Clash of the Pronouns: Colossal Battles in a Book of Dinosaur Riddles

 

 

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by Noelle Sterne, Ph.D.

Writing a children’s book of riddles about dinosaurs may not seem an obvious arena for a clash over sexism. But during the final manuscript editing of my Tyrannosaurus Wrecks: A Book of Dinosaur Riddles (HarperCollins), with shock and frustration, I fought the battle of the dinosaur pronouns.

Nouns were natural for most of the 146 riddles—mother or father scenes, fairy tale characters. For the 35 riddles requiring a pronoun, in the earliest drafts I used the masculine form. But my (female) editor and I agreed that in the final version the feminine should get equal representation. A simple matter, we thought. We couldn’t have been more immensely wrong! Our painful conversation lasted a good hour. Despite women’s great strides, I saw how subtly sexual stereotypes still influence our language. 

Tyrannosaurus Wrecks is a just-for-fun children’s book. The riddles are punny, groany, and giggly, with no hidden agendas for gender-biased propaganda. Yet my editor and I were besieged by plaguing pronoun questions: What would support or offend various viewpoints? What would truly express our own convictions? What would aid or damage sales? And how much should a book mainly for entertainment defer to issues of social change?

Priorities kept changing and sometimes bashed head-on. The hostilities, and final truces, fell into three main camps:

1. Entrenched Male Stereotypes—Almost impenetrable stereotypical male occupations or activities forced us to keep the male pronoun.
2. Damaging Female Stereotypes—When the female pronoun would fortify stereotypes, we capitulated to the male.
3. Breaking Through the Stereotypes—We stormed the pronominal bastions with either pronoun, neutralizing stereotypes of both genders and illustrating positive role or behavior changes.

Entrenched Male Stereotypes
The Entrenched Male Stereotypes glared out at me, and one of the most glaring was cowboys. Only two cowgirls spring to mind—Annie Oakley and Dale Evans, and they weren’t exactly typical ranchhands. The male had this area tightly roped off:

Why was the Pentaceratops a good cattle rancher?
Because he had a lot of longhorns.

To bring us current, there’s the executive. This one really hurt, especially since so many women today are successful (and with their own Dino’s Club cards). But there were no women CEOS in the Fortune 500 companies at the time the book was published. In the latest update in 2017, only 6.4% of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies were women. So, despite a few eminent exceptions, most women climbing to the glass ceiling succeed only in windexing it. Again the male pronoun was firmly wedged: 

Where does the dinosaur company president sit?
At his Tyrannosaurus desk.

Damaging Female Stereotypes
The second pronoun problem involved the largest number of riddles. Damaging Female Stereotypes kept surfacing in an insidious array of common, apparently harmless situations. We felt forced to keep the male pronoun to blunt female stereotypes of foolishness, ineptitude, or weakness. For example, that women are bad drivers:

Why is a dinosaur dangerous at the wheel of a car?
He’s a back-feet driver.

The clincher, though, for the male in several riddles was that little word “weight.” We women wrestle incessantly with the “right” body image that dominates our culture and wastes our energies. The male pronoun had to be used with blatant excess pounds: 

Why did the dinosaur go on a diet?
He weighed too much for his scales.

But the most damaging female stereotype was the ancient stamp of woman as sex object, which insinuated itself into many riddles. In protest against antediluvian sexism, we kept the male pronoun.

Why did the Stegosaurus go to the car repair shop?
So they could fix his broken tail spike.

What instrument does a dinosaur fossil play?
His trom-bone.

We kept the male pronoun because a bawdily graphic picture surfaces with her broken tail spike, which could attract a little too much attention. And what about that instrument? If she were playing, could she be accused of barely disguised piccolo envy?

Breaking Through the Stereotypes
I’m very glad to say, though, that with several riddles we really could break through the stereotypes. Some riddles reversed women’s traditional roles and others enlarged the possibilities for either sex in previously exclusive domains. In one riddle, we countered woman as the perpetual sole food supplier:

What did the dinosaur say as he lugged home the groceries?
“Oh, my aching Brachio-saurus!”

Woman’s driving cruised with no sexist implications and the added bonus that she can, and does, pay her own way:

What does a dinosaur pay when she drives over a bridge?
A reptoll.

At least one occupation broke through entrenched activities for both men and women. With children’s piano teachers stereotypically female, the male pronoun here was especially gratifying.

    What did the dinosaur piano teacher tell his students?
    “Be sure and practice your scales.”

The final two examples also gladdened my heart. In the first, woman is more than a body:

    What did the dinosaur say when she bought a new book?
    “I can really sink my teeth into this.”

A lifelong reader and writer, I could identify. And my blood surged at her biting intelligence. In the other riddle, a traditional role is reversed as a fine female speaks her mind:

    What does the dinosaur say to her sweetheart on Valentine’s Day?
    “I’m mud about you!”

