8 Years of OSOB at North Shore Elementary

One School, One Book has been a staple at North Shore Elementary in St. Petersburg, Florida since 2015. The program has even remained strong during the pandemic thanks to the combined efforts of Tracy Leskanic, co-chair Gifted Program Teacher, and Tamara Gramlich, co-chair Library Media Technology Specialist.

North Shore hosted a reading night under the stars.

The dynamic duo build excitement with the support of North Shore’s PTA, as well as the dedicated teachers who help with the “surprise” elements of the event. The selected title is always announced during an awards ceremony attended by all students, staff, and parents.

Looking back at their inaugural OSOB, Leskanic shares that the biggest difference in how they launch their program is a simple yet vital shift:

“We have learned that if we keep [the book title] a mystery for the students, they become more and more excited!”

Gramlich adds, “We had started out using the ‘classics.’ You know – the books that were written way before any of our kids were born. Now, we try to pick books that have a newer copyright. There have been some colorful discussions in [our school’s book] committee when we are choosing a book because we are all so passionate about our pick for the upcoming year. We love the process, and wouldn’t change it for anything.”

North Shore Elementary’s read aloud titles include Kenny and the Dragon, The World According to Humphrey, The Chocolate Touch, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Fenway and Hattie, Appleblossom the Possum, and The Toothpaste Millionaire. Most recently, students at North Shore dove into the magical world of Dragons in a Bag.

“This was the first time in history that we had a Knight on our campus…”

To Leskanic, one of the most unforgettable OSOB experiences was having a real knight in shining armor (Mr. Casey Maker) visit North Shore during Kenny and the Dragon.

“Our school has always been the North Shore Knights,” Gramlich shares. “This was the first time in history that we had a Knight on our campus and to see the kids react to him was amazing. Even though they knew him, it was like they were seeing him for the first time.”

As they look ahead to future OSOB reading events, both Gramlich and Leskanic are eager to move beyond pandemic limitations to make their OSOB “more of an event again.” In the meantime, the steady excitement of their students even after eight years drives them onward.

 “Each year our students will ask when is OSOB? What book is it?” Leskanic says. “They are [always] eager to find out. That, to us, is exciting.”


A Million Little Villages

“Connectedness. One thing leads to another. Often in unexpected ways.” 

― Holly Goldberg Sloan, Counting by 7s 

Recently, I had the pleasure of moving my young adult son halfway across the country. In truth, it wasn’t pleasurable. It was hard and sad and scary. But I pretended like it was pleasurable. Because – after graduating from college during the pandemic and being isolated at home for the last two years – I knew it was high time my son had the chance to live on his own, to start his life, to become the person he is meant to be. This period in history has robbed many of our young people from having the chance to do that. My kid was more than ready. I, on the other hand, was not. 

But within hours of arriving in Oklahoma, things shifted. I watched the people of his new community fold him into it as if he already belonged there. From the older man in the apartment next door who insisted on waiting for the mattress delivery, to the new boss who told my son she would “try hard not to ‘mom’ you too much,” I knew this kid already had a village. A village that would pick up where his family left off. As I waved goodbye and drove my rental car back to the airport, I knew everything was going to be okay. Others would make sure of it.  

There is an interconnectedness we experience when we ask – then trust – others to be part of our story. There is a coming together when we realize we are in this together. This month, At the Lamp-Post has been exploring the theme of Earth Day through three titles on our list that tackle different environmental issues. Whether they hail from a small suburban town, a farmer’s vegetable garden, or a remote village in the middle of Malawi, the protagonists in these books learn that working together on a micro level can lead us to tackle issues on a macro one, that our environments can only be protected when our interconnectedness is understood. Change can only happen when we ask others to care about something as much as we do…then trust them to do so. 

Linda Sue Park’s Project Mulberry starts out being all about teamwork. Julia, the main character, and her best friend Patrick are the kind of friends that – when one is mad, the other, “almost always knows it without asking.” But when Julia’s Korean-born mother suggests they raise silkworms for their state fair project – and Patrick whole-heartedly embraces it – Julia suddenly doesn’t feel so best friend-y toward him. In fact, she tries to sabotage the project. Raising silkworms is way too “Korean” for Julia, who desperately wants “a nice, All-American, red-white-and-blue kind of project.” 

