Tonawanda News

March 28, 2013

'Eyes open, ears on'

By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News

TOWN OF TONAWANDA — It’s been a wild time this week at Lindbergh and Edison elementary schools in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school district.

With owl hoots, wildlife photos and even a tape-recording of the sounds grumpy baby black bears make (they scream), author Stephen Swinburne visited students at Lindbergh on Tuesday and Edison on Wednesday, speaking about his books, his ideas and what it takes to be a writer.

While Swinburne fielded questions Tuesday from a group of kindergartners and first-graders in the Lindbergh auditorium — including how long it takes to write a book (months to years), what made him want to be an author (”I love kids, I love nature, I love words. And I wanted to put all those things together”) and how he eats while he’s writing (”I take a little break and go get some food”) — librarian Abbey Kwietniak said the students have been reading his books in the library while the teachers incorporate them into the classroom.

“Meeting the author allows them to put a face to the name they’ve been hearing about,” she said. “They’re excited. It’s not every day you get to meet an author.

“I hope it’s inspiring them to read and write. I just hope they’re inspired.”

A little later, Swinburne showed a group of first- and second-graders at the school the desktop of his computer, full of files and folders with ideas and research for new books, and a slideshow of photos from his life ... and often how it ties into his work.

“Where do we get our ideas?” he asked the students. “We get them from our lives ... and our imaginations, too.”

For example, the story behind a photograph of a birdhouse at his home — followed by photos of the resident birds, their eggs and later babies — came to be Swinburne’s first book, “Swallows in the Birdhouse.”

“You have to have your eyes open and your ears on,” he told them. “You have to be looking around, you have to be paying attention.”

Swinburne, who lives in Vermont, is the author of more than 25 books for children, mostly non-fiction, including “Ocean Soup: Tide Pool Poems,” “Armadillo Trail,” “Lots & Lots of Zebra Stripes,” “Saving Manatees” and “Turtle Tide.” Many of the works stem from his experiences as a naturalist and former ranger in national parks.

At Edison Elementary, librarian Gretchen Seibert said that Swinburne’s books tie into the focus on the Common Core state standards, which have an emphasis on non-fiction reading.

“Because his books are for all ages here at Edison, kindergarten up through fifth grade, we’ve been preparing the students by reading the books and doing research on the animals,” she said. “We talk about things like noticing details and closely reading the text. We talk about his work not only as an author, but as a photographer.

“I think he has a broad appeal ... There are so many aspects of his work we can plug into. It’s easy to get elementary kids excited about animals. And he presents it in interesting ways kids can enjoy and be intrigued by.”

Swinburne told the students how things from their own lives can inspire their work. His experiences as a park ranger were behind “Turtle Tide.” The story behind a photo of young barn owl and the experience a friend had raising the bird became “In Good Hands: Behind the Scenes at a Center for Orphaned and Injured Birds.” 

A photograph of a spiderweb covered in dew and photos of other patterns in nature turned into “Lots & Lots of Zebra Stripes,” while a shot of the hand of a neighbor’s infant daughter resting against inside her father’s bigger one became “What’s Opposite?” The hijinks of Swinburne (nicknamed “Whiff” as a child by his mother) and his childhood best friend (nicknamed “Dirty George”) in his native London found their way into his first fiction chapter book, “Whiff and Dirty George: The Z.E.B.R.A. Incident.”

When writing, he advised the students to use strong verbs, keep a journal, do their research and above all, “Two things: You read a lot and you write a lot.”

Emma Kresge, 8, a student at Lindbergh Elementary, said she loved the presentation.

“It was very good,” she said. “I like that he was funny, and how he showed all the photos of his life.”

Kevin Ryder, 7, of Edison Elementary, agreed. Ryder, one of his school’s winners of a signed book for his opinion essay on one of Swinburne’s works, said he wants to be an author someday.

“It was fun,” he said. “I liked all the pictures he showed us.”

During the presentations, Swinburne kept impressing upon the students that they can be writers ... that they can write about what they know and what they’ve seen.

“Where do we get our ideas for writing and titles from?” he asked the students again. “We get them from our lives.

“You guys have things to write about. Always remember that.”