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So, this is the saga of my dinosaur pronoun battle. Maybe it reopened some old wounds and left a few scars, but after the mud settled, the women held their own. Yet, I await the day when our language finally fashions a third set of pronouns that serves both sexes with equal rightness. On that day, with a book of dinosaur riddles or any other subject, male and female pronouns will provoke no fighting words (especially pronouns), even from the most fossilized among us.

Noelle Sterne, Ph.D. is a published author, editor, and writing coach. Visit her at www.trustyourlifenow.com.

Remembering Mister Rogers

by Melissa Fales

 photos courtesy of The Fred Rogers Company

photos courtesy of The Fred Rogers Company

Fifty years ago, children scattered in living rooms across America were first invited to visit Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Beginning in 1968, Fred Rogers became an on-screen friend to countless young people who were drawn in and put at ease by his calm demeanor, melodious voice, and his assertion that he liked them, just the way they were.

Ironically, as Rogers often shared, it was his dislike for the medium of TV that led him to create the beloved show. He once told CNN’s Jeff Greenfield, “I went into television because I hated it so, and I thought there’s some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen.”

Born in 1928 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Rogers grew up singing and playing the piano at the knee of his maternal grandfather, Fred McFeely. He attended Rollins College, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Composition in 1951 and meeting the woman who would later become his wife, concert pianist Joanne Byrd.

Rogers got his start in television working for NBC right out of college, parlaying his significant musical ability into jobs on shows such as The Voice of Firestone, The Lucky Strike Hit Parade, and The Kate Smith Hour. He also dabbled in work for several children’s shows, but his aversion to the merchandising so closely tied into children’s programming led him elsewhere.

In 1954, Rogers began working as a puppeteer on The Children’s Corner, a Pittsburgh Public Television show, where he found relief from the consumerism of commercial TV. During the several years he spent with the show, he introduced some of his most beloved puppet characters: King Friday XII, Henrietta Pussycat, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, and Daniel Striped Tiger.

Rogers also spent time in Canada, working on a short-lived children’s program called Misterogers where some of his most recognizable backdrops and props originated, including the trolley, the huge tree, and the majestic castle belonging to his highness, King Friday XII. Rogers later acquired the rights to that show and returned to Pittsburgh where he created Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It first aired nationwide in 1968 through National Educational Television, a precursor to Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

In 1969, the impactful testimony Rogers gave in front of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications in support of funding for PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was hailed as a game-changer. In his soft-spoken manner, Rogers deftly made the case that children’s programming on public television addressed a need in society and served as an antithesis to the troubling messages that so commonly infiltrated television programming. He also sang one of his songs from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Instead of the cuts that were planned, Congress went on to appropriate $22 million, more than double the previous years’ funding for public broadcasting, and Committee Chairman Senator John Pastore famously told Rogers that he’d earned those millions.

Those funds also helped the PBS hit show Sesame Street become the blockbuster it was. Sonia Manzano, who portrayed Maria on Sesame Street for 44 years, appreciated how Rogers’ show complemented hers. “Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood were the perfect combination of children’s programming in the early 1970s, with Sesame Street’s emphasis on cognitive skills and Mister Rogers’ emphasis on social, emotional interaction,” she says.

Each episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood opens the same way, with Rogers returning home singing, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” before changing into his trademark sneakers and cardigan sweater. Episodes typically feature interactions with various “neighbors” and make-believe adventures with puppets, interspersed with Rogers’ musical compositions. The concept behind the show relies largely on his soothing presence, unhurried pace, and ability to connect with children.

During most episodes, Rogers takes his viewers on a field trip, introducing children to the types of places one might find in a neighborhood. One such field trip was to author/illustrator Eric Carle’s studio. “It was an honor to work with him and appear on his TV show,” says Carle. “We read my book From Head to Toe together and painted tissue papers. It was an absolute pleasure to visit and paint papers together, both of us in our white smock jackets. The way he spoke to children was so calm and kind and respectful. I will always remember Fred with great fondness and admiration. We are so fortunate for all that he gave to the world.”

The best part about Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is that Rogers was simply being himself on screen. “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self,” Rogers once said. “I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away.” That’s how he lived his life and how he filmed his television program. “Fred Rogers was authentic,” says Manzano. “That’s why all the satirized versions of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that we all enjoyed, couldn’t touch or diminish him.”

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Many children, like author Kate DiCamillo, found refuge in Rogers’ placidity. DiCamillo, who was often ill as a child, still remembers how he made her feel every time she watched an episode. “I spent a lot of time in the hospital when I was really young, and I remember the nurses letting me sit on a green, vinyl-covered couch in the hospital lounge (this was before hospital rooms had TVs) so that I could watch Mister Rogers,” she says. “I remember feeling lousy. I remember that the vinyl of the couch was cold against my legs. And I remember being worried that I would do something wrong and get sent back to my room and miss the show. And then Mister Rogers came on, and nothing mattered. I didn’t feel sick. I didn’t feel cold. I wasn’t worried. Mr. Rogers made me feel safe.”

