Newberry Author Encourages Students to Keep Journals
"That's HIM!" a student whispered as Alan Armstrong, author of the 2006 Newbery Honor book "Whittington," walked into the Sandhills Farm Life Elementary School media center Thursday, Jan. 7.
For the next hour, 90 fifth-graders were mesmerized by Armstrong and his tales of travel, adventure, sorrow, trouble and voyages into the unknown.
"You all have stories to tell and no one can tell your stories except you," the author said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small leather notebook. "I carry this notebook and write down things that happen to me, things that might just be the beginning of a story or work their way into a story, things people say, and words I find interesting."
"'Swill,'" he read. "'Rowdy.' Now, that's an interesting word. Haven't you heard your teachers call you rowdy?"
The children laughed along with their language arts/social studies teachers.
"Keep a journal, and write, write, write. Nothing is insignificant if it catches your attention. Little things can turn into big stories."
Later at The O'Neal School, where he met with media coordinator Lynn Bowness and 70 fifth- and sixth-graders, Armstrong recalled a story from his own childhood.
"It was 1947. I was eight. My brother and I had built a moon station in our backyard at our home in Maryland. It looked like a squirrel's nest in a big oak tree," he said. "A man with a German accent who was visiting my mother asked if he could see it. He climbed the ladder and looked in. 'For what it is, it is OK,' he said to me. 'But what do you do with this stupid compass?'"
"I thought to myself, what do you mean 'stupid compass'? My brother and I were very proud of that compass!
"'What do you mean with it?' the man demanded. 'A compass will not tell you anything in space! You need magnetism from the North Pole!' Of course, he was right. After all, he was Wernher von Braun, the scientist who left Germany after World War II and came to the U.S. to lead our space program."
Sixty years later, that brief but memorable moment from Armstrong's childhood found its way into the new book he is writing, "The Voyage of the No Name," about the beginning of the space age.
"The universe isn't made up of atoms. It's made up of bright fluttering stories," Armstrong continued. "Make notes when a surprise comes by. Every story starts with two or three words - catch them! Keep a journal."
Armstrong discussed his own family and pets that became characters in the three children's books he's written. In "Whittington," Armstrong weaves the story of the 14th century English folktale Dick Whittington and his cat with a modern day story of two orphaned children who take refuge in a barn. The battered tomcat in the story was modeled after Armstrong's daughter's cat, Bent Ear. Ben, the boy in the story, has dyslexia and is struggling to learn how to read but refuses to go to special education classes.
"My oldest brother was dyslexic," Armstrong says, "but it was never diagnosed as a disorder you could treat. My son, too, had reading difficulties. What appealed to me in writing 'Whittington' was telling how hard growing up is. Kids fight lonely battles, like Dick Whittington and Ben. They look for help on the way."
In his second book, "Raleigh's Page," a Junior Library Guild selection, Armstrong imagined himself as 11-year-old Andrew Saintleger, who is set dangerous tasks by Sir Raleigh to test his intelligence, trustworthiness and bravery, before earning the right to go on the grandest adventure ever - the first scientific expedition to explore America. He is now working on a sequel.
In his new book, "Looking for Marco Polo," Armstrong imagined his youngest grandson as Mark, the boy who travels to Venice to find his father, who disappears while tracing Marco Polo's route through the Gobi Desert.
"Mark had a breathing disorder similar to the one I had as a child," Armstrong says. "The boys in my new book on space are much like me and my brothers."
He is also working on a book called "Angela and the Hero."
"For the first time, I am having to write from the viewpoint of a young girl instead of a young boy. I think I owe it to my granddaughters, daughter and wife to write about a girl this time."
Having children read a book and then meet the author "excites and inspires" kids, says Sandhills Farm Life teacher Toni Koontz.
"After meeting Mr. Armstrong, one girl told me she is going to be the first 10-year-old who gets a book published. Many of the students got out paper and started recording what they did at school. Even my tough guys were reading the books they purchased!"
Armstrong's visit was arranged by Angie Tally, manager of the children's book section at The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines.
"It's not often you get to meet an author who's gotten a 'Newbery Call,'" she says. Tally, who taught at Silk Hope and Moncure Elementary Schools in Chatham County, and at Episcopal Day School in Southern Pines before becoming a counselor there, has developed a reputation with parents and teachers as an expert in children's literature. Publishers send Tally advance readers copies of their new books for her to review, as well as asking her to coordinate school events for their authors on tour.
"On March 1, Scholastic Books is sending Peter Lerangis here. He is the author of two books, 'The Sword Thief,' and 'The Viper's Nest' due out in February, in the wildly successful '39 Clues' series," Tally said. She has also arranged for him to be at The Country Bookshop to sign his books later in the afternoon.
Tally agrees with Armstrong when he said, "Someone who puts you onto a good book is like a friend who introduces you to a friend - one of the true generous acts. The best people in the world are the ones who say, 'Try this!'"
"That's what I try to do," Tally says. "If I can get just one book into a child's hands, it will be the first of many. And if I can bring authors to schools to share their books and inspire kids to read, I've done my job."
Alan Armstrong lives with his wife, the internationally renowned artist Martha Armstrong, in Hatfield, Mass.
For information about the Peter Lerangis-"39 Clues" author event on March 1, call Angie Tally at The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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