BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Children’s author Jill Esbaum is in town talking with Fort Madison elementary students about lonely Bigfoots and cows that jump off cliffs.
The Iowa native visited with Richardson Elementary students for most of the day on Monday before a book signing at the Fort Madison High School Monday evening. On Tuesday, Esbaum is scheduled to visit with Lincoln Elementary students.
She said her message is aimed at energizing the kids’ appetite for knowledge through reading, as well as showing them they can accomplish anything they want.
“I want to engage them. I want them to know that they can grow up in small town in Iowa and do whatever they want,” Esbaum said prior to meeting with the Richardson second-grade classes.
Esbaum grew up in Blue Grass between Davenport and Muscatine and has published more than 32 children’s books.
She said the publishing businesses is getting tough. She has an agent who handles her books and said agents are still accepting unsolicited manuscripts because they are still looking for the next great thing but it’s getting tougher and tougher to get published.
Esbaum showed the kids a slide show that featured her fictional books such as “I am cow, hear me MOOOOO!” about a cow who overcomes her fear of the woods only to be scared at night when she gets separated from the herd. And “Teany Tiny Toady”, about a young toad who has to figure out how to get his mother out of a bucket.
She told the students that writing has to be entertaining and each main character has to confront a problem, because stories about a normal day where everything goes according to plan is a boring read.
But she also has done non-fiction writing including several series for National Geographic Kids. Esbaum told the second graders she doesn’t write to tell the obvious.
“Why don’t I want to write that giraffe’s have long necks,” Esbaum quizzed the second graders. After about four answers, one insightful second grader said, “We already know that.”
“You already know that!” Esbaum said. “But what if I told you kangaroos can’t walk backwards or a walrus can hold their breath and actually sleep under water?”
She said writing about the littler known facts gives children the “Whoa…I didn’t know that” reaction and piques their interest in reading more about the subject.
Debbie Moeller, a reading teacher at Richardson, said students are coming to the school with a higher skill set than a decade ago. And it’s starting earlier with technology, but it still takes the interaction of young children with influences that read to them to give them the head start they need.
“Sitting on your parents’ or grandparents’ laps and reading that book, is what generates the real interest in reading at a young age,” Moeller said. “It just depends, there are a lot of opportunities and if parents send them to preschool or take advantage of the online things, those kids are advanced, but not everyone has access to those things now. You have kids coming into kindergarten that can read second grade books who had exposure to that technology. But the other kids can catch up because they get that technology at school. Generally, the gap closes very quickly.”
Esbaum said then it comes to the issue of comprehension and, if the students are excited about what they are reading, the comprehension comes quicker. She also said she has greater comprehension with a paper book than the e-versions on tablets and computers.
“I just have a better comprehension if I have a book in my hand. When I read on a laptop or tablet, it just isn’t the same.”