“I didn’t want my house to smell like kimchee. I didn’t want kids to yell, ‘Chinka-Chinka-Chinaman’ at me. And I didn’t want to do something weird and Asian for the Wiggle Club.” 

It’s easy to sympathize with Julia. She wants to find a project she’s passionate about, but raising silkworms just isn’t it. Yet, she realizes that letting down Patrick would be, “a lousy thing to do to a friend.” 

As Julia wrestles with her feelings toward the project, others embrace it. From Mr. Maxwell, the sustainable farmer who runs the Wiggle Club, to Mr. Dixon, the man whose Mulberry tree supplies leaves for the silkworms, a community of caregivers is created. Even Kenny, Julia’s annoying little brother, begins to take the project seriously when Patrick asks if he will record the temperature inside the aquarium every day. “It’s a matter of life and death,” Patrick tells him. As the community around the project grows, so does Julia’s passion for it. By the time the silkworm eggs hatch, she is no longer thinking about what is best for her and is instead focused on what’s best for the whole – for the project, for the people involved, and mostly for the “little tiny itsy-bitsy worms” that will eventually spin the cocoons of silk. In the end, true teamwork is evident when it’s time to kill the worms in order to collect the thread. Patrick knows without asking how this makes Julia feel. 

“I’ll do it, Jules. You can go up to your room, or whatever. You don’t have to be there when – when—” 

“No,” she replies. “I want us to do it together.” 

So together, they pick which cocoons they will boil for the silk. Together, they decide which worms will get to live and turn into moths. And together they bury the dead worms, knowing their decomposing bodies will go back into the soil. Together – along with their community of caregivers – they flesh out, work through, and celebrate the highs and lows of a project. That’s teamwork. That’s interconnectedness. 

“He was only one squirrel. There wasn’t much time. What should he do?” 

This is the underlying question in Lynne Rae Perkins’ beautifully written book, Nuts to You, a story about one squirrel whose “unfortunate snatching” by a hawk sends him and his whole squirrel squad on an incredible journey of self-discovery, survival and how to best care for not only oneself, but the greater community. After Jed’s disappearance, the rest of the squirrels are shocked and sorrowful. “Let’s eat a nut and remember our friend,” says one. But Chai and TsTs – Jed’s best friends – have already put a different plan in motion. TsTs is pretty sure she witnessed the hawk dropping Jed, and she convinces Chai to set off with her to find him. Eventually they do, but their journey reveals more than just their friend’s whereabouts – they learn that humans are chain sawing their way through the forest, cutting down tree branches around the “buzzpaths” (power lines). Clearly this poses a great threat to the squirrels’ home and the lives of their family and friends. 

“Amid screaming flashes of silver, homes and highways crashed to the ground, where they piled up in heaps of wreckage. There was nothing to do but run.” 

And run they do. Jed, TsTs and Chai run until they realize they can’t run from it anymore. They must go back and convince the other squirrels that the “racket” is more than just an annoyance; it’s an imminent danger on the way to destroy their community. But squirrels – they aren’t easily convinced of things. Especially when they’re busy preparing for what they see as the real threat – winter. Jed, TsTs and Chai have to get creative and figure out a way to move everyone, and quickly. So, they make it into a game.  

“Why will they believe it’s a game, when they don’t believe us about the racket?” asked Jed. 

“Because, like all of you have been saying,” said TsTs, smiling, “we’re squirrels. We want to believe in games.” 

Nuts to You is not only a book about the environment and what is happening to it, but it’s also a story about what it feels like to care deeply about something and be reliant on others to help preserve it. It’s a story about what happens when we can’t take care of something alone…when we need others to help us do it. Sometimes teamwork is the only way we can get to where we need to go – physically, emotionally, or psychologically. Change happens when everyone moves toward the same end game, even – as in the case of squirrels – when the game has to be silly before it becomes serious. 

