Editor's Note: To celebrate the Read to Feed spring match, a $50,000 matching gift challenge that will match every dollar raised by Read to Feed students and classrooms around the country, we're sharing a special series of Read to Feed stories from teachers and students.
Children’s Book Week is coming up (May 2–6, 2016), and in honor of the occasion we caught up with author John Claude Bemis. In 2014, John and I traveled to Rwanda to research a children’s book. The families we met and the stories we heard inspired Flora and the Runaway Rooster and new lesson plans for our Read to Feed program. John reflected on his Rwanda experience for the World Ark Blog soon after our trip. Since our then, John has continued engaging with teachers and students and sharing his Heifer story. He recently celebrated the launch of his newest book, The Wooden Prince, the first in his Out of Abaton series, published by Disney-Hyperion Books. He generously took the time to answer a few questions for me.
Jen Girten: Your book Flora and the Runaway Rooster is part of Heifer's Read to Feed program; why do you think it's important to teach students about their connections to people around the globe?
John Claude Bemis: When I’ve gone into schools to share the book and my experiences in Rwanda, I’ve seen how quickly students light up. Once they understand about the needs of families around the world, they want to help. They are empowered by the idea that there is a way they can transform the lives of others. This lesson has extraordinary implications for helping to cultivate compassion and generosity in our children.
Since your trip to Rwanda in 2014, how have you stayed connected with Heifer?
I’ve been presenting in classrooms that are doing Read to Feed. I’m also getting out to educator conferences, where I can share about the amazing work Heifer is doing and hopefully inspire teachers to do Read to Feed at their schools. Before I was an author, I was a teacher for 13 years. So I’m enjoying bringing my passion for being in schools together with my passion for Heifer.
I think whenever you leave your comfort zone, your brain has to adapt to new rules. This heightens your creativity and sends your imagination into overdrive. John Claude Bemis, author and educator
How have your international experiences inspired and informed your writing?
A writer has to see the world with curiosity and wonder. Travel gives me new perspectives on how others live. It helps me develop characters that will allow my young readers to see themselves and others in insightful ways. And whenever I travel, I get a huge creative bump. I think whenever you leave your comfort zone, your brain has to adapt to new rules. This heightens your creativity and sends your imagination into overdrive.
After you returned from Rwanda, I think you were working on a couple of books simultaneously, although in different stages–Flora and the Runaway Rooster, and your newly released book, Out of Abaton: The Wooden Prince–can you tell us about the new book?
The Wooden Prince—the first book in my fantasy-adventure series Out of Abaton from Disney-Hyperion Books—re-imagines the Pinocchio story. This is not the Pinocchio from the movie or the original story, but a boy of wood and gears in a fantastical Venetian Empire who discovers little by little that he’s coming to life. While facing lots of danger and grand adventures, he’s learning what it means to be a friend, to have a family, and how to be a hero.
What's on the horizon for you? Can you give us any insider news?
I’m currently wrapping up the next book in the Out of Abaton series, Lord of Monsters, where Pinocchio and his companions journey to the magical kingdom of Abaton. It’s been lots of fun to write and I’m excited for readers to see all that lies ahead for my Pinocchio.
As a former teacher and an author for young readers, what are some tips you have for encouraging students to really love reading–and not to see reading as drudgery or a means to an end?
Once a reluctant reader has found that right book that excites and engages them, they often transform into ravenous readers. John Claude Bemis, author and educator
I’ve talked to so many parents of reluctant readers who have been searching for ways to instill a love of books in their kids. Rather than gimmicks or bribes, I think it simply takes getting the right book into those readers’ hands. What is your child interested in? What sorts of stories will they find fun? Once a reluctant reader has found that right book that excites and engages them, they often transform into ravenous readers. I’m always honored when I hear that one of my books has done that for a young reader. Nothing makes an author happier!