Over the course of its three decades on air, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood won four Emmy awards. Rogers earned a Lifetime Achievement Award, 40 honorary degrees, and induction into the Television Hall of Fame. Less than a year before Rogers passed away in 2003, President George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

When it comes to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, however, it’s not about awards or accolades. Rogers never sought those out. Instead, it’s about how he made people feel and continues to make people feel today. And one thing everyone in the neighborhood can agree on is that “It’s such a good feeling, a very good feeling.” •

For more information about Fred Rogers and his legacy, visit fredrogers.org.

Find more stories like this in the June issue of Story Monsters Ink! The literary resource for teachers, librarians, and parents!

One to Read: Wé McDonald

by Melissa Fales

 photo by Kimeth McClellan

photo by Kimeth McClellan

In 2016, an unforgettable 17-year-old singer took NBC’s The Voice by storm, unleashing her powerful sound and sharing her poignant journey from childhood bullying victim to rising star and anti-bullying advocate. In an effort to bring her inspiring story to more young people, Wé McDonald has recently released a children’s book. In The Little Girl with the Big Voice, McDonald writes about enduring and ultimately overcoming the vicious taunting she suffered. “My book touches on bullying, but it ends with me on stage, being triumphant and realizing that I don’t have to change who I am for people to like me,” says McDonald. “I think that’s a very important message for kids today. It’s something more kids need to hear.”

Growing up in Harlem surrounded by her family of talented musicians, McDonald thought being able to sing was a universal trait. She didn’t realize she had a special gift until she was 12 years old. “I liked to sing, but I didn’t know I was good at it,” she says. “I thought everyone could sing until I found out that being tone deaf was a thing.”

McDonald’s naturally high-pitched speaking voice, a stark contrast from the deep singing voice her fans enjoy, combined with her need to wear thick eyeglasses, made her a target for bullies in her school. At home, she sought comfort from her family and especially from music. “I’d turn on the radio and write in my Barbie diary,” says McDonald. “Listening to music always made me feel better.”

Being bullied drove McDonald to want to sing even more. “Singing was the best way I knew how to express myself,” she says. “I thought I couldn’t be the only person feeling like this.” And since music had always soothed her when she was feeling down, McDonald decided to pursue a career in music where she could use its ability to heal to help others. “I wanted to give that same comfort to others,” she says. “I wanted to give reassurance to anyone who was struggling that things were going to be alright.”

When McDonald was in eighth grade, she started taking vocal lessons through an afterschool program at Harlem School of the Arts. “At first I was horrified,” says McDonald. “I figured it would be a new place and new people to make fun of me. But it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me.” As she grew, so did her voice, her polish, and her professionalism. She went on to perform at major venues including the renowned Apollo Theater, Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall. She is currently studying jazz vocals at William Patterson University.

McDonald will be releasing an EP soon. The lyrics to her recently-released new single, “Head Up High,” are featured on the back of The Little Girl with the Big Voice. She says she enjoyed her turn at being an author, but she plans to release more music before she writes another book. “I don’t approach singing and writing in the same way, but I do approach both of those things with the same heart and passion,” she says.

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Viewers of The Voice witnessed that heart and passion throughout McDonald’s appearance on the show. It all started when her father surprised her with a ticket to the Philadelphia auditions. There, McDonald and her father were hauled into a huge center with a few thousand other people. “It was really early in the morning, too, but the mood was electric,” she recalls. One of the most memorable points in the process was waiting to hear if McDonald made it to the blind audition round. “We were in our hotel room and we got a call that they were having a meeting and they wanted us there,” she says, adding that she went into a full-blown instant panic. “I thought that we were late for something, that we didn’t look at the schedule correctly, or that we had messed up,” says McDonald. When she arrived at the meeting, there were only a few other contestants there. When the announcement came that they’d made it to the blind auditions, McDonald was floored. “It was so surreal,” she says. “It was an unbelievable feeling.”

During her blind audition, McDonald belted out a rendition of “Feeling Good” that compelled all four judges to turn their chairs around, indicating an interest in having her on their team. Honestly, I only remember some of it,” McDonald says. “It was so overwhelming.” Miley Cyrus, Alicia Keys, and Blake Shelton had all turned around when McDonald closed her eyes briefly during the tune. “When I opened my eyes, Adam (Levine) had turned around,” says McDonald. “I couldn’t help it. I freaked out a little. I had a moment.”

