LAND O'LAKES — A field trip back to her old school had Sara Fukutani feeling eager, nervous and somewhat nostalgic. The Rushe Middle School eighth-grader was happy to see some of her former teachers, but at the same time, she was nervous about reading a book called Animals in the Park to kindergarten students at Oakstead Elementary.
Animals in the Park is an accordion book that, when unfolded, reveals hand-drawn characters including a dog, a bird, a cat and, of course, a squirrel. On the front cover, Sara's name is listed as author and illustrator.
"I wasn't too sure what level they were (reading) on or if it was too long or too short," Sara said after reading her handmade book to small groups of students. "But they liked it."
Rushe art teacher Jeanne St. John gave her seventh- and eighth-grade students the assignment to write and illustrate a children's book with an educational slant. Then she contacted the administration at the feeder elementary school with an idea: Those who turned in stellar work would have the opportunity to share their books with younger students.
St. John said she drew on experience as a former media specialist at Gulf High School to brainstorm an activity that would resonate with middle and elementary school students.
"I've got some talented artists, but the best part was seeing them with the little kids. It had meaning to them," she said, adding that research shows that reading books aloud is the most important activity in enhancing literacy skills for emerging readers.
Fifth-grade students often serve as reading buddies for younger students at Oakstead, but this activity was beneficial in a different way, said kindergarten teacher Kami Peloquin.
"The best part about this is that these students have written the books they are reading," Peloquin. "It tells my students, 'You can be an author.' "
Then there's the role model component.
"Our kids look up to the older kids," said Oakstead assistant principal C.J. Huffman. "This activity in particular makes reading fun, and it motivates them."
The young authors — 28 in all — used colored pencils and markers to create the books. . They came up with a variety of topics. There were books about counting ducks and tying shoelaces. There were books about farm animals, ocean creatures and a goddess, too.
"I liked the shark book, said Kingsley Hyde, 5.
"I like all of them because of the pictures and words," said kindergartner Carley McQuiniff, 5. "I like when they read to us like my parents read to me."
Alec Pagno, 13, offered a pictorial tour of Italy and shared some of his heritage in his book, titled Dominic the Italian Christmas Donkey.
"It teaches them something about another country," said Alec, adding that he drew a picture of the Vatican and ended the book with the words "la fine" so that students would get a taste of the Italian language.
And while Maddie Cullaro, 13, said she enjoyed reading her book about farm animals, she was happy to share her talents on a broader scale.
"I've been taking art for three years, and we have had (art) shows at our school, but we never went out to share our artwork like this," she said.
Kindergarten teacher Julia Bazin said she hopes her students can reciprocate someday by creating their own books to share.
"I love this," Bazin said. "They're all very excited. It really drives home some of those basics in kindergarten and really drives home that they can do this, too.
"I know we're going to have lots of little bookmakers in here."
Michele Miller can be reached at (727) 869-6251 or email@example.com. Follow @mimichele525.