Storyteller inspires children

March 21, 1995|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

Second-grader Rachel Whitaker's short story about her friend getting lost and later found was inspired by both an African proverb and author Jane Cowen-Fletcher's second children's book, "It Takes A Village."

"I like the book. It does take a village to raise a child," Rachel said as though she were older than just her seven years.

Rachel met the Maine-based storyteller when Mrs. Cowen-Fletcher visited Phelps Luck Elementary School last week to read to the students, talk to them about writing books and critique their short stories.

She also managed to get Mrs. Cowen-Fletcher's autograph on a torn piece of notebook paper.

"It Takes A Village" is the school's theme for this school year, and all of Phelps Luck's about 550 students are striving to read a combined total of one million minutes by June.

If they read 100 minutes a week and have their parents sign a confirmation form, the students also get a tile to add to a colorful "It Takes A Village" mosaic in the school's hallway.

The students are about two-fifths of the way toward their goal of one million minutes, said Assistant Principal Jane Sims. In addition, the school is collecting canned foods to give to needy organizations in the county.

"We're giving back to our village," Mrs. Sims said.

But on this day, a visitor gave to their village.

Sitting on the edge of a round table in a classroom, Mrs. Cowen-Fletcher began by reading her first book, "Mama Zooms." Seventy students were on the carpeted floor with their legs crossed, focusing on the author as she read and turned the large colorful pages in the picture book.

"Mama Zooms" tells the story of a little boy's adventures when his mother takes him out in her "zoom machine." It's based upon the author's sister, Paula, who was paralyzed from the waist down after an accident.

"She's in a wheelchair," students whispered aloud when Mrs. Cowen-Fletcher turned to a later page showing the mother in a wheelchair.

"That was done on purpose," the author said. "I didn't want this book to be about handicaps or handicapped people. I wanted the book to be about a mother and her child."

"Mama Zooms" inspired her to write "It Takes A Village," which is based on her experiences when she was in the peace corps in Benin, West Africa.

Set in Benin, the 29-page book tells the tale of siblings Yemi and Kokou. While their mother sells mangoes in the market place, Yemi watches her young brother. But when she buys peanuts for the restless boy, he wanders off. Unknown to the worried girl, villagers care for him.

In the book, Yemi's mother tells her: "As my mama told me and her mama told her, I will tell you: 'You weren't alone today, Yemi. We don't raise children by ourselves. It takes a village to raise a child.' "

During a brief question-and-answer session with Mrs. Colin-Fletcher, one boy asked her why she wanted to write "It Takes A Village."

"If you ever get a chance to go to Africa, go," she told the students. "What impressed me was how the people looked out for each other."

Some of the questions were more personal.

"How old are you?," another boy asked.

"I'm 36," she responded. "Today is my birthday."

"Happy birthday," some of the children blurted out together.

"Do you write any adult books?" another student inquired.

"No, too many pages," she said half-jokingly.

The author then visited Colleen DeJordy's second-grade class, where she read the youngsters' own stories prompted by their reading of "It Takes A Village."

Kneeling in front of a small desk, she read Rachel Whitaker's story:, which begins: "Bing, I fell out of bed. Allison, wake up . . . "

"Good opening," Mrs. Cowen-Fletcher complimented her. Later, she told Rachel that "I need to know who Allison is."

"Allison is her," said a girl, pointing to Allison Fairley sitting nearby.

"Very good," Mrs. Cowen-Fletcher told Rachel when she had reached the story's end.

In turn, Rachel said she enjoyed reading "It Takes A Village."

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