WESLEY CHAPEL — For the better part of the school year, Sand Pine Elementary fourth-graders have followed the life and times of Teddy Bodain.
The story of the 1890s-era tomboy who crossed Florida in a wagon train enthralled the kids as their teachers used the tale to help improve writing during a weekly after-school "camp."
On Wednesday, they got a surprise visit from Teddy Bodain's creator, children's author Melissa Forney.
"I want to support teachers who are teaching like this," said Forney, who came to the school on her own time and her own dime.
The students raced to the school's music room for the opportunity to listen to and talk with Forney, jostling and jockeying for good seats near the front. One girl made her mom bring her to school when she learned of the visit, even though the girl was out for the day on a medical absence.
Once they got the chance, they peppered Forney with questions about the characters they had come to know and love (or hate).
The first thing on their minds: "Are you going to make a second Teddy Bodain book?"
"Absolutely," Forney told the group, eliciting claps and cheers. "I've already started on it."
From there they wanted to know the fate of different characters, the plot twists to come and, perhaps most important, when it will be available.
Forney held them at bay, offering hints but few details, and then turned them to a discussion about their favorite parts of the first book. She made sure to talk about the craft of writing, too, reminding them to take from reality, notice details and keep readers in mind as they put together their stories.
"When I write, I think about you," Forney told the children. "When you write, do you think about your reader? Do you think about who will read this and how you want them to be impressed? Or do you write just to get through? I want to take you on a roller coaster ride with me."
Teacher Melody Welt, one of the writing camp organizers, welcomed the message.
"This really lets the kids see that the author is a real person and they could be someone like her," she said.
The students sat in rapt silence as Forney spoke, and as speech pathologist Gina Miller read passages from the work. They effused over the visit afterward.
"It's really cool," said Isabella Forcino, 10. "We get to see the author we've been waiting to see for quite a while."
"It's very exciting," added Dylan Harden, 10. "She's famous."
With such positive results — yes, even before they know how the kids did on the FCAT writing exam — Sand Pine already is looking forward to next year's writing camp. It's a major undertaking, Welt acknowledged, "but we're getting a lot of requests."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.