McDonald, who ultimately placed third overall, chose to work with Keys as her mentor, but says she gleaned valuable advice from all four of the show’s star coaches. “When you have musicians like this sharing what they’ve learned throughout their experience in life with you and helping you, it’s priceless,” says McDonald. “With my book, I feel like it’s my turn to share what I’ve learned from my experiences. I hope I can help others who were in my situation.”

In The Little Girl with the Big Voice, McDonald offers a very personal look into her own transformation. “This book is really about my journey,” she says. “It shows how I used to try to change who I was just to make people like me, but it ends with happiness. When kids read it, I want them to take away that confidence is beautiful in people no matter what they look like. You can have a small beginning, but if you work hard, you can end up on top. You have the right to fight for that.” •

Read more stories like this in the June issue of Story Monsters Ink! The literary resource for teachers, librarians, and parents.

 

ESPN Host Mike Greenberg Pens a Loveable Tale about a Furry MVP

by Melissa Fales

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Popular ESPN television personality Mike Greenberg is not only a trusted sports authority, a member of the NAB Broadcasting Hall of Fame, and a New York Times bestselling author, he’s also a passionate opponent of cancer. He and his wife, Stacy Steponate Greenberg recently co-wrote a children’s book, MVP: Most Valuable Puppy (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster), and they are donating all of their proceeds from it to help fight pediatric cancer.

“Everything we ever make from this book will go towards cancer research, until there is a cure,” says Greenberg. “It’s very gratifying for us to be able to do something that can make a difference in this world.”

Greenberg’s inspiration to raise money for cancer research traces back to 2009 when Stacy’s friend, Heidi Armitage, was diagnosed with breast cancer. “It had spread to her bones by the time it was discovered and she died that same year,” he says. “She was dealt cards you don’t come back from and that was just the most unjust thing I had ever seen.”

Wild emotions raced through Greenberg’s head during Armitage’s memorial service. “She was outdoorsy, she didn’t smoke, she was a healthy eater,” he says. “I remember staring at the backs of her children’s heads—they were both under 10 years old at the time—and I was sad, but more than sad. I was angry. It wasn’t fair. I was livid because this was such an injustice.”

Greenberg transformed his anger into action and in 2013, he and Stacy created Heidi’s Angels, a foundation to raise money for cancer research. That same year, Greenberg released his debut novel, All You Could Ask For, about women trying to keep their everyday lives and friendships intact while battling cancer. He’s donated all of his proceeds from the novel to Heidi’s Angels to fund anti-cancer efforts.

Greenberg, who has been with ESPN since 1996, is most well-known for Mike and Mike, the long-running show with Mike Golic, and now the new morning show, Get Up. However, Greenberg says he’s always wanted to be a writer, something he traces back to his childhood spent browsing through the bookstore his parents owned and operated. “I got into broadcasting as a way to pay the bills while trying to write the great American novel,” he says. His first book, Why My Wife Thinks I’m an Idiot: The Life and Times of a Sportscaster Dad was released in 2006 and became a New York Times bestseller. His novel My Father’s Wives was released in 2015.

Most recently, says Greenberg, thanks to the photos he and Stacy have posted on social media, he’s gained clout not for his broadcasting or his writing, but for his dog, Phoebe, an Australian Labradoodle with a pink tail (it was originally dyed pink when Heidi passed away as a subtle tribute to her battle with breast cancer). “We had been thinking about a new project to raise more money for Heidi’s Angels,” says Greenberg. “It was Stacy who came up with the idea to create a kids’ book, starring Phoebe.”

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MVP: Most Valuable Puppy is a charming tale about a girl and her dog. “It’s about a little girl who likes sports and learns how to play from her dog,” Greenberg says. “There are a lot of sports books about little boys, but this one is different. And we don’t make a big deal of the fact that it’s about a girl. She’s just a girl out there playing with the other kids and having a blast.” There’s nothing morose about the story. “This isn’t a book about cancer,” Greenberg says. “In fact, there’s no mention of cancer in the book. It’s a classic children’s story. You can read it to a 2- or 3-year-old and an older child might be able to read it themselves. It has a nice message for kids to take away.”

Greenberg says illustrator Bonnie Pang’s depiction of Phoebe is spot-on. “She brought our dog to life,” he says. “She did a sensational job not only of creating a dog that looks just like Phoebe, but conveying her when she’s animated. There’s almost a magical quality in how she jumps off the page.” Greenberg, unabashedly smitten with Phoebe, unapologetically calls her “the world’s cutest dog” and says kids who read the book will grow to adore her, too.

Interestingly, Greenberg’s experiences with Phoebe are his first as a dog owner. “I never had a dog growing up,” says Greenberg. “In fact, I was afraid of dogs my whole life.” His fear stems back to an incident when he was just 6 years old and visiting a friend’s house. “We were wrestling as little boys do, but his little dog thought I was attacking him,” recalls Greenberg. “He came racing over and bit me. That was it. I was terrified of dogs ever since.”