Change also happens when teamwork allows one person’s vision to become everyone’s reality. In William Kamkwamba’s autobiography, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, we meet young William, a brilliant boy growing up in a poor village in Malawi. William loves hearing the folktales his father tells at night, though eventually he develops a “healthy dose of skepticism” and begins to look at the world in a different way, one that he decides is “explained by fact and reason, rather than mystery and hocus-pocus.” As his love for science grows, so does Malawi’s death toll from the famine that grips the country. Growing, too, is the belief among the villagers that William is “misala” or crazy, as he gathers junkyard scraps to build what he thinks may “change the lives of the people around him.” But those people taunt him, saying, “Ah, look, the madman has come with his garbage,” and that William is, “just a crazy boy who plays with toys and refuses to work.”   

William sees it differently. And, despite the teasing of the villagers or the initial doubt of his own family, he also sees something else. Like Julia in Project Mulberry, he sees something bigger than just him.  

“Where others see garbage, I see opportunity.” 

William is set on building a windmill and finding the people who are willing to help him. Ms. Sikelo, the librarian, teaches him how to borrow books from the tiny library in the primary school. His father is eventually willing to part with his bicycle so that William can use it for the frame of the windmill. The welder, Mister Godsten, connects the shock absorber shaft to the bicycle’s bottom bracket, allowing the wheel to spin. Even William’s friend, Gilbert, digs up the drainage pipe from his family’s bathhouse, a move that’s quite unpopular with his father. William forages for people to help move his plan forward in the same way he forages for trash he will turn into treasure.

A close-up of William’s windmill

“What can do the pedaling for me so that both of us can dance?”  

Though his vision is unclear, his tribe of supporters begin to believe in him. William is the brains behind the project, but his success is directly enhanced by his interconnectedness with others. Never does he lose faith that others will see the project the way he does. He keeps his focus on the fact that building the windmill will prove to be for the greater good. He is convinced that, “If we can all invent something to make our lives better, we can change Malawi.”  

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind reminds us of the power in teamwork. Of encouraging others to get behind an idea, even when the outcome isn’t clear. William sees opportunity in dreamers, and that vision drives others to dream. 

There’s a phrase that many believe to be an old African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.” That phrase resonated through my head a few weeks ago as I boarded the plane leaving Oklahoma. I thought about my son, and the big life ahead of him. I thought about the people who would serve as stepping stones to that big life. And I thought about the characters in these three books – how each of them came to realize that their success, survival, or vision would only manifest if they asked, then trusted, others to believe in them.  

Growth happens when we realize we are not alone. When we reach for the talents and treasures of others. When we realize we can breathe easier because someone will pick up our work and move it forward. These three titles help us celebrate the power of teamwork. They remind young readers of the interconnectedness of our world and that – together – we can make big differences for our planet. And we can thank our stars for each of our own little villages. 

Lynne Rae Perkins Meets Us at The Lamp-Post

In celebration of Earth Day, listen to our conversation about Conservation in children’s literature with Lynne Rae Perkins, author of Nuts to You 

We talk about unexpected inspirations for stories, a subconscious interest in rodents, the fine art of writing about connections (those missed, and those made), and how writers choose phrases and metaphors that can plant seeds in the minds of student readers.  

 Lynne Rae Perkins won the Newbery Medal for Criss Cross. She has written other novels about humans including All Alone in the Universe and Secret Sisters of the Salty Sea, and many beautiful picture books that have some animals and some humans. While illustrating a book about Johnny Appleseed, the seed of an idea for a book about squirrels took root and grew into the delightful story of adventure, loyalty, persuasion, and the importance of trees, that became Nuts to You. 

Gates Elementary Spends 12 Years with OSOB!

For the last twelve years, Gates Elementary in Davison, Michigan has held an annual One School, One Book reading event. The school-wide reading program is one that students and staff eagerly look forward to each year.

OSOB [really] brings families and schools together,” says Theresa Wendt, who has been the Principal at Gates Elementary for 22 years. “Seeing what others have done helps bring about change in how we do things at Gates. It is always an exciting time!”

“The Tale of Despereaux” is but one of many titles Gates Elementary explored.

Wendt goes on to share the path that brought Gates Elementary into the OSOB fold.

“In the late 2000’s, the Gates PTO started a Winter Reading Challenge for students. Participation was ‘okay’, but it seemed like the adults were doing a lot more work on it than the number of students participating.”

