Author ignites the flame of imagination

March 4, 2011

By Tim Pfarr

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There was no place he could hide. Around each corner, students greeted him with excitement. Whenever he stopped moving, a line would form with students who wanted to say hello, get autographs and share their own story ideas.

Nevertheless, Seattle-based children’s author Keith Baker enjoyed greeting his biggest fans, and he did so with an unwavering smile for each child who approached him when he visited Newcastle Elementary School Feb. 17.

During his day at the school, he spoke at two assemblies and held workshops with the school’s second and fifth-graders. In between presentations, he signed more than 200 books for students and even a few teachers.

His visit was a precursor to the school’s 2011 Literacy Celebration Feb. 28 to March 4, which features guest readers, literature-themed cake decorating, schoolwide reading time and writing activities.

In the days before Baker’s visit, each grade level completed art projects devoted to one of the 20 books he had written and illustrated. Kindergarteners completed projects based on the book “LMNO Peas,” creating peas with green finger paints. These and the rest of the projects hung inside the school for Baker to see.

“The kids’ projects were just wonderful,” said Baker, whose other books include “Meet Mr. and Mrs. Green,” “Hide and Snake” and “Who is the Beast?”

Librarian Laura Berry, who assisted Baker during his day at the school, said the students were anxious to meet the author of the books they loved.

“It’s like he’s Santa Claus,” she said with a laugh. “They just keep waiting and waiting. They were like ‘is today the day?’”

So many students ordered Baker’s books that he even needed to return to the school Feb. 18 to deliver them.

In the assemblies, Baker focused his presentations on how to tell stories through pictures. In the workshops, he led second-graders through creating their own books about snakes, and he taught fifth-graders the fundamentals of drawing realistic pictures.

He elicited gasps of excitement from fifth-graders when demonstrated concepts such as the vanishing point — the point at which items disappear into the horizon in pictures — and the basics of proportion, perspective and shadows.

“I want to give them a tip about drawing,” Baker said. “At that stage, the kids want to draw realistically.”

One student who enjoyed Baker’s drawing instructions was 11-year-old Bailey Keegan.

“I knew how to make a road. I never knew how to do anything else,” she said. “It was really cool.”

Valerie Adams, 10, agreed. Adams said she loves to draw cartoons, and that she doodles on all of her papers. Although the lesson in realism was a departure from what she was used to, she said she appreciated being able to give it a try.

“I liked being able to draw and learn,” she said.

Fifth-grade teacher Deanna Buder said that while picture books such as Baker’s mean a lot to young children, they also have something to offer the older ones, tailoring to different styles of learning, inspiring creativity and instilling values.

“You don’t think about how much picture books mean to older kids,” she said. “They have great morals and themes.”

Buder said she reads books such as Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” in her class. She said this book — about tree that selflessly gives its resources to a boy as he grows up — even brings a tear to her eye when she reads it aloud.

The school’s goal in launching its literacy campaign is increasing reading among students and improving their reading scores on tests.

Principal Marla Newton said having Baker was a great way to kickoff this year’s literacy celebration.

“To actually see that person live and know that that’s their job,” she said. “It just brings it to life for the kids.”

In the next two years, the school hopes to bring in more authors, and it already applied for an Issaquah School Foundation grant to help cover the cost of doing so.

“You always gain something extra by seeing them in person,” Berry said.

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