Years later, Greenberg found himself at odds with his wife and kids, all of whom wanted a dog. “I was the lone holdout,” he says. “That experience as a 6-yearold really stuck with me.” Finally, he was talked into it. “You know, I never understood why people loved dogs so much,” he says. “But now I have Phoebe.”

Earlier this year, ESPN legend Dick Vitale asked Greenberg to be an honoree at his V Foundation for Cancer Research Gala in May, recognizing Greenberg for his work with Heidi’s Angels. “I was extremely moved and touched by it,” says Greenberg. With MVP: Most Valuable Puppy set to be released just days before the gala, the Greenbergs decided to acknowledge Vitale’s personal crusade to combat pediatric cancer by donating their proceeds from the book to fund pediatric cancer research. “Stacy and I talked about it, and thought it was appropriate, especially since it’s a children’s book,” says Greenberg. “We knew that Heidi would have loved the idea.” •

Find more stories like this in the June issue of Story Monsters Ink! The literary resource for teachers, librarians, and parents.

One to Watch: Siena Agudong

by Melissa Fales

 photo by Travis Hayes

photo by Travis Hayes

Nickelodeon’s new show, Star Falls, features Siena Agudong as Sophia Miller, a teen with a seemingly endless arsenal of ploys aimed at setting her single mother up with one of Hollywood’s most eligible bachelors. When movie star Craig Brooks lands in her small town for a filming project with his three children in tow, Sophia takes advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play matchmaker for her mom.

Agudong, 13, admits there are some similarities between her and the character she portrays. “She is a huge schemer, and although I have fun with pranks, I am not as mischievous as
Sophia,” she says.

Born in Hawaii, Agudong was acting by the time she was 7 years old. “I grew up watching my older sister, Sydney, do a lot of theatre,” she says. “I was so inspired. I started doing theatre as well and fell in love with everything about acting.” The first time Agudong took the stage was in Willy Wonka and her first role was portraying an Oompa Loompa. “I was so excited when I found out that I was the Oompa Loompa that got to say, in a very deep voice, ‘Doopa Dee Doo,’” she says.

Agudong transitioned from the theatre into TV by playing Lulu Parker on the ABC drama, Killer Women. She went on to become a regular guest star on Nickelodeon’s popular Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn. She also appeared as Tiffany on TV Land’s Teachers, winning a 2017 Young Entertainer Award for “Best Guest Starring Young Actress 12 and Under” for her performance.

According to Agudong, these acting jobs were a valuable learning experience. “They were so incredibly fun,” she says. “I got so close to the casts I worked with and I appreciate being able to grow as an actor from those projects.”

Now, Agudong has the lead role in Star Falls. “Sophia comes up with a lot of sneaky and persuasive ways to get Craig Brooks and his three children, Diamond, Phoenix and Bo, to stay at her house,” she says. There’s a little bit of culture shock and a lot of laughs. “Sophia and Diamond try everything they can to set up their totally different parents,” says Agudong. “There are a lot of crazy challenges that arise when the two completely different families try to live under one roof.”

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When she’s not acting, Agudong likes playing with her dogs and spending time with her family. “Or you can find me on the soccer field playing my heart out,” she says. All that soccer playing paid off with Agudong landing a role in the upcoming Warner Brothers movie Alex & Me alongside Olympic gold medalist and U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team member Alex Morgan. In Alex & Me, Agudong plays Reagan Wills, a big Alex Morgan fan. “Reagan is a passionate soccer player who dreams about being on a certain team but when she doesn’t make the cut, she is devastated,” says Agudong.

When Reagan accidentally bumps her head, her life-size Alex Morgan poster magically comes alive and becomes a friend, trainer, and coach to Reagan. “From that point on, everything changes for Reagan because she now has U.S. soccer star Alex Morgan to help her,” she says.

Agudong says she enjoys every aspect of acting. “I love the adrenaline of going to set and not knowing what to expect,” she says. I also absolutely love adopting another person’s life for a day and experiencing many events that I may not actually encounter in my own life.”

For Agudong, one of the hardest parts about being an actress is trying to fit everything into her very busy schedule. “It’s very challenging to juggle full-time school and a full-time filming schedule but it is so worth it to me in the end.” When things get tough, Agudong turns to her role models for inspiration. Her biggest inspiration is her sister Sydney, but she also looks up to Selena Gomez and Liza Koshy. “I admire how hard Selena Gomez works to achieve her dreams and her honesty and humbleness,” she says. “Liza is so incredibly confident, silly, and not hesitant to be herself. I adore that so much. She is so pure.”