It wasn’t until two years after starting this winter challenge that Wendt happened to come across a small article about One School, One Book in a professional magazine. Intrigued, Wendt shared the piece with one of her teachers and the Gates PTO.

“They were sold!” Wendt says. “Gates has now been doing OSOB for 12 years with each year getting better than the last.”

During their lengthy tenure with OSOB, Wendt and her staff have used many strategies to get families actively engaged. There is always a kickoff, and most years have a student assembly or a family fun night, as well. Book bags, labeled with the families’ names, are made up with all of the materials families will need: a letter introducing the book, a reading schedule, suggested vocabulary, and even at-home activities. Families are encouraged to read each night as a family, and teachers read the chapters aloud the next day for students who may not have had time to do the reading the night before.

“Usually we conclude our reading with a family fun night where activities are planned that correlate with the book,” Wendt says.

“Usually we conclude our reading with a family fun night where activities are planned that correlate with the book,” Wendt says. “For example, the year we read The Lemonade War, our family night included a lemonade war between grade levels. Another year, we had a good egg/bad egg station when we read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where students could choose an egg that was filled with a little pack of bamboozle jelly beans and another station where students were able to make their own candy. Parents and students always look forward to this night as we are all talking about the book and the fun we had reading it and completing the activities.”

Amid Covid, however, the staff at Gates adapted the program so there were nightly Zoom sessions for families to listen and follow along as teachers read the OSOB selection aloud. It proved to be a popular choice, a necessity for the time. Wendt notes that, as the world gravitates back to normalcy,  “[our OSOB] should be [rooted] more in family time – time spent together reading and talking about the book.”

Upon reflection, Wendt says that the biggest change from their first OSOB to their most recent has been the planning. In the first year, the program preparations were done by five people who stayed late on a Friday afternoon. Now the process has become fluid and smooth.

“The organization of getting bags ready for close to 500 families was the most difficult part,” Wendt says. “We [just] did not plan for our first year. Now, we select our book in November/December and get it ordered right away then we start working on the items we share with families.”

It can be challenging to generate excitement for a program year after year, but Wendt believes she and her staff have a simple yet ingenious solution: the book selection.

“We always try to select a book that is part of a series,” Wendt says. “Sometimes, it just takes one book to turn a child into a reader and if it happens to be our OSOB then we want them to have more chances to read that author. I also believe that staff talking about the book with students helps hype up the program at Gates.”

Book selection doubles as the part of the program Wendt looks forward to each year. Though it’s not an easy decision, Wendt appreciates the opportunity to share a “good book with a significant number of people.”

The year that The World According to Humphrey was selected as an OSOB, one of the teachers bought a hamster for the school.

Wendt adds that her school has been visited by Jacqueline Davies, author of The Lemonade War and, most recently, had a visit from Allan Woodrow, author of Class Dismissed. The year that The World According to Humphrey was selected as an OSOB, one of the teachers bought a hamster for the school. The Gates’ Humphrey visited each classroom for a day, and the classes kept a journal that was passed around so everyone could read about Humphrey’s adventures at Gates.

Wendt has no doubt that OSOB has had a positive impact on her school. Students enjoy the experience, and she feels the school “really comes together as a family” when they are united behind one book. She and her staff are already looking forward to the next event, and all the joy, excitement, and memories that lay ahead.

Earth Day and Ingenuity

When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty. 

— John Muir 

On April 22nd, we celebrate Earth Day. It seems a fitting occasion to appreciate how the poetry and dedication of passionate environmental reformers like Muir have left us a legacy that includes our glorious National Park system and the celebration of Earth Day for over 50 years. It’s also an occasion, at The Lamp-Post, to consider how children’s literature can awaken the curiosity of new generations of John Muirs – citizens who are attuned to language and nature. Authors inspire us with the magic of stories and the wisdom of characters who stay in the mind and become part of a reader’s world view, affecting the way we perceive the world and react to its new challenges. 

