When my friend, Karen Saltmarsh, told me that she wanted to write a book of creative writing prompts for kids, I said, “Let’s do it!” (You know that I can’t turn down a good book project.)
Karen has been an educator for 28 years, and she was one of my son Peter’s kindergarten teachers. Karen’s dream was to inspire children to tell creative stories, just as she taught her own children.
Amelia Island Plantation is where it started. First with her son and then two daughters, Karen immersed them in the wonder of nature on a daily basis. Any time they came across an unusual-looking tree, Karen prompted them to tell a story for how the tree came to be like that. “This tree has a story,” she would say.
During her 28 years as a teacher, Karen has seen a number of changes, some welcome, others not as much. Twenty-eight years ago, there wasn’t a TV in every classroom, much less a computer. And while technology has brought so many conveniences, so many benefits, there’s an enormous downside. Twenty-eight years ago, kids didn’t spend all afternoon sitting in front of their TVs playing video games. How many times have you heard someone reminisce (or reminisced, yourself) about the days when they came home from school and went right outside to play, only coming in reluctantly at suppertime?
A number of factors have contributed to this change, and while there still are many kids who do get to enjoy the outdoors, 21st century children are wired differently. As infants, they learn how to operate touch-screens. They understand texting and Facebook updates, even if they don’t have their own accounts. But here’s the thing: kids are still wired to love the simple act of playing. I’m talking about going outside and kicking a ball around. Or climbing a tree. Or looking for lizards. (Can you tell I’m a mom of boys?) When I was a kid, I pretended that azalea leaves were money. I learned how to suck the nectar from a honeysuckle. I ran laps around the backyard. I dug for roly polies. And even when I was bored, I went outside and whispered stories to myself.
There’s not enough of that going on anymore, and as a teacher, Karen has seen the negative results of this firsthand. In a time when brevity and instant gratification prevail, it seems that creativity and imagination are often shoved to the side. But when children have the opportunity to explore and create, amazing things happen.
When Karen first shared with me the dream that she’d been harboring for 25 years, she explained it as a book of writing prompts. But not just any prompts. She wanted to inspire children – children who are babysat by Nickelodeon or mom’s iPad, kids who live on the Xbox – to learn the art of storytelling in the same way that she taught her own children.
Our first step was to find interesting trees. At first, we collected photos from all over the country, but as we developed the book, the focus shifted from interesting or odd or unique trees in general to the trees of Amelia Island. It was the place where Karen received her original inspiration, so it seemed appropriate to start there. (But never fear, there is a short section with photos from other regions, too.)
We narrowed it down to 12 Amelia Island trees. As you can see from the cover photo, we included some really interesting ones. Karen chose one of these photos (the one at the top of this post, in fact) and decided to test her theory on kids in her own kindergarten class.
When I saw Karen that afternoon, she was practically bursting. “It works!” I think it was overwhelming for her to imagine her dream coming to fruition, but then to see it at work – it went beyond her expectations.
When Karen sat down with her kindergarteners, she simply showed them a photo and asked if they could tell a story about that particular tree. I did the same at home with Peter, who is a year older. Peter’s story, plus two from Karen’s students, are included in the introduction of our book.
Karen’s original vision was for the target age group to be from kindergarten to second grade, the years when students are really learning how to spell and write and structure. But after receiving some professional guidance from a child psychologist, we broadened the spectrum to K through 12 – and, of course, it doesn’t have to stop there.
If only we stop to look around, we can find a story in almost anything, and trees are a great place to start. There’s been quite a learning curve in structuring and formatting this book. We’ve searched, and as far as we can tell, there’s not another creative writing book like this on the market. This is wonderful and scary at the same time. Wonderful because we can do anything we want and not be expected to confine ourselves to some pre-existing convention. Scary because it was a challenge to figure out exactly what we wanted to do.
But we finally took This Tree Has a Story to print, and it’s now available. In addition to the trees, our photographer, Sandy Malcolm, took some wonderful photos of wildlife in the trees. These were too good to pass up, so there’s going to be a sequel. But first…
We’re going to conduct a pilot study, and we’re going to do it over the entire spectrum. We were wowed by the stories from the kindergarteners. I can only imagine what we might get from older kids. Kids who are going through adolescent trials. Kids who may never have tried to create a story before. Kids who don’t realize what kind of potential they harbor, that’s just waiting to be stimulated by, I don’t know, an interesting tree.
Karen and I are so excited, and we have lots of plans for our new book, not the least of which is that a portion of our proceeds will go to help preserve or plant trees in areas that have suffered from erosion and natural disasters.
I’m giving away 30 advanced reader copies, so you can conduct your own creative writing study with your students or children. If you’d like to throw your name into the hat, or if you have any other questions, please contact us via the contact form below.