SOUTH PLAINFIELD - Authors Allison Gutknecht and Leeza Hernandez visited the children of Kennedy Elementary School on Friday, April 12th.  Preschool through fourth grade students had the rare opportunity to learn the process of book writing and illustrating from two successful authors of children’s books.  Several winners were also selected from a raffle to participate in Meet and Greets, allowing time for questions and autographs.

“The process of writing and building upon a child’s creativity is so important at an early age,” said Principal Kevin Hajduk.  “Kennedy School is very fortunate to have such a supportive PTSO that is willing each year to bring into the school successful authors who give the students a realistic approach to putting their ideas onto paper.”  

“I am a teacher and I think it is so important for young children to hear about how much work goes into creating a book,” said Leyna Lillia, PTSO Secretary.  “A lot of authors are very inspirational in telling their stories - the amount of time it takes, the work that is put into it.” 

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This is the third year Kennedy has had authors spend a day interacting with students.

“Having the authors visit teaches children that if they are working on something they love, sometimes they need to practice or tweak and revise it to make it better,” added Lillia.  “They might not always succeed the first time, but if it is important to them, they should keep trying.  We were so lucky to have Leeza Hernandez and Allison Gutknecht present to the children.”

Both authors gave presentations throughout the day to share their experiences and teach valuable lessons about their craft.

“I love doing school visits as often as I can, just to come and see readers face to face,” said Gutknecht.  “It makes it all the more gratifying as an author to spend time with the kids that you’re writing for.”

“What I love about visiting the schools and this whole process is that everybody’s ideas and stories are different,” said Hernandez.  “We all have something to bring to the table and it’s about believing in yourself and knowing that your idea is just as valuable as the person sitting next to you.”

“I think it’s just very cool to meet authors,” said Lindsay Czerwinski, first grader.  “I’m so excited!  I think I do want to write books because I’m just learning in my class, so it’s really cool.  I think I’m going to write books someday.”

Teachers say that borrowing books from the library and reading them together in class is essential in child development and education, while meeting those who actually were behind the words and illustrations brings the books to life and into the child’s reality.  The students conveyed how much it meant to have two of the authors come to their school.

“I liked that I learned that all the books teach a lesson with the characters,” said Juliana Russoniello, second grader.  “I like to read.  I haven’t gotten any books because I can’t decide because all of them look really great to read.” 

Originally from the south of England, Hernandez is an award-winning illustrator and children's book author, who has been living in New Jersey since 1999.   Writing for emerging readers ages five to nine years old, she has illustrated ten picture books, two of which she also authored, and she is on book seven of illustrating a chapter book series called Mia Mayhem (Simon & Schuster), which is now available at Target and in Scholastic flyers.  

Hernandez’s books include the latest in the Homework series: Eat Your U.S. History Homework (Charlesbridge), Dog Gone! and Cat Napped! (G.P. Putnam's Sons) and New York Times Bestseller, John Lithgow's Never Play Music Right Next To The Zoo (Simon & Schuster). 

Working as an art director at a local magazine, she also loves to travel and indulges in printmaking, pen and ink, digital collage and painting when time allows.  Hernandez says she gains inspiration from the world around her.

“It’s about stepping back and just appreciating the everyday things,” said Hernandez.  “It’s easy to recognize those pivotal moments in life, where’s it’s dramatic, but it’s all those little nuances in between and the segues that thread it all together.  For me, even if I’m a home and I see my cat lying a certain way, I’ll grab my pen to sketch the image.  And if I’m traveling, it’s about colors. It’s about really looking around you, as opposed to just seeing, which I think is different.”

Hernandez spent her day with the younger readers from preschool and first grade.  As the children gathered on the rug in front of her, leaning in closely to hear every word, Hernandez taught them how to create a children’s book.

“So I’ll work with the kids and bring it to their level,” said Hernandez.  “With preschoolers, I can talk about some of the books I’ve worked on.  Every book I’ve worked on has come with a different set of challenges or there’s been a theme or a topic that has come up for me as I’ve worked on that book.  The main character has a goal or problem to solve and they must achieve that in the space of thirty-two pages.  I explain to the children how to not only tell that story with words, but to tell it visually.  So I have become a visual storyteller.”

Hernandez stresses the importance of exploring, developing ideas and being brave enough to be vulnerable.

“It’s about trying and trying again because ultimately you could go with that first idea that comes into your head, but what about if you took it from a different viewpoint?” said Hernandez.  “Solutions to problems require creative thinking and not being afraid of trying, going out there, failing, going out there, trying again.  And it’s not really failing, it’s just finding that one right answer among many to get that perfect perspective, whether you’re an artist or a writer, a musician or a photographer.  It doesn’t matter.”  

The children were asked to take a piece of paper and begin writing their own story using pictures, their favorite things and naming their characters.

“A little boy today said to me the he just saw black,” said Hernandez.  “And I said that’s ok, just think about who your favorite characters might be.  Think about somebody coming to visit you and who that might be.  As I was leaving the room, he showed me his paper and it was filled with a character, favorite food, favorite color, a name, an age, all those things that we went through in the activity. He just needed a little bit more time to let those ideas ruminate in his imagination and he presented this amazing story to me!” 

