On Thursday, March 12, Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued a mandate to close all Michigan schools grades K-12 through April 5 to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Spring Break is the following week for Kalamazoo Public Schools and, as of this posting, that is still happening, which means students should be returning to school on April 13th.
In the meantime, it’s more important than ever for our kids—and us!—to read. What books do you plan to read?
Last month, we asked Communities In Schools board members what they are reading. Here’s what a few of them said:
Not that long ago, we introduced you to our newest board members and they shared their favorite children’s book. You can read that post here.
Need to get your freshly washed hands on one of these or other books? Even though the Kalamazoo Public Library is currently closed during this pandemic, their online branch never closes. They have a solution for self-isolation boredom. You can check out their large variety of digital options, including eBooks, eAudiobooks, eVideos, eMusic, and eMagazines. It’s easy to browse and you can filter your search in several ways, including by age (adult, juvenile, or teen). Here’s their website.
Also, keep in mind our three wonderful independent bookstores that serve this community. Like other small and local businesses, they are part of what makes Kalamazoo so special and they continue to need our support. They are here for us and you can help the local health of our economy by turning to them (without even setting foot outside your home!) for your reading needs instead of going to Amazon.
Here are quick links to each of their websites and Facebook pages:
Born and raised in Connecticut, Elissa Kerr spent much of her childhood “playing under the shade of two massive maple trees.” Not surprising given this former CIS site coordinator has just written a book that features maple trees! We ran into Elissa a few months back during an author event at Kazoo Books, where she was introducing a children’s book she’s written. She said, “I am very excited to embark on this new endeavor as it will allow me to get back to my roots and what I am passionate about—encouraging a child’s love of learning.”
No matter what endeavor Elissa undertakes, she says her two biggest supporters are her husband Ian and their two young boys.
Since it’s National Reading Month and Michigan’s Maple Sugaring days are upon us, we think it’s the perfect time to catch up to Elissa Kerr and get the scoop on her new book.
What brought you to Michigan?
I moved to Michigan in 2008 because my husband attended Western Michigan University. We fell in love with the area and have been here ever since.
You first got connected with CIS by serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA with us, right?
Yes. I have a degree in elementary and special education. When we moved to Michigan I began working with CIS as an AmeriCorp VISTA. I supported both Arcadia Elementary School and Edison Environmental Science Academy. I then stepped into the site coordinator role at King Westwood for two years. And for the past eight years I have been employed by the State of Michigan and focused on supporting individuals and families.
What is one of your fondest memories from when you were working with CIS?
I think one of my favorite projects was setting up a publishing center at Arcadia. It was wonderful to have volunteers come in and support classroom teachers and promote the art of storytelling. The best part was watching kids find their voice by sharing stories they were passionate about.
What was your favorite childhood book?
It’s difficult to pick just one book! My favorite childhood author would have to be Beverly Cleary. I especially loved her character, Ramona. Her mischievous antics always sprung from a place of pure childhood curiosity.
What book are you currently reading?
I enjoy participating in Kalamazoo Public Library’s Reading Together event. I love the idea of learning and having a discussion on a topical subject as a community, so I will usually give their suggestion a try. I recently finished this year’s book, We are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer. [Jonathan Safran Foer’s presentation is tonight, Tuesday, March 10, 2020 at Chenery Auditorium at 7 pm.]
My guilty pleasures are mysteries, though, and I recently read The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware.
Describe your book in one sentence, or two, if one is too hard.
The Sweetest Season follows a young girl and her father as they journey through the forest and work to transform sap to syrup.
For your book, you must have done some research. If so, can you talk a little bit about that?
We are members of the Kalamazoo Nature Center and have attended their annual maple syrup festival for the past eight years. We take a picture of my kids every year in the exact same spot! Their volunteers and staff do a great job in teaching guests about the process of identifying maples, tapping trees, and boiling syrup. I did additional research as well, again, turning to my local library for additional books. I am a strong supporter of libraries.
The title of your book, The Sweetest Season, is short and sweet and hits just the right spot. At what point in your writing process did you identify this title? Is there a story behind coming up with the title?