Agudong says she’s aware that girls will be looking to her for guidance on how to act and what to do. “I really want to be a role model for others,” says Agudong. “I know how significant it is to have one. It’s very important for me to be a positive example for girls my age.” As far as future plans, Agudong envisions herself continuing with acting. “I have every intention of pursing my acting career when I’m an adult,” she says. “This is what I want to do and I truly enjoy every second of this amazing journey and feel so blessed and grateful.” •

Find more stories like this in the June issue of Story Monsters Ink! The literary resource for teachers, librarians, and parents!

 

Astronaut Clayton Anderson Launches Little Readers on an A to Z Mission

by Melissa Fales

 photo courtesy of NASA

photo courtesy of NASA

As Nebraska’s first and only astronaut, Clayton Anderson holds the sole privilege of representing the Cornhusker State in space. Being selected by NASA in 1998 was a lifelong dream come true for Anderson, as evidenced by the faded newspaper clipping he has of a photo taken of him at the Ashland Summer Carnival in the mid-1960s.

In it, he’s 6 years old and dressed for the children’s parade in a handmade astronaut costume, complete with a helmet made out of a hat box and a lot of aluminum foil. “My mother always said that when I was a little boy, I often told her I was going to become an astronaut one day,” he says. Since retiring from space travel, Anderson has been busy writing books, including his first, The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut, released in 2015, and his first children’s book, A is for Astronaut: Blasting Through the Alphabet, released in March.

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Writing a book for kids wasn’t even on Anderson’s radar until a friend who manages a bookstore told him about the numerous titles in the Sleeping Bear Press Alphabet series. “They don’t have a space one yet,” she hinted. The result is an A to Z journey filled with space words, a poem for each letter, and fascinating facts about NASA. “I wrote down the alphabet and picked a word for each letter,” he says. “I had multiple choices for a few of them. I finished the poems in less than a week. I thought that was the really fun part.”

Anderson praised the book’s illustrations by Scott Brundage. “They’re very visually impactful,” he says. Anderson also wrote the sidebar information on each page which gives children a deeper glimpse into what it’s like to be an astronaut. “It’s a book that can really grow with the kids,” he says. “Small children might only be able to read the letters on their own. As they get older, they’ll be able to read the poems. And as their reading skills improve, they’ll be able to learn something about space.”

Anderson hopes A is for Astronaut will spur a curiosity about space among his young readers, similar to the way he was indelibly affected on Christmas Eve 1968 by watching the Apollo 8 mission orbit the moon on TV. “Listening to the communication between ground control and that command module 239,000 miles into space was incredible,” he says. “I remember that tension and that drama and that excitement when they re-established contact after a long period of static. That was a huge Wow! for me. That really planted a seed in my head.”

Of the 30 years Anderson spent with NASA beginning in 1983, the first 15 were as an aerospace engineer. For the last two years before he was selected as an astronaut, he was the manager of the Emergency Operations Center at Johnson Space Center in Houston. “I knew little to nothing about managing emergencies, but NASA had taught me a lot about planning, training, and flying,” he says. “I was able to take the plan, train, and execute methodology from space flight and apply it to emergency response.”

Anderson was fortunate in that although he was completely prepared, he never had to deal with a real emergency. “We simulated a ton of them, just like we do in space flight,” he says. “We simulate all the time so when the time comes, you’re ready.”

Spending 167 days in space took guts, determination, and especially perseverance, since Anderson submitted 15 applications to NASA before he was finally accepted as an astronaut. “That’s supposedly a record,” says Anderson. “Applying to become an astronaut is easy. Getting selected is hard. I just didn’t give up.”

The application, according to Anderson, is tedious, involving hours of work. “Once it’s done, it’s relatively simple to update it every year,” he says. So he did … again and again. After the 13th try, Anderson was called in for an interview. “At that point the flame was lit,” he says. It still took two more tries, but Anderson knew he was getting closer to his goal.

In all, Anderson had the opportunity to experience six space walks, spend five months on the International Space Station, and fly on two space shuttles: Atlantis and Discovery. In 2013, he retired from NASA and embarked on a writing career. In June, Anderson’s third book will be released. It’s a Question of Space: An Ordinary Astronaut’s Answers to Sometimes Extraordinary Questions is a collection of the often thoughtful and sometimes inane inquiries Anderson has received about space over the years.

The most perennial topic, according to Anderson, is food. “The food in space is pretty good, actually,” he shares. “I got to eat both Russian food and American food. The Russian food was preferable. I definitely did not starve.”

Anderson says he hopes It’s a Question of Space will encourage young adults to consider space exploration and other STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) fields when they think about their career choices. “It’s important that we get kids excited about STEAM,” he says. “It’s really important to the future of America that our children are focused on these kinds of disciplines. These are the people who are going to be the problem-solvers of the future.”

Looking ahead, Anderson says he plans to continue his schedule of speaking engagements and to keep writing. “My mantra is: I write to inspire, to entertain, and to educate,” he says. “I can’t get in front of audiences everywhere, but if people choose to look at my books, that gives me an additional avenue and a different way to inspire them.”