Many children were excited to share their ideas with the class and Hernandez invited them to present their stories to their peers.

“I thought about a robot and then I was thinking and then I came up with an idea and I just knew that I came up with an idea for a name, so I named him R.O.B.,” said Caiden Helly, first grader.  “I liked having the author come talk to me.  My favorite part was the drawing and the writing part.”

“Life's about believing in yourself,” added Hernandez.  “It’s knowing that it’s okay to get stuck and knowing that you can ask for help.”

While Hernandez met with her youngest readers, Gutknecht shared her writing expertise with grades second through fourth.  The author of multiple books for readers ages seven through ten years old, Gutknecht’s most popular works include: Sing Like Nobody's Listening, Spring Break Mistake, The Bling Queen, and the Mandy Berr series.  

“The Mandy Berr series is for seven to ten year olds,” said Gutknecht.  “It begins with the book, Don’t Wear PolkaDot Under Wear with White Pants (And Other Lessons I’ve Learned).  It’s very much not like heavy-handed lessons, but it includes things like don’t say you can do a cartwheel if you can’t or not everybody gets to be President.  It’s all silly, but also true things that happen in kids’ families.  I write about real kids, real settings and things that they can hopefully relate to.”

The Mandy Berr series also includes: A Cast Is the Perfect Accessory (and Other Lessons I've Learned), Never Wear Red Lipstick on Picture Day (and Other Lessons I've Learned) and Pizza Is the Best Breakfast (and Other Lessons I've Learned).  All of her books are published by Aladdin/Simon & Schuster.

Gutknecht is originally from Voorhees, NJ.  After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, she earned her master's degree in Children's Media and Literature from New York University, where she wrote her first book.  Gutknecht is now an award-winning author who lives in New York City and her books are available anywhere books are sold.  

Speaking to the children, who were quiet and attentive, Gutknecht showed photos of her life and encouraged the young aspiring writers to think of a dream or person they admired.

“When I was little, I loved Sesame Street,” said Gutknecht to the students.  “I loved going to Sesame Place.  I always wanted Burt and Ernie on my birthday cake because they were my favorite characters.  When I grew up, I really wanted to work there.  So when I graduated college, I got a job at Sesame Workshop, which is the company that makes Sesame Street.”

Gutknecht explained how her lifelong admiration for Joan Ganz Cooney, one of the founders of Sesame Workshop, and authors like Anna Martin, whom she got to meet and befriend, were dreams she had since childhood.

“Sometimes I get to go to the set where they make Sesame Street and I get to visit Mr. Cooper’s Store and Big Bird’s Nest and Oscar’s Trash Can,”  said Gutknecht.  “This is a dream come true for me because this was my favorite show when I was young and now I get to work there.  So whomever this person is that you have in your head, the one that you want to be like when you grow up, you should absolutely try to do that because if you really like what that person does, it means that you have a great passion for it and that’s one of the best ways to figure out what you want to be when you get older.” 

Gutknecht also explained to the students how story ideas often come from personal experience and their imagination.

“For me, the best type of writing is a little bit of what you know and a little bit about what you think you know,” added Gutknecht.  “It’s a combination of real life stories and your imagination.”

A school wide raffle determined lucky students who won golden tickets for Meet and Greets with the authors.  The raffle winners who won lunch with Hernandez were: Sebastian Kurzawa, Jack Grinner, Eli Coppola, Dean Lodato, Lindsay Czerwinski, Faith Curlew, Joey Valluzzim Lexi Sienkiewicz, Anthony Milano and Charlie Miller.

“I love what I do,” said Hernandez.  “It’s all so much fun.  Every project has been so different and I love coming out and meeting the children.  It’s all about encouraging them to use their imaginations and actually begin writing their own stories.”

The second through fourth grade raffle winners had a Meet and Greet later in the day with Gutknecht.  The raffle winners for the older grades of the school were:  Taylor Tankiewicz, Mackensie Lillia, Jayden Estrella, Julia Nowak, Jashira Fields, Ava Nieves, Jaxon Diaz, Brianna Aguilar, Olivia Staunton, Ben Wordel, Kelsey Edmondson and Meadow Manfre.

“I have always loved writing,” said Gutknecht.  “I tell the kids that I think in general when you’re growing up you kind of gravitate towards things that you’re told you’re good at and writing had always been something that I just wanted to do on my free time and also doing for school.  I’m so excited to be here with the kids today.” 

“This year, Ms. Hernandez and Ms. Gutknecht were very popular with the students and Kennedy School definitely benefited from their time with us,” said Hajduk. “There is such a positive energy in the school right now about writing and it is partially contributed to our author visit presentations, as well as, our wonderful staff here at Kennedy School.”

The day concluded as children looked forward to reading more books from the authors who shared their inspiration and secrets of the trade of creating children’s books.

“I think it’s really fun and special that I got to see a real author,” said Mackensie Lillia, fourth grade student.  “I like reading and I really liked getting to learn about the author and what she did to get into writing.”

For more information about Gutknecht, go to www.allisongutknecht.com, and to find out more about Hernandez, visit www.leezaworks.com.