Alex Cook-Vaca, a Winnwood Elementary School fourth-grader, offered a clear definition of historical fiction at Park University’s River Read Children’s Literature Festival.
“It’s probably something that was way back in time but not real.”
He was one of about 588 fourth-grade students attending the annual literacy program that brings students from the North Kansas City School District elementary schools on campus to link authors and writing coaches with children in the Northland.
Cook-Vaca responded to a query as part of a one-on-one session with local children’s author Debra McArthur.
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McArthur, the author of eight nonfiction books for young adults, is a seasoned writer. “A Voice for Kanzas,” the historical fiction book her session centered on, represents her first foray into fiction for young audiences.
McArthur said there’s a mistaken perception of writing to young audiences as a training ground for more ambitious writing.
“I once had someone tell me ‘Well, what’s your bigger goal?’ And, you know, I really can’t think of a bigger goal than that,” McArthur said.
While McArthur writes for young adults, she doesn’t consider her work altogether different from writing for adults. It’s important to engage in complex narratives no matter who the audience, she said.
“I think (writing) is intuitive,” she said. “You’re writing to the heart. You’re kind of meeting a kid where he or she is.
“Oftentimes kids feel powerless. They may feel anxious about the future because they feel like everyone expects great things of them. They may feel like they’re the only ones who feel the way they do.”
It’s important to focus on characters who feel the same way, grow and find their own way, she said.
With writing coach and children’s author Julie Casey, Gracemor Elementary School fourth-grade students engaged in some on-the-spot writing through a slide presentation of pictures. The kids were tasked with speculating the stories behind the images.
Click: a crowded street in broad daylight.
Click: a child with red hair.
For nearly each, Taj Oliver’s hand shot up to offer an explanation.
Click: two children observing the contents of a lunchbox.
“I think they’re just getting home and they’re saying ‘My lunch was nasty,’” Oliver said letting the last vowel of “nasty” take its sweet time.
Oliver considers himself an avid reader, his favorite being comedy books. Some of his favorites are “Big Nate” and the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series.
When he comes home from football practice, Oliver said he immediately starts reading.
Thanks to his love of reading, he was awarded free passage to Schlitterbahn Waterpark for committing at least an hour of reading a day.
This is the Park University’s River Read Children’s Literature Festival’s fourth year, though the concept has been around in different formats for about 10 years, according to the program coordinator and Watson Literacy Center Director Dr. Shannon Cuff.
The event’s largest cost is busing the students. All told, the day-long literature festival comes in at around $7,000.
Seven North Kansas City School District elementary schools participated in the programming: Chouteau, Gracemor, Maplewood, Winnwood, Linden West, Meadowbrook and Topping elementary schools.
Each school is a recipient of Title 1 funding, federal grants created specifically for schools with a high percentage of students from low-income households.
The payoff is the feedback. Cuff has received correspondence from students after the visit thanking her for the opportunity to meet a published author and get acquainted with a college campus.
All told, “it’s worth it,” Cuff said