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Milo and the book class


13 high-schoolers start an adventure to publish a book that will inspire more Texas kids to go to college

American-Statesman (05/27/2003)
By Sharyn Wizda Vane

So Milo the crab hitches a ride in a backpack to college, where he’s rebuffed by a piranha, befriended by a (oh-so-fastidious) roach who takes him to French class and then . . .

Eleven brows furrow.

Maybe Milo should go back to the dorm. Maybe he should go to biology class. Or maybe it’s just time for a break.

“I’m blocked,” announces 16-year-old Samantha Garza, retreating from the board and settling into a nearby chair. “I have nothing.”

“I think we’re a little scattered here. I’m not feeling the love,” quips Wendy Morán, 16. She gets her fellow students from the Academy@Hays to pull their desks into a tighter semicircle in hopes of jump-starting the creative process. They decide to list what Milo’s done so far to spur new ideas -- and then the bell rings, and these budding writers call it a day.

This is no mere class project. These students are at the forefront of an ambitious state effort to encourage 300,000 more Texans to go to college by 2015. Garza, Morán and 11 others have been charged with writing a children’s book about going to college that will be sold in bookstores throughout Texas and distributed for free to some of the state’s 8- to 10-year-olds through literacy programs and a handful of schools. Organizers hope to unveil the book at the 2004 Texas Book Festival.

Part of the state’s College for Texans higher-education initiative mandated by the Legislature, the children’s book project is unprecedented in Texas history.

“One of the best ways to work with kids is to give them a book that’s fun to read,” says College for Texans director Lynn Denton, who had the original idea. “It works on their academic skills at the same time.”

Denton approached Southwest Texas State University’s creative-writing program, thinking that graduate students in the program would be perfect to write the book. Program head Tom Grimes had another idea. Kids were the target audience, so why not make the authors themselves kids -- say, students already part of the young writers’ program at the Katherine Anne Porter house in Kyle? The summer writing classes, financed by the Burdine Johnson Foundation, comprise students from the Academy@Hays. (The academy, a 3-year-old school in Kyle that attracts kids who want to take advantage of flexible scheduling and classes for personal or academic reasons, is still small enough at 160 students that factoring in an elective “book class” during the school year wasn’t too hard to do, principal Lisa Goodnow-Williams notes. )

College for Texans agreed and secured $30,000 from its parent agency, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, to pay for the first phase of the project -- stipends for SWT graduate students Michelle Detorie and Alexandra Yavorsky, who guide the group along with Academy teacher Megan Milholland, as well as summer pay for the Academy students, who will spend nearly every weekday in June at the Porter house finishing a first draft of the children’s book.

That draft is key to the project’s survival. The concept garnered support in several important areas: The University of Texas Press has agreed to publish the book, teacher and “Crazy Loco” author David Rice has offered advice, Barnes & Noble has expressed interest in stocking the finished product and a former Motown executive has met with project organizers to discuss a companion CD.

But to move into the next phase, the students’ draft must be OK’d by the Coordinating Board in July. If they win that approval, the project will win another $50,000, to pay stipends for the next school year and some of the publishing and marketing costs.

So as the school year winds down, the Kyle students are busily attending to Milo the crab and his compatriots. They take turns leading the class, which has met two to three times a week since January, in brainstorming plot developments. Detorie, Yavorsky and Milholland still gently guide from the sidelines, but since the students took over, there have been two big changes. First, the ideas are flowing faster. And most importantly, the group, which had a rocky start melding disparate academic and personal backgrounds, has melded into a cohesive creative team.

Already they know that there’ll be a motley cast of animals, each representing a different phase of the college experience. They did their research, spending a day at SWT riding the shuttle, attending classes, visiting a dorm and eating lunch in the much-anticipated food court (after all, they don’t serve Pizza Hut in high school). And they visited a local elementary school, talking to the younger kids who’ll make up their eventual audience.

An Academy classroom bulletin board bears witness to their progress, as a steady stream of multicolored sheets of construction paper marches up a makeshift mountain in the familiar fictional arc of action rising toward an eventual climax. A sketch of Milo, crafted by 16-year-old sophomore and illustrator Ricky Gonzalez, holds court above the dry-erase board for inspiration.

“It’s more than just writing a book,” Goodnow-Williams says. “I think it’s a real learning experience for the kids in terms of teamwork. . . . There’s this whole challenge of taking 13 minds and funneling it into one project.”

Indeed, though the students say they’re excited about writing a book (and the prospect of college scholarship money from profits if the book sells well), they say the best part so far has been finding a way to gel as a group.

“Writing a book in itself is a big thing . . . but everyone has gotten to know each other better,” says Samantha Owens, a 16-year-old junior. “It’s helped us be more creative. It’s helped us to share ideas with each other.”

“It was difficult at the beginning,” says 14-year-old freshman Bliss Blumenthal, no doubt remembering early classes when just seating arrangements were a thorny issue. “Now it’s easier to get everyone’s ideas in there.”

And there’s more: Blumenthal said she wasn’t sure she even wanted to go to college before she became part of this project. Now, she’s definitely planning to apply. Freshman Katy Johnson, 16, says she’s struggled with the self-perception that she’s not important.

“But this,” she says with a smile, “writing this book -- this is important.”

The story so far

The group of 13 students from the Academy@Hays are still in the early stages of plotting the children’s book slated to encourage 300,000 more Texans to go to college by 2015. But here’s a taste of what the finished product may tell the 8- to 10-year-olds who are the book’s target audience:

Readers will first meet Milo the crab in a giant pot, where his fellow crabs notice that it’s getting hot like a Jacuzzi and that some of their crustacean buddies regularly get plucked out -- and don’t come back. Plucky Milo won’t suffer this fate, though: He manages to escape and sneak his way into a backpack for a journey that lands him in a college dorm.

He’ll encounter several other animal characters on his trip through campus, including a tough-as-nails piranha in the dorm and a friendly roach in the food court who takes him to French class.

Stay tuned to find out what happens to Milo next . . .