BETHEL — Like several of his classmates at Crescent Park Elementary School, fourth-grader Gage Berry is an avid hunter.
He’s also the author of a book about his first successful deer hunt, including the excitement of shooting the deer, tracking it and getting it out of the woods.
The past November, even when he wasn’t roaming the woods in search of deer with his grandfather, Scott, or his dad, Jason, Gage was thinking, talking and reading about hunting every chance he got, his mother, Sarah Berry, said.
“He and several of his friends have been obsessed with hunting and hunting stories this past hunting season,” she said.
Many of the school’s younger students share Gage’s obsession, and when a group of second-graders asked school librarian Betsy Raymond to recommend some books about hunting for them to read, they were disappointed to learn that not many existed at their reading level.
“A few interesting nonfiction and how-to books were out there, but they were really geared toward an adult reader,” Sarah Berry said.
Raymond said that helping children develop a lifelong love of reading is central to her mission as a librarian.
For that to happen, she said, “They need to have reading material that speaks to them.”
When students tell her what their special interests are, she searches for books on those topics geared to their reading level.
When some of her youngest students expressed an interest in stories about hunting, she discovered that finding appropriate books written for their reading level presented a challenge.
Often, she said, the students would check out nonfiction books about deer and hunting from the library, only to find them “dry and factual,” when what they were really looking for was an exciting story.
Although there are young adult novels that include scenes of hunting, it is rarely the main focus, and the books are written for older students.
“They are 200 pages or more, novels that include social issues like dealing with divorce, moving, bullying, etc.,” Raymond said, with only a few pages devoted to a hunting scene, typically near the end of the book.
“My young readers were checking these books out because they have ‘cool covers’ but they couldn’t read the stories, and they weren’t interested in anything but the hunting parts,” she said.
“I was irritated that I couldn’t find what I wanted: short, direct stories that were just about hunting for my young students who were just starting to read independently.”
So she decided to take matters into her own hands.
“I finally decided that I would write them myself,” she said, setting a goal of getting 20 hunting stories appropriate for beginning readers onto the school library shelves.
“Here were my authors”
With no personal knowledge of hunting, Raymond planned to interview adult hunters she knew and write their stories, calling the series “Every Hunter Has A Story.”
“Unfortunately, adults are busy, and I was anxious to get my project started,” she said.
One day, during fourth- and fifth-grade lunch duty in the school cafeteria, she looked around and realized, “here were my hunters and my authors!”
Initially, she approached fifth-grader Brody Walker and fourth-grader Hunter Koskela and asked them if they would be willing to write about their first deer hunt. The boys enthusiastically agreed and Brody even gave up playing football at recess for several days to stay inside and write.
“He worked more at home with his family and produced a beautiful three-page story, complete with four hand-drawn illustrations,” Raymond said.
Hunter wrote his story at home and his parents furnished additional details and photos to accompany his words.
“I formatted the two stories and edited a little bit, then printed them at Shutterfly,” Raymond said.
“When they arrived, we were all so excited — the principal, the authors, the authors’ classmates and me!”
Since then, Gage and his classmate, Tommy LaPointe, have also presented her with their hunting stories for publication, and the idea is spreading throughout the school.
Other students have asked if she will publish their stories about skiing, horseback riding or love of the woods for the library.
“It’s exciting to see how much enthusiasm this has created for writing,” she said.
School Principal Elaine Ferland said the publishing project benefits the fourth- and fifth-graders who write the stories and the younger students who will read them.
“This project has been a great way to get students who have a story to become writers and role models for younger students,” she said. “I can’t wait to see more stories from more students.”
Cultivating a lifelong love of reading
“I was raised in a very book-centered family,” said Raymond, who is in her 22nd year as school librarian. Before that she was director of the Bethel Library for 11 years.
“My father was an elementary school principal and my mother was an avid reader who worked in a library,” Raymond said. “My sisters and I never needed to be prodded to read by my parents — we all wanted to read and we all grew up to be teachers or librarians.”
Recognizing that not all of her students take to reading as readily as she and her sisters did, however, Raymond has devised a number of creative ways to engage their interest.
For 21 years, she has encouraged fourth-graders to read by offering a program that culminates in a sleepover in the library for those who successfully complete the challenge of reading and reporting on books from many genres, including adventure, mystery, realistic and historical fiction and fantasy.
“I also have had many American Girl tea parties to encourage students to read historical fiction books and then celebrate with good food and good manners,” she said.
“For the last few years, I’ve committed to getting the fifth-graders ‘on the reading train.’ We talk a lot about making reading a priority, even if it’s only 15 minutes a day, and how important it is to find the right books so that reading becomes a lifelong pleasure.”
Students share book recommendations, set reading goals and learn to read silently together as a group.
At the end of the year, they are rewarded with a trip to The Gem Theater to see a book-related movie.
“The enthusiasm is spreading”
“I think this is an amazing project for the kids,” Hunter’s mother, Maranda Koskela, said.
“Hunter was so excited to write and share his story!” she said.
“He came home the day Mrs. Raymond asked him to write a story and sat at the table and wrote his story out.”
She said the family is proud of Hunter’s accomplishment and bought additional copies of his book to give as Christmas gifts.
Sarah Berry said Raymond is “an amazing elementary school librarian” who has provided Gage with many books about snowboarding, another of his passions.
“She can turn anyone into an avid reader,” Berry said. “My son has been so excited about this project for the past month, and it’s been so satisfying for me to listen to his love for writing.”
Raymond is looking forward to an avalanche of stories to publish when her students return to school after the holidays.
“Three of these authors are in the same class and yesterday in the library we were talking about their books, which prompted many boys and girls to get very excited to write stories over vacation for me to publish for the library,” she said.
“I loved seeing how the enthusiasm is spreading and encouraging everyone to feel empowered to write their own story,” Raymond said.
Hunter Koskela, left, and Brody Walker hold the books they wrote about their first hunting experience. Crescent Park School librarian Betsy Raymond, center, worked with the students to publish their books. (Amy Wight Chapman/Bethel Citizen)