Coming up with the title was probably one of the hardest parts for me. It did not come naturally. The story was completely written and illustrations were started before I had a title I loved. I was using the working title, Sugar Season. While informational, it was certainly not catchy or very whimsical. I made the change late in the process and am much happier with the title.
Do you have real maple syrup in your house right now?
Not currently. My family was enjoying a lot of syrup and breakfast foods, but sadly, they might be starting to get a bit tired of it. I did just find a recipe for a maple hot coco that I want to try, so I will probably be picking up some soon enough.
Can you tell us one or two interesting maple syrup-related facts?
It takes 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of syrup. It’s not just sugar maples that can be tapped for sap. Many other varieties can be tapped, it’s just that their sugar content is not as high. I am really curious to try a syrup from another type of tree just to compare!
Are any of the characters based on or inspired by real people?
Though they aren’t based on real people, my characters have a love and connection to nature that I hope to inspire in others.
What was the most challenging aspect of working on this book?
Rhyming and meter. I always wanted to make a book that rhymes. Some lines came naturally, while others I would constantly rewrite.
What behind-the-scene tidbit in your life would probably surprise readers the most?
My husband has bright red hair and many people who know me assume that I chose characters who have bright red hair. In reality, it was completely the illustrator’s idea. Zoe Saunders felt the red hair would be a nice contrast to the melting winter snow.
What is your favorite word or phrase right now?
My favorite phrase right now is: Little seeds grow mighty trees.
Little seeds could be small acts of kindness, a smile on the street, or a simple idea. You never know what impact your small gesture makes in the lives of others. I hope this book is that little seeds that inspires others to go outside and connect more with the nature found right in their backyards.
Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?
I come from a family of educators and I would say my grandmother still embodies that teaching and nurturing spirit. I would certainly consider her one of the most caring adults in my life. She always has inspired a love of learning and encouraged me to share my gifts and skills. She turned 95 this year and seems really delighted to see my work on this project. I am thankful that it’s brought her so much joy.
You can find Elissa’s book, The Sweetest Season, at Kazoo Books. It’s also available for purchase on-line at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Sally Stevens, CIS volunteer and first recipient of the Gulnar Husain Volunteer Award.
A native of Kalamazoo, Sally attended Western Michigan University’s Campus School and University High through 10th grade. (These schools were once located on WMU’s East Campus.) After graduating from Kalamazoo Central High School, she attended Kalamazoo College for three years, then finished up her liberal arts degree at Western Michigan University.
Not long after retiring from Borgess Hospital in 2013, Sally began volunteering with Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo (CIS). She started out at Washington Writers’ Academy, distributing Friday Food Packs. Later, Sally, along with her superb organizational skills, moved to the downtown CIS office, helping the organization with volunteer efforts, large-scale mailings, and more. Then, in early 2016, she began applying her organizational skills to CIS Kids’ Closet. [You can read more about that, and her Gulnar Husain Volunteer Award, here.]
Like Gulnar Husain, the namesake whose award she receives, Sally makes her community better and stronger by giving her time to other great causes throughout Kalamazoo. In addition to CIS, Sally volunteers for the Oakwood Neighborhood Association, the Bronson Park Food Pantry, one of Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes food distribution sites, located at First United Methodist Church, and she serves on the board of Warm Kids. [Warm Kids is in it’s 32nd year of providing new coats, boots, hats and mittens to elementary school kids in Kalamazoo County and Plainwell.]
Alright, Sally Stevens: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.
I don’t know…I wasn’t striving for any award. I wasn’t expecting to be noticed or awarded so it came as a complete surprise. I’m usually working behind the scenes and don’t get recognized, so I was surprised to learn I’d been selected for the award. It feels good, though, and I’m happy about it!
Given all you have done in your volunteer role with CIS Kids’ Closet, I know Gulnar would love that you have received this award, named after her. When she was the CIS site coordinator at Arcadia Elementary School she often turned to Kids’ Closet to meet student needs. How would you describe the volunteer work you do with CIS?