Read more stories like this in the June issue of Story Monsters Ink! The literary resource for teachers, librarians, and parents!

Debbie Wideroe Inspires Eco-Awareness with Children’s Book Series

by Melissa Fales

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Once, Debbie Wideroe awoke from an especially vivid dream and jotted down “The Adventures of Camellia N.” on the notepad she keeps next to her bed. It didn’t mean much to her at the time, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that those words had significance. “I couldn’t get rid of it,” says Wideroe. “Then, literally, one day it took over and I instantly knew what I wanted to do.” That’s how Wideroe’s popular The Adventures of Camellia N. series came to be.

Published by Notable Kids Publishing, she’s already released the first two books of a planned set of nine, drafted with the hope that reading about Camellia’s magical experiences all over the globe will help children develop a deeper appreciation for our planet.

Growing up, Wideroe was strongly influenced by her father, a fervent believer in sustainability before the term became widely used. “I grew up with the idea of reuse, recycle, repurpose,” she says. “I developed an innate sensibility of taking care of the earth without even thinking about it.” Wideroe started writing at age six and never stopped, compiling journals and poetry in addition to magazine columns and stories.

Her eco-conscious upbringing and way with words set the stage for her future as a children’s author of environmentally-themed books. However, children’s literature wasn’t the first step in her career. Instead, Wideroe did stints in children’s television, marketing, and teaching. “While I was at Harvard University for graduate school, I was lucky enough to study under Dr. Gerry Lesser, one of the creators of Sesame Street,” she says. She went on to be in charge of marketing for Warner Brothers’ Baby Looney Tunes and other animated properties. And although she didn’t set out to become a teacher, she’s taught advertising and marketing at Pepperdine University for nearly 20 years. “It just kind of happened,” she says.

All of these experiences combined to make Wideroe uniquely qualified to write The Adventures of Camellia N. series. In the books, little Camellia N. visits faraway places around the globe each night in her dreams, meeting different animals along the way. Wideroe says over the course of the nine books, Camellia will visit all seven continents as well as deep space and the deep sea. “I like the idea of introducing children to the magnificence of the earth at a young age,” she says. “I think the younger they are when you capture their interest, the better the chance that they are going to internalize those feelings of wonder and awe and want to care for the earth when they are older.”

Foremost in Wideroe’s mind when she writes Camellia’s adventures is an admonition from Lesser about keeping children’s books educationally accurate. “I always think about that,” she says. When she’s researching a new location for Camellia to visit, she consults with wildlife professionals for the latest information about the region and its creatures. “I go to the experts for this,” she says. “I’m not a scientist. They tell me which animals are endangered, some critically so, and I weave them into the stories. I try to highlight the coolest things about all of the creatures and show how incredible they are. If kids find these animals amazing, perhaps they’ll want to take care of them.”

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The first two books in Wideroe’s series are The Arctic (the first-place winner of a Royal Dragonfly Book Award in the Green/Environmental category) and Under the Sea. The third book in the series, detailing Camellia’s trip to the Amazon rainforest, is due out this fall. “In 2020, when the Olympics happen in Asia, will be a perfect time to launch the book,” Wideroe says.

One thing that truly sets Wideroe and The Adventures of Camellia N. apart is the way her vision extends beyond her books and into other avenues where she can make a difference. “I see it as a book series, but it’s also a platform for change,” she says. For example, she started Camellia Kids Care, a global pen pal program that began with a match-up between a school in San Francisco and one in Norway. Her latest set of pen pals live in Calabasas, California and Zambia. “I want these kids to start to understand how interconnected Earth’s creatures and cultures are,” she says. “We’re already seeing that happen with the pen pal program. While they’re learning about a different culture, I hope they’re also learning that at the end of the day, we’re all the same. I hope they’re becoming global ambassadors. This is the next generation. These are the ones who are going to have the power to make big changes.”

Another one of Wideroe’s efforts is Camellia Cares, a partnership with Children’s Scholarship Fund that will allow her to teach low-income parents about fostering communication with their children. “Although this initiative is not tied to the environment, it is tied to literacy, which is another one of my passions,” says Wideroe. “I am a teacher, after all.”

Wideroe says her drive to complete the series has been buoyed by the many supporters of her books and her larger message, including people like Bill Richardson, former Governor of New Mexico, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., and former Energy Secretary. “I’m fortunate and grateful to have influential people supporting and cheering for me,” she says. However, Wideroe says nothing is quite as rewarding as going into schools with her books and visiting with students. “You really feel it at that level,” she says. “When your book is sitting on the shelf, you don’t feel it as much. But when you’re watching little children reading it, you can see you’re making a dent. That’s when you know you’re touching people’s lives.” •

Check out more stories like this in the June issue of Story Monsters Ink!