Muir’s words remain inspiring, and so I’d like to take a closer look at how inspiration can be found in three different works – Nuts to You, squirrels rescuing squirrels in a vulnerable forest, by Lynne Rae Perkins; Project Mulberry, two students raise silkworms and learn about sustainable farming, by Linda Sue Park; and The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, the resourceful William Kamkwamba uses junkyard gold to build a windmill and bring energy and electricity (and water) to his village, by Kamkwamba (with Bryan Mealer). 

In exploring these titles, I focus on the ingenuity required to preserve our natural world, mining these titles for the verbal and anecdotal seeds the authors have planted in these works, seeds that can inspire readers. In each of these books the characters are ingenious by necessity. Ingenuity is critical in figuring out how to preserve species or habitats. The progress that leads to Earth Day – or the great horned owl or the snail darter or the axolotl! – comes from inspired new ideas. As Julia Song notes midway through Project Mulberry: “Good ideas were hard!” 

“Cautiously, they crept to the chewed-off edge of the livable world.” 

The squirrels in Nuts to You – Chai and TsTs – set out to rescue Jed. (You’re supposed to pronounce TsTs phonetically, “Tsuh-tsuh,” although Perkins recommends making two tongue clicks to be more accurate, just one of the playful details that makes reading the book so fun.) Along the way they discover a friend among the red squirrels, née Tchotke, but she goes by Tchke, which is much easier to say. They discover that humans are cutting down vegetation along their “buzzpaths” – the strips of land occupied by power transformers and electrical wires – which threaten their home, the Grove. 

The book opens when Jed is captured by a hawk, and though that should be the end for Jed, he is alert and level-headed enough to practice the squirrel martial art of Hai Tchree. He distracts the hawk ever so slightly by alerting him to “Mice!” in the field below, and when he senses the slackening of the hawk’s grip he makes like water and is able to drop out of the hawk’s talons to fall safely to the field below. Ingenious! 

The squirrels themselves do not at first truly understand the threat they are facing. They know the chain saws are loud, and that trees are falling, but they don’t know the humans are not actually clear-cutting, but merely pruning the designated alleys for the buzzpaths. 

The critical moment of ingenuity in Nuts to You involves social psychology. When Chai, TsTs, Jed, and Tchke return, they recognize the Grove is doomed and that they need to find a way to get their colony of squirrels out before it’s too late. Somehow they don’t think their friends and family will just trust their say-so, but by playing on their well-found knowledge that squirrels love games (one of many squirrel culture traits that Lynne Rae Perkins playfully embellishes), they devise an elaborate game reminiscent of capture the flag that succeeds in saving the squirrel colony. 

At the novel’s close, a wise old squirrel offers some perspective, understanding that in places where the humans build condominiums, animal habitats are truly destroyed. This squirrel has parlayed a mutual love of peanut butter and learned to communicate with the lunch-toting lumberjacks. He sagely notes that “in a nutshell, I didn’t leave the forest. The forest left me.” But his parting words are: “I wish humans understood how important trees are.” 

John Muir would be happy to hear this sentiment expressed so succinctly in a children’s novel. He’d also be heartened that an evolving literature – which includes Lab Girl by Hope Jahren; The Overstory, by Richard Powers, and The Search for the Mother Tree, by Suzanne Simard – has begun to articulate and teach us all both the wisdom of trees and the ways in which they actually communicate. As if the Ents from Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings or the wise old Red from Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree are among us after all.  

“Patrick looked at him and then at me… and said exactly what I was thinking: ‘Why didn’t we think of that?’” 

Ingenuity is encountered in more obvious ways in Project Mulberry, but it sometimes comes from unexpected quarters. Julia and Patrick embark on a project to raise silkworms for the state fair. It’s an odyssey of discovery as they learn they’ll need to procure mulberry leaves to feed the silkworms, study each stage of the silkworm’s development, figure out how to depict and document their progress, and eventually confront unexpected ethical dilemmas when it’s time to harvest the silk. They get a massive save when they encounter the genial Mr. Dixon who has the only mulberry tree in town and is happy to let them harvest as many leaves as they want to feed the silkworms.  

The first problem they have to solve is how to keep Julia’s annoying little brother, Kenny, from messing with the growing silkworms. Patrick suggests bringing Kenny closer to the project, in order to get him to respect and preserve it. It works, and Kenny becomes an integral part of the team. He is the first to spot a subtle change in the appearance of the eggs, indicating progress toward hatching. He’s also the one to suggest that the way to film the silkworms clearly is to put them in glass jars. (Ingenious!) 