I support the CIS mission through Kids’ Closet. I generally volunteer four hours a week, sometimes more, depending on what’s going on. I inventory donations and see what additional needs we have that should be requested on the CIS website. I pull together items requested by CIS coordinators that John [Brandon, CIS partner services coordinator] then delivers to the schools. Or, when coordinators stop down to the closet, I assist them with gathering up what they need. I’m often cleaning up, folding clothes, sorting items, and basically doing anything John needs me to do!
I like volunteering with CIS, I like the people and the way it’s managed. It’s just a good organization, made up of people who really care about kids.
John Brandon says this of you: Sally can organize the heck out of anything! Can you share a tip about organizing?
It helps to be detailed-oriented; I am. It also makes it less overwhelming if you can break things in pieces and see how those pieces are a part of the big picture. I like how things look when they are organized and that I can easily find what is needed. When our site people come to Kids’ Closet, I want it to look neat and organized. It’s a good feeling when things look visually appealing and I can readily find things to fill an order. While CIS buys a few things most of it comes from donations, so it helps that I can easily spot when we’re low on a particular item and we can then ask the community for donations.
What item do you find the hardest to keep in stock?
There is so much that is hard to keep in stock! Clothing. And boots. We didn’t have enough winter boots this year. Boots can be expensive item to donate. Also, personal items like deodorant. Deodorant is flying off the shelves right now. We got a lot of school supplies this year thanks to the generosity of the community. And because of that, we were able to give out more school supplies than we ever have before.
What is your most favorite item you have in your closet?
Oh, gosh! I don’t know. I don’t know if I really like all that I have in my closet! There isn’t one favorite item that comes to mind. I have certain clothes and shoes that I like to wear, but not one thing that stands out.
What are you currently reading?
I just finished Grandma Gatewood’s Walk. Emma Gatewood was the first women to walk the entire Appalachian Trail alone. She did it back in the late 1950s when she was in her late 60s! She just took change of clothes, shower curtain (for rain), food, and a little money. The author, Ben Montgomery, is related to her. It’s because of her that the Appalachian Trail became popular. At the end of Emma’s walk, when she was asked about her experience, she was quite vocal about areas of the trail not being in good condition and poorly marked in places. Because of her comments, the trail and markings were vastly improved.
I’ve just started reading Elephant Company by Vicki Croke. It’s a true story about a man who went to work for a British teak company in Burma. During World War II, he used the elephants to help people get to safety in India. In reading the book, I am also learning about elephants. They are really something!
I also like to walk. I’ll take walks at Asylum Lake, Kellogg Forest, Yankee Springs, and Fort Custer. Right now, I’m favoring places with steep hills as I’m trying to get in shape for an upcoming hiking trip in Yosemite National Park.
Favorite word right now?
Spring. If it ever comes. [This interview took place on a gray day that felt like late November, though it was actually April.]
What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?
I took a class this morning on how the states were formed. It was through OLLI [Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at WMU] and Randy Shaw taught it. I learned that there was a lot of negotiations that went on when state lines were formed. When it started out, lines were determined by the king or queen of England. When states gained independence, it was Congress that determined the lines, but, at times, arbitration was needed. Sometimes, disputes would even reach the Supreme Court. That class was really interesting and now I want to get the book, How the States Got Their Shape.
Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?
I’ve had so many people in my life that have been influential. My folks, so many teachers, my husband…a lot of wonderful influences in my life, too many to name!
Thank you, Sally, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.
–Read The Cyberlibrarian Reads, a wonderful blog by Miriam Downey, a retired librarian who is also a proud KPS grandparent. Miriam, who also co-edited the anthology Immigration and Justice For Our Neighbors, (a project we blogged about here last year and includes works by students from Arcadia Elementary School) read The Journey by Francesca Sanna at the anthology launch to the grownups and kids in attendance. In one of her more recent posts, she blogs about reading Sanna’s beautifully illustrated new book, Me and My Fear, with her granddaughter. You can read her post here.
–Ask your neighbor, your kid, your friends what they are reading! We asked a couple CIS board members and here’s what they said: