ANDERSON — Seated around large art tables were 42 small authors. Each had a 16-page draft of their first children’s book spread out for inspiration. Studying the technique of local artist and children’s author and illustrator David Slonim, they prepared for the daunting — yet exciting — task of designing a book cover for their new creation.
Giggling at Slonim’s jokes and humorous expressions, the fourth and fifth graders at Tenth Street Elementary School peppered the artist with questions and ideas for his sample work. He has been walking them through the book production process on Fridays in January with the lofty goal of each student crafting a finished book by the end of the month.
“Let the paint tell you where it wants to go,” said Slonim, effortlessly creating a humorous book cover from suggestions lobbed by the students. In no time the white paper featured a purple bunny in a bib and overalls with the title "Farmer Bunny’s Chocolate Bar."
“If you have fun, your audience will have fun,” Slonim said.
“We started this project by telling the students to behave as if Scholastic has come in and hired each of them to author a book,” said Pam Storm, Title One Coordinator. “The biggest benefit is the way it helps kids see themselves as writers. Authoring can be intimidating — looking at that big blank piece of paper. When they are finished, they will each have their own book.”
During past sessions, Slonim has discussed elements such as creating the characters, the setting, introducing a problem, building to a climax and finding a solution. He taught them how to sketch out a book over 16 pages, including both text and pictures.
“I have been impressed with how enthusiastic the kids are,” he said. “They are bringing much more energy to the project than expected. There is a fearlessness in children that I would like to learn. The ideas are great and surprising and un-self-conscious.”
Watching Slonim work with the children is inspiring. He is able to both bring laughter and retain focus. Moving through the room after the presentation, he listened to their ideas and advised them on their project without commandeering their work.
“He brought in a lot of his books and showed how his characters have emotions that show in their faces,” said Dawn Sachse, a teacher for 25 years. “We have had students make books in previous years, but we never had a real author work with them. It is a privilege to have him in our class.”
Slonim is the author and illustrator of 15 children’s books (which have been translated into five languages), as well as a successful painter with works displayed in galleries in Montana and Colorado.
Using this project as a pilot program, Storm is hoping to offer it in other elementary schools next year.
“I picked Mr. Slonim because I had heard him speak at an early childhood conference,” said Storm. “He lives in our midst and that’s really important. He’s not an untouchable superstar — he’s in their own back yard. It shows them what they can be when they grow up.”
Sachse has also noticed a more subtle lesson that has been internalized by her high-ability class.
“Children that do well are used to having a paper or project done the next day,” she explained. “This has shown them that they can’t make a book overnight. He’s trying to teach them that it is a process. This is more real than anything we’ve done in class.”
A culminating event will allow the students to display their final projects at literacy night. Parents will be able to enjoy a presentation from Slonim and congratulate their children on their accomplishments.
More than simply another project to complete, this one has truly engaged students — even those that didn’t consider themselves good writers.
“David has made this really fun,” said Sachse. “You can see them getting excited about it and having fun with it.”