Julia and Patrick learn to manage all the little challenges that come with this brand new project such as how to care for and mist their precious mulberry leaves, how to count the eggs and learn patience, how to recognize the tiny silkworms when they’ve hatched, and how to feed them regularly (more than they expect!). They become truly inspired when their club takes a field trip to Mr. Maxwell’s farm to learn about sustainable farming. (Linda Sue Park borrowed details from Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, made famous in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma.) There they come to truly understand the importance of “the cycle” in understanding how Nature works best. They gain insights here that may last the rest of their lives: 

“The caterpillar had already wrapped itself in a layer of silk. It looked like it was living inside a cloud. We could see its black mouth moving, moving, busy, busy, busy.” 

Mr. Maxwell teaches them what it means “to feel responsibility for what we eat.” He details the ingenious cycle of his farm: the cows eat the grass; the cow poop fertilizes the grass; the chickens eat the maggots that grow in the cowpats, aerate the soil, and distribute the fertilizer; the sheep come in and eat all the weeds; and then the cows return… It’s a brilliant, self-sustaining operation that makes for happy cows, happy chickens, and happy sheep, and it inspires Julia and Patrick to further contemplate the power of nature’s cycles.  

My favorite moment in the book is when Julia and Patrick resolve to harvest their minuscule amounts of silkworm poop and take it across town to fertilize Mr. Dixon’s mulberry tree. It feels more like a ritual gesture, but it suggests that Julia and Patrick have got religion on sustainable farming, and it’s not hard to believe that thinking self-reflectively, taking the extra time for small gestures, and doing the right thing even if it’s more time consuming, will become an integral part of the people they each become. 

I would like to believe the same is true for readers. Who’s to say which reader absorbs Julia’s lesson from Mr. Maxwell, but that’s how literature works. Children’s literature, too. Just as Charlotte’s Web has helped generations of readers to think about the life of a spider, or the interrelations in the barn, a host of children’s novels have provided iconic moments that teach these messages, too. Jean Craighead George introduced us to Sam Gribley, the boy who steals away to live independently in the Catskills, in My Side of the Mountain  (1959). Sam shows us all how to live in the natural world, working with the bounty it provides. E.B. White’s Trumpet of the Swan (1970) opens with the budding naturalist, Sam Beaver, who discovers and protects the trumpeter swan eggs before befriending Louis. The super intelligent rats in Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1974) abandon the notion of stealing from humans, and create their own sustainable farm in Thorn Valley. More recently, Carl Hiaasen has written a quintet of witty, moving books in which young conservations fight to preserve animals and habitats in Florida. See: Hoot (2002), Flush (2005), Scat (2009), Chomp (2012), and Squirm (2018). Lesser known works like Bill Harley’s Night of the Spadefoot Toads (2008) depict curious, sensitive characters learning how to recognize, appreciate, and protect the sensitive wildlife around them. And just now Katherine Applegate has presented us with Willodeen (2021) whose story revolves on the discovery of how interdependent habitats are, just like Maxwell’s Farm.  

“I was filled with the desire to understand, and the questions never stopped coming.”  

William Kamkwamba is the epitome of ingenuity. In his memoir, adapted in a young readers edition, William details the quandary his village faces. A drought. No money to buy seed for maize, the one cash crop they can raise. Nights filled with darkness as they have no electricity. And the endless walk to haul water as they have no electric pumps. William is only 14 when he sets about to build a windmill to generate enough electricity for his family. William’s motto is, “Where others see garbage, I see opportunity.” He solves every problem and meets every challenge by heading to the junkyard and harvesting spare parts. He uses a Walkman, a condenser, five radios, and a homemade microphone to build his own little neighborhood radio station. His windmill combines a gum tree, more bicycle parts, and scrap from the junkyard to show that electricity is possible for his entire village. Eventually, William figures out how to use solar panels to pump water for his village, ending the need for those long walks. William has a mind and a can-do problem-solving mentality that never stops thinking, tinkering, solving. 

