scribbling on each kids’ paper there were astonished cries of, “What are you doing???” But they quickly caught on and turned those scribbles into a thumbs up, a sled, a fox-bunny creature, an alien turtle and more. Russ then let them draw a creature as a group. They each had 10 seconds to draw before handing the marker off to the next in line. The results were hilarious.

Then, Russ started a creation based on the kids’ instructions but they couldn’t look until he was done. These were their instructions:

-signature cute eyes

-dog head

-puppy ears


-witch nose

-scary teeth

-huge fat lips

-a rippy dress

-bushy eyebrows


-tattoo on the dress

-arms with spiders on them

-crown on the head

-spider earings

-old raggedy sharp clawed hands.

How’d Russ do with his creation?

Posted in: School Visits
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Bentley rides with Seal Cove Auto Museum

Thanks to the Seal Cove Auto Museum, part of Gary Schmidt’s middle-grade novel “Pay Attention, Carter Jones” came to life for participants in the IRW Community Book Club!

Kids and adults in the book club had free admission to the museum and took a spin in a real, vintage Bentley, just like the one Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick drives in the book (except this one was dark blue, rather than “eggplant”). The car plays a significant part in the book, which touches on themes of family, friendship, courage and the game of cricket.

Special thanks to the Seal Cove Auto Museum and to the generous owner of the 1958 Bentley, who brought it down from Washington County for the occasion.

Posted in: Bringing books to life, Collaborations, Mount Desert Island