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Children’s author offers Churchill students a storyteller’s magic words

Churchill students get lessons in writing and storytelling from the author of the Mr. Lemonchello book series.

  Author Chris Grabenstein conducts a writers workshop 
  with Church School students.
(Photos by Carrie 
  Steinweg/H-F Chronicle)

Kids hear over and over again from adults that the magic words are “please” and “thank you,” but students at Churchill School in Homewood learned some new magic words from children’s author Chris Grabenstein: “What if…?” and “And, then….”

Those are the magic words that help Grabenstein become such a great storyteller. They were among the writing tips he passed on to students at two assemblies and a writer’s workshop during his school visit on April 27.
  Chris Grabenstein autographs 
  books for students following 
  a workshop. 


Churchill students are quite familiar with Grabenstein and Mr. Lemonchello, the main character in his popular book series. Last year, the whole school read “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library” and this year the Homewood PTA purchased 700 copies of “Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics” so that each student and staff member could read it. 

The night before the student assemblies, Grabenstein visited Churchill for “Library Olympics” Family Reading Night that had families working together on puzzles, word scrambles and scavenger hunts.
Kids showed up to school the following day dressed as their favorite book character – some as Harry Potter and Dr. Seuss characters and others as superheroes.
Third-grader Mason Robinson, who dressed as Captain Underpants, was called up by Grabenstein during the assembly to pick a card from a “story starter” set that would direct him in improvising and creating a story on the spot.
“It felt great. It was awesome,” said Robinson. “I liked that I got to pick a card so he could tell a story. I like to read a lot, but I don’t really like to write, but maybe now I’ll think about writing more.”
During the assembly, using cards with random words that students had written down along with Mason’s card of a squirrel, Grabenstein went about creating an elaborate story of Speedy the Squirrel and his quest for acorns while spying on two chipmunks. 
Grabenstein shared his “Handy Dandy Story Map” for writing a story, talked about the importance of hooking a reader in with the first line and gave tips for avoiding writers block. “It comes from trying to make it perfect on the first try,” he said. “The secret to writing is re-writing.”
After the morning assembly, Grabenstein was treated to a performance by the school’s orchestra before he led 25 students in a writer’s workshop. He took time for a little one-on-one with some students, including Sebastian Latham-Stewart.
“Do you like to read?” Grabenstein asked Sebastian.
“I didn’t until I read ‘Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics,’” he responded.
Grabenstein encouraged Sebastian to visit the page by author James Patterson, with whom he has co-authored books, to find titles that he may enjoy.
“Make sure you read every night,” Grabenstein called to Sebastian as he left the room. “Because readers are leaders.”
Grabenstein said that he loves to visit with kids and witness their excitement. 
“When I was in school, I didn’t like to write because it was dry and boring and there were a lot of rules,” he said. “But the more something is fun, the more it gets done. I try to make it fun.”
As kids filed in for the workshop, each wearing a name tag, Grabenstein greeted as many as he could by name. After a question and answer session, he put participants in groups and gave them a sentence to spur story ideas. The sentences were eclectic and random:
Charlotte ate green peppers all day long.
Michael sat down in the middle of the road.
There were 17 lizards living in David’s basement. 
Giving students his personal definition of a story – “a great character transformation machine” – he encouraged them to follow his story map to create and adventure together.
After the workshop, nine lucky students, chosen at random, were able to sit down for lunch with Grabenstein. 
“It’s great to see how excited the kids were to read and to meet an author,” said reading specialist Nicole Danadio. She explained that to refresh students on the book that was read last year some of the teachers showed the Nickelodeon-made movie in their classrooms that was based on the first book and aired last fall.
“This was kind of the culmination of a two-year process,” said Principal Nikki Kerr. “What we were really excited about is for the kids to have something in common they could discuss together and it was really neat to hear their conversations.”

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