Another mantra (he reminds me of Rikki Tikki Tavi)  is: “I guess I’ll have to research this a little more.” Whether William is building soccer balls (plastic bags bound with rope) or toy trucks (cardboard beer cartons bound with wire) or contemplating how his family can get the corn seed to grow more maize, William is a relentless problem solver. His family ends up “selling all of our food”  (their remaining seed corn) to buy flour to make fried cakes that they sell at the market. They turn a profit on the elaborate transaction and manage to survive the famine until they can actually grow maize again. 

William’s resourcefulness is partly borne from the culture in Malawi. When he builds a trap – rubber bicycle tube, broken bicycle spoke, clothesline wire, maize chaff, four bricks – it’s not as if he’s dreamed it up anew. Where William lives, you have to be resourceful. But William dreams bigger than traps, soccer balls, and toy cars. When he sees the energy that can be generated by pedaling a bicycle, he thinks beyond his family. He thinks of his village and eventually dreams, “What if every home and shop in Wimbe had machines on the rooftops to catch the wind?” And he makes that dream come true. 

“What can do the pedaling for me so that both of us can dance?” 

What does all this have to do with conservation, the environment, and John Muir? William explains that the problem is not an actual lack of electricity in Malawi. Because of deforestation, the government-operated turbines get clogged regularly from runoff, which turns off the power at night in rural villages. Electricity became more expensive, causing many families to use wood for heating and cooking, leading to more deforestation. 

The famine Malawi experienced in 2001 was exacerbated by the end of government support for fertilizer, devastating floods, and finally drought. Thus William’s family recourse to the ingenious flour cake solution, employing first hand elementary principles of market economics. William’s windmill isn’t about to solve every problem in Malawi. But his ingenuity offers a problem-solving template for those who will eventually find smarter, nation-wide solutions.  

William’s ingenuity is fueled by his endless curiosity. He is a born researcher. He gets access to science books from an American literary mission and finds his touchstone, Using Energy. He transposes the ideas he learns, using rudimentary materials, to build his windmill. After people become aware of his successes, he is invited to give a TED Talk in Tanzania. He gets access to a computer for the first time and quips, “Where was this Google when I needed it?” Eventually the success of his book leads him to Dartmouth College. While earning his degree there his favorite haunt is the “tool library ” in the School of Engineering where William can borrow tools and experiment to his heart’s content. He demonstrates that you don’t need Google or a computer when you have your own fervent brain to invent solutions working with the resources you have, one with the land and your people. 

“A windmill meant more than just power. It was freedom.” 

We want student readers – kids – to be ingenious, too. In educating parlance, we want them to learn how to be creative problem solvers. These books all display playful and ingenious creative problem solving in which students can learn vicariously. Teachers regularly challenge their students with projects to evince creative problem solving. When you read these three books, look for the places where a sentiment or image might just be the little niggling idea that gets planted in a student’s mind, and never goes away, affecting how they see the world and spark some new idea in their future. That’s what great literature can do – what we want it to do – planting the seeds for tomorrow’s innovative leaders. 

I believe student readers can be inspired by the experiences of TsTs, Julia Song, and William Kamkwamba. I can’t predict which moment, which witty riposte, which colorful description, which perfect pithy turn of phrase, or what critical invention will be the spark for each of them. But I do know the seeds are here.  

It may come from William Kamkwamba’s evocative memory of farming life in better times: “The rains made everything come alive. All across the region, the flowers bloomed and the forests and bushes blossomed. Everywhere you went, the land smelled rich and fragrant.” 

Or from Mr. Maxwell’s encomium to living within the limits of the land and its resources: “I’m a grass farmer. That’s my main job – making sure the soil stays fertile so the grass grows well. The animals do everything else, and if we all do our jobs, the system sustains itself – it keeps going and going.”  

Or it might come from a simple, pithy Lynne Rae Perkins squirrel neologism: “Squirrels are fleet, and life is fleeting, gather ye nuts and feast while ye may.” 

When students read sentiments like these, they drink from the cup of John Muir and his resourceful heirs. One of those heirs, Rachel Carson, also wrote:  

“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history.” 

To which I think we should generously add, that’s the aim of children’s literature, too. 

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