Dec. 3, 2004 Once upon a time, actually about 9 a.m. Friday morning, Saplansiki and Bob entered the Enid M. Baa Library Children's Reading Room. It wasn't easy for Saplansiki, since she is a very large giraffe-elephant and was rather big for the door.
Bob, on the other hand, is a half-catfish-half-person, with both legs and fins, and he is as little as a cat, so it was no problem for him to slither in.
Both characters were brought to life word by carefully thought-out word by the second-grade class of Joseph Sibilly Elementary School. The 22 students, aged between 7 and 9, couldn't wait to decide just who the story was going to be about a flying shrimp was discarded early on in favor of a girl elephant-giraffe. But, nobody wants a lonely elephant-giraffe, so the children created Bob, a catfish-person, to be her best friend.
How did they look? Did they have braces? No! Eyeglasses? No! Pimples? No! Long hair for Saplansiki? Yes. Color? Black. Does Sappy work? No, she bowls and hunts, but Bob works. He is a teacher. Where do they live? In a huge house in the woods with a chimney, an ice-cream parlor and a pond for Bob.
Now what happens? Jaguars. A bunch of hungry jaguars with fangs come to visit. But Sappy and Bob feed them cupcakes, roast pork, raw meat, popcorn and ice cream and everything is OK until the jaguars' friends arrive lions, tigers, a dog and a live stone warrior. They stomp through the house making noises loud as a marching band, and they want to eat, too, But there's no food left. The animals were clawing and drooling. Oh dear, how will Sappy and Bob handle this?
To find out the answer, you would have to consult the second-graders, and you would get 22 different answers.
At this point, the children were on their own to finish the story in their own words. When they finished, they wrote a thumbnail biography on the back cover of the book, which went right next to a the picture of the author. After drawing a picture for the cover, each individual book was bound and given to the new authors.
The class is the first of its kind on St. Thomas, and it is the first to have traveled out of 826 Valencia, its home school in San Francisco.
Jenny Traig led the youngsters, asking questions and drawing them out to create the story. As she was doing this, Alvaro Villanueva sat at a computer writing the story and projecting it on a screen so the kids could watch their ideas evolve.
Meantime, Todd Pound sat at an easel in the front of the room, taking instructions on how to illustrate the characters. Does Sappy have stripes? Spots? Hair? What does Bob look like? Bob, it turns out, wears clothes a blue-striped bathing suit as opposed to Sappy, who has only her hide to protect her.
Traig, Villaneuva and Pound guided the children gracefully and with infinite patience through the process with nary a glitch. It would seem they have been doing this forever, instead of the three years since the program's inception.
How it got to St. Thomas is kind of a circuitous story, said Tynnetta McIntosh, well-known island personality who now lives in New York. "Dave Eggers is one of my favorite authors," she said. "When I went to his Web site, I read about 826 Valencia. It's a not-for-profit educational organization he founded."
This was about 18 months ago. Since that time, McIntosh contacted The Forum, a local non-profit organization of which she is a board member. The organization brings cultural events to the Virgin Islands, and it partnered with 826 Valencia to bring the children's storytelling and bookmaking program to the V.I.
However, McIntosh said the program was made possible only through a generous donation made by Chase Bank before it left the island.
"The program is also being enthusiastically supported by Claudette Lewis, executive assistant commissioner of DPNR, which oversees the territory's libraries. We have also partnered with The Friends of the Enid M. Baa Library, another local non-profit that supports the local libraries," McIntosh said. McIntosh still works for Chase Bank, but now in New York.
McIntosh was the official photographer of the kids Friday. She had a celebrity platform set up where the young authors posed. Pound left his illustrating duties to run the bookbinding machine, and Sibilly teacher Richard Wax, a 26-year veteran of the classroom, watched the youngsters like a proud parent, which, in a way, he is. He helped with spelling here, and offered story development there. "These are really one of my best classes," he said. "They are very sweet." Literary coach Zolayma Belle and computer instructor Jascinth Bernier were kept busy helping the youngsters put the finishing touches on their work.
Theresa Lake, 7, dreamed up Saplansiki. How? "Oh, it just came to me," she said dismissively.
And how about that catfish. Not a grouper or a snapper? "Oh," said Terrell Thomas, "we caught a catfish when my father and I were fishing in California." Thomas ended his story with a little justice. "They ate Bob, but then Sappy did kung fu on them 'cause they ate her best friend."
Meantime, Cequoyah George, 7, finished off her story: "And they ate Bob. The end." Ate Bob? Cequoyah thought that over for a minute, then erased "The End," replacing it with "To be continued." She explained, "Actually the Bob they ate was a paper Bob. The real Bob survives in the 'continued.'"
The classes have run since Tuesday with students from elementary schools Lockhart, Antilles and Sts. Peter and Paul. Traig said the St. Thomas students differ a little from those they see in San Francisco. "They are much more enthusiastic," she said, "really into it."
McIntosh said she is impressed by author Eggers, not only his writing, but, "the way he shares his talent with the students," she said. Eggers is one of the country's celebrated young authors. His first novel, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Yasmine Haynes has been McIntosh's St. Thomas contact. Both women urged the public to attend Saturday's class which will be open to all children and anyone interested in volunteering for the program. "We want to start our own program here," Haynes said. "We could do it probably a couple times a month at the library on Saturdays."
For further information on how to volunteer, see "Children's Storytelling-Bookmaking Workshops Set" under Things to Do. For information on 826 Valencia, go to www,826Valencia.org.
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