Fathers Incorporated Partners with Little Free Library

by Melissa Fales

 Real Dads Read Barbershop partner Freddie Johnson, III reading with Kenneth Braswell Jr. at Anytime Cutz in Atlanta.

Real Dads Read Barbershop partner Freddie Johnson, III reading with Kenneth Braswell Jr. at Anytime Cutz in Atlanta.

Having established 51 children’s libraries inside metro Atlanta barbershops through its Real Dads Read program, Fathers Incorporated is now joining forces with Little Free Library to get even more books into the hands of low-income children. This joint venture will result in an additional 50 Little Free Libraries installed at various Atlanta elementary schools, making books available to children even after school hours and on weekends.

“With this partnership, we’ll not only be increasing access to books for low-income children, we’ll also be increasing the engagement and involvement of fathers in their children’s education,” says Kenneth Braswell, executive director of Fathers Incorporated.

In 2004, Braswell founded the non-profit organization to encourage men to be more involved in their children’s lives. He says the move was in response to his experience growing up and his initial experience as a father himself. “I know personally what it means to not have a father in your life,” says Braswell, who regrets not being a more active participant in his eldest child’s life. “I was young and dumb,” he says. “I didn’t recognize the role I needed to play. When my second daughter was born, it crystallized for me the importance of my presence in my children’s lives.”

The Real Dads Read initiative that places children’s books in barbershops has been an overwhelming success for Fathers Incorporated. “Research shows that literacy in high-poverty areas isn’t due to a lack of interest in reading, it’s the lack of access to books,” says Braswell. Since children are allowed to take the books from the barbershop home and keep them, Real
Dads Read is constantly replenishing its stock, to the tune of roughly 250 books each month. “That’s exactly what we want,” says Braswell. “We want these kids to have books. We’re trying to reduce the number of book deserts, particularly in low-income communities where the majority of children do not have any books to read in their homes.”

The barbershop library project earned Real Dads Read a reputation for making a difference. Schools started calling Braswell for advice on how to get more fathers engaged in their classrooms. Last September, Braswell was at a school in Decatur when he had a big idea. “I thought that a Little Free Library would fit in perfectly with the outside of the school,” he
says.

Little Free Library is a non-profit organization that facilitates free book exchanges and sells
simple, attractive wooden boxes to house the books, or shares the blueprints to build one. Typically hung on a post, a Little Free Library often resembles a bird house and operates much like the “need a penny, take a penny” dish next to a cash register. “The idea is to let the library become part of the streetscape and part of the neighborhood,” says Braswell.

Braswell installed Little Free Libraries at three elementary schools in Decatur, posting photos of
the events on social media. When Little Free Library CEO Todd Bol happened to see them, he decided he wanted to learn more about Real Dads Read and contacted Braswell. “The rest is history,” Braswell says. “We’ve been pretty much joined at the hip ever since. Real Dads Read will be establishing reading clubs in each of the 50 schools that will receive a Little Free Library. “We want to engage fathers with some literary activities,” says Braswell. “We’re a father agency, not a literacy agency, but one thing we do know is that when fathers read with their children, good things happen.”

Little Free Library will also be partnering with Real Dads Read on a mobile unit project that places crates of children’s books in the back of specially-marked police cruisers. “The police car becomes a mobile library,” says Braswell. “The kids know that these officers have books. It helps to create a conversation between law enforcement and the children in their community. It builds connections.”

The project is set to start in Atlanta soon. In addition to its Real Dads Read efforts, Fathers Incorporated is launching a new campaign in June called Drive to Five. “With this program, we’re narrowing our focus to fathers who are raising children ages infant to 5 years old,” says Braswell. “We believe that this cohort is where we can make the largest impact on children.” According to Braswell, non-resident dads are far more likely to totally disconnect from their children by the time the children are age five than resident dads. “Forming lasting bonds during those first five years is absolutely crucial,” says Braswell. “I’ve seen the impact that
fatherlessness has on communities, especially low-income communities. It’s devastating. This work we do is to ensure that the dads we work with are as intimately connected as early as possible.”

One aspect of Drive to Five will be to provide educational materials about responsible parenting to new fathers and fathers-to-be. The branding for Drive to Five features a superhero cartoon character named Adam, and Braswell says he wants regular, everyday dads to learn to see themselves this way. “He’s not Super Dad,” says Braswell. “Yes, he’s standing there with a cape, but he can’t stop bullets in his teeth. He doesn’t have x-ray vision. What he does have is Daddy
power. When a father reads with his child, that’s a power. When he has a positive interaction with the mother of his child, that’s another power. I want every father to understand how much daddy power he has. Each father has to activate his own powers, but he has to be aware of them first. That’s where we come in.” •

Check out more great articles like this in the June issue of Story Monsters Ink!