Allison's Book Bag

A Year with Who?

Posted on: November 6, 2014

In a presentation at the 2014 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival entitled “A Year with Who?”, Jeff Kurrus talked about the life of a writer and photographer who has taken the motto “know your audience” to an entirely new level. Associate editor of the award-winning wildlife publication NEBRASKAland magazine, Kurrus lives in the Midwest and is the author of the Golden-Sower nominee Have You Seen Mary? and The Tale of Jacob Swift. What follows are the highlights of his presentation.

THE APPEAL OF PHOTOS

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJeff Kurrus began by saying that he is no different from a seven or eight year old kid. When he looks at readers, he wants them to love his books.

On the heels of this statement, Kurrus talked about how photos are an optimal way to teach art and stories. Kurrus displayed a dazzling array of photos and explained that one can stop a room with an image that hasn’t been seen before or with an angle that hasn’t been done before. For example, kids like his photos of a deer that is making a face and of a snake with a head in focus but with the rest of it blurred. Bringing this idea closer to the classroom, Kurrus observed that a popular topic that kids write about is Disney World. He suggested that instead of students writing about the amusement park rides, why not write about the long lines?

When he teaches writing, Kurrus also shows his photos. This makes it personal. He also presents multiple variations of those photos. For example, he might show a photo of a flower and then zoom in on the bee, or he might show a fish but then present it from an underwater perspective. This to him is an ideal way to teach revision.

After this introduction, Kurrus proceeded to give examples of specific activities that teachers might try. Most of them relate to animals, because Kurrus wants to generate an interest in the outdoors.

  • Students can create a photo story. One will be a supervisor. Another one will be the photo editor. And another will be the writer. Students will create a story that others will read and critique. The activity addresses content and audience.
  • Teachers can also photos to talk about research and about animals that kids normally take for granted. For example, one topic could be robins. Teachers could lead students into a discussion of history by connecting robins to the passenger pigeons.
  • Finally, teachers could quiz students to encourage them to learn about animals. By asking leading questions about animals, and requiring students to research the answers, teachers can prompt them to ask: WHY???

THE PROCESS OF WRITING

After listing various activities for teachers to share with their students, Kurrus talked specifically about his two books. He enlisted about forty students to critique Have You Seen Mary? and about a thousand for The Tale of Jacob Swift. Initially, he was petrified. There are an abundance of chapter books. Most young people don’t know anything about sand hill cranes, the topic of Have You Seen Mary? How would they react to his manuscript?

In teaching students to do peer reviews and to work with one another, Kurrus starts out with two rules:

  • Be nice. I’m sensitive.
    (I have a desire to write but only average talent.)
  • Be specific. Explain why something should be changed and how.
    (I will listen and evaluate. I’m looking for patterns.)

Next, he shares the writing process:

  • Draft
  • Research
  • Organize Photos (10,000 to 40)
  • Revise
  • Polish
  • He stressed that students need to know that writers don’t live on a magic farm. Authors have to revise.

With these basics out of the way, Kurrus will talk with students about the conceptual ideas for a story. From there, they will focus on smaller aspects of the story. And, finally, they will get down to titles.

Kurrus advises that when teaching students to write, the idea is to give them the tools they will need and then have them look at topics in a different way. However, they also need to learn to critique and revise. The writing process is a philosophy for life too.

MORE ABOUT KURRUS

His presentation over, Kurrus took questions from the audience, starting with one about the inspiration for Have You Seen Mary? He watched the sandhill migration and realized there were hundreds of cranes. He started to think about the individuals. As he researched cranes, Kurrus realized that they mate for life. He began to ask questions from a research-minded point of view: What happens if a pair becomes separated? From there, he kept chasing ideas, having fun with an outline, and then turned to figuring out the structure for a story.

Although Kurrus is a professional photographer, he enlisted others to take photos for his two photo-fiction books. Having others photograph allowed Kurrus to focus on just the content. However, unlike with some picture books, Karrus did have control over who he picked for a photographer and what photos he used. He maintained control of the whole process.

One might think his books would just appeal to those from the Midwest, but specialists from all over the United States will buy hardcover editions to keep and paperbacks for the kids to use. One example of an outside purchase was that of a snow goose festival in California.

As for young people, they relate to the big picture of Have You See Mary? For example, how do you handle losing someone? And what lengths will a person go through to be there for the one they love?

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