Storybook Ending

Angela Shelf Medearis, among the American writers celebrated yesterday in Washington, isn't in it for the glitz, but for young readers like 9-year-old Jasmin Fuentes.

January 20, 2001|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If this were a storybook, the first character we'd meet would be Angela Shelf Medearis.

Can you find her in the crowd at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington? Don't bother searching up on stage where incoming first lady Laura Bush is introducing a handful of men and women to the TV cameras and microphones. Medearis is down in the audience - the 40-something grandmother who lives in sweat pants, bakes mouth-watering peach cobbler, and has a voice that sounds like it's stretched over a chuckle.

Medearis was one of 18 writers featured at the "Laura Bush Celebrates America's Authors" event yesterday, but she wasn't in the spotlight - not like Mary Higgins Clark, whose suspense novels earn her millions and are made into movies, or Susan Jeffers, who routinely appears on "Oprah" to hawk her self-help books.

The path that brought Medearis from her Austin home to the inaugural festivities began on a less glamorous note when she was fired from her job as a legal secretary at age 30. She began writing, and publishers began sending her rejection letters, 1,000 in all.

Now she's finally a bona-fide author of some 75 children's books, and she was even handed an award by Laura Bush a few years ago, which is how the two women met. But Medearis is still in charge of cleaning the toilets at home, and her direct phone number is listed on her Web site.

She says the one thing crucial to her creative process isn't a solitary cerebral afternoon in a cafe or a long artsy walk in the rain: It's a giant hunk of chocolate.

"Maybe I'm doing something wrong, because nobody has any qualms about asking me to do any grunt labor," she muses. "I know other authors who have three books, and you can't talk to them. But people don't have any qualms about asking me to pick up their sick child and nurse them through the flu - `You're at home anyway, aren't you?' "

Medearis is always willing to watch her granddaughter after school, and to travel around the country reading aloud to schoolchildren from her books, which have the kind of titles you'd expect a character like Medearis to dream up: "We Eat Dinner in the Bathtub," for example, and "The Zebra Riding Cowboy."

If there's one thing Medearis loves more than writing, it's children. "I'm a 7-year-old in a grown woman's body with a driver's license," she says. She loves walking into a classroom and seeing students' surprise when they realize an African-American grandmother can become an author. Medearis, who is brutally honest - she even volunteers that she's not a Republican - loves the honesty of children. ("Thank you for telling us about being a writer," one wrote her after her visit. "When I grow up, I want to be a waitress.")

But young children don't give out fancy awards to their favorite authors, and they don't line up with "We love you!" signs like the ones that greeted hip-swiveling Ricky Martin at Thursday's inaugural concert. Medearis tends to reap quieter rewards from her job.

"My life's work is to entice children to read," she says. "If you can have a book that is so enticing they'd prefer to read it than watch television, that's a compliment. That's my challenge, to make it that interesting and enjoyable."

So why did Medearis come to Washington yesterday if it wasn't to be feted in front of the packed crowd at DAR Constitution Hall? One reason was just a short distance away, inside a fourth-grade classroom at Seaton Elementary School. She's the second character of this story, a 9-year-old girl named Jasmin Fuentes.

Until last year, Jasmin had never read a book. Now she's one of the best readers at school. So good, in fact, that when the principal challenged the students to a read-a-thon this winter, Jasmin read at every chance. During breaks at school. In the bathtub. At the dinner table.

Her parents, who speak Spanish, could scarcely believe their daughter was devouring book after book in a language they couldn't comprehend. By the end of the six-week contest, Jasmin had read 158 books. Enough to help her school win the contest. Enough to - and Jasmin can hardly talk about this without giggling - make the principal do the Boogie dance down the hall and sing the Barney song over the PA system.

A child inspired

Yesterday afternoon, Jasmin couldn't wait to meet her very first author. Medearis didn't disappoint: She read a story about a pig and snorted gustily. Then she read a spooky short story. Then she handed out copies of her book to every student as they bombarded her with questions: Does her husband help her? (Sometimes; he has co-authored a few books.) Did the rejections hurt her feelings?(Not anymore - some of those companies are now publishing her books.)

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