Evil Flies and Ninja Worms

Children’s Stories and Art Inspired by Nature

Every day after lunch, Fernando ran over to find me at the art and science supply shelf where I stood brewing a pot of ideas and processes to explore for the coming weeks, browsing through everything from liquid watercolors to clay pots and vegetable seeds.

“Can I make a book now?’ he pleaded as I balanced a stack of 9 x 14-inch paper on one arm and cradled a box of color pencils and copier paper with the other.

During the first hazy, humid week of summer camp at the arboretum, the children enjoyed some down time after mornings of hiking to the wetlands or rose garden and trudging back uphill, wiping the endless streaks of perspiration from their faces and swatting at overly enthusiastic families of gnats. After lunch, we cooled off in the shelter of our stucco alcove nestled beneath a cluster of pine trees. We set up an area at the end of one table where scrap paper, pencils, and crayons were available for those who wanted to draw. Most of the campers were rising kindergarteners in the fall, so many of them enjoyed working in a sociable huddle, creating designs or pictorial representations of animals, flowers, and maps and experimenting with inventive spelling of words. One afternoon I showed them step-by-step how to make a book out of one page of paper: “First, you make a hotdog fold (lengthwise); then you make two hamburger folds; next, you unfold the paper completely and fold it in half once and carefully tear or cut to the middle of the fold. Now see what happens as I unfold the paper. We can turn the newly formed shape into a book!” Children are usually intrigued. “It’s a book with many pages made from just one page.” The fascination is always followed by a chorus of requests. “Can you make me a one-page book?” Eventually, with practice, quite a number of children will be self-initiated bookmakers, eager to help anyone with the step-by-step instructions. Little did I know that the educators’ workshop on bookmaking at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that I attended one Saturday morning nearly 10 years ago would influence my teaching practice in early literacy. There have been some years in the classroom where students wrote and illustrated one-page books with such vigor and frequency that we ended up displaying them on our bookshelves and in baskets for presenting during Author Shares and independent reading. As Lorraine Wilson notes in Reading to Live, honoring space for children’s stories about themselves and their experiences helps to “build identity and classroom community.” During Author Share, many learners became self-assured and more confident after taking the risk of sharing their story. Also, they often beam with delight while responding to questions or comments from their group of peers. “Is everyone wearing purple in your story because you like purple?” “I like the way you made the dragon’s teeth.” “I’m inspired by your story.”

Toting his one-page book and one thoughtfully selected pencil to a shady spot away from foot traffic, Fernando would fervently begin his work, first intently illustrating the front cover of his story.

We spent many a morning investigating life under logs, predicting what insects we might find, reading storybooks relating to this entomological exploration, and forming new questions from our discoveries. One day, the campers excitedly noticed that an old log appeared to be a hotel to a party of millipedes, sowbugs, and earthworms. Later that afternoon, most of the children were engaged in filling their one-page books with stories and drawings about what they found so meaningful from experience. A pair of friends created The Adventures of a Rolly Polly, and a few campers admired another friend’s The Earthworm Book. Some authors made it clear that “This is just a book without words,” while others tried inventive writing with our guidance or dictated their narrative to us. Fernando began his Ninja Worm series at about this time. The only camper to pack a handheld video game in his backpack (apparently a pretty good one according to one of the 16-year-old counselors), Fernando’s dramatic play and storytelling paid homage to his favorite cartoon, film, comic book, and video game characters. We could be collecting acorns in the calm, dappled sunlight or observing the wings of a delicate cabbage moth, and Fernando would find some way to bring the subject of Ninjas into the conversation. “I’ve heard that Ninja warriors find time to build strength through meditation,” I mentioned. Fernando would stop and think about it, and then resume with sharing his vast Ninja knowledge to the group. His keen admiration for mainstream characters melded wonderfully with his encounters in nature. Every day after eating lunch, he launched a new plot for Ninja Worm, and our little community of storytellers and artists valued his commitment, his imagination, and his lively, humorous dialogue as the fierce warrior worm encountered foxes, robot cats, venomous snakes, and evil flies and chickens. These stories weren’t far from following Freytag’s Pyramid, complete with rising action, climax (The evil chicken turns Ninja Worm into a robot!), and falling action. There was almost always some kind of explosion before Ninja Worm “defeated” the evil characters. In creating his stories, Fernando made connections to his experiences in nature where he discovered snakes and dragonflies by the pond, worms under logs, and foxes and cats from read-alouds and the dramatic play of his peers.

Similarly, children found innovative ways to create sculpture using elements of nature such as twigs, stones, and clay that we offered to them. Constructing, naming, and refining creatures and other three-dimensional designs allowed children to take agency in describing their pursuits and curiosity and in reflecting about how they problem solved by developing new ideas or strategies for working with a material, such as clay, cornstarch, recycled plastic objects, and tree bark.

As I begin another school year this week, Ninja Worm, the evil flies, and robot chickens will be floating around in my thinking bubble as I take more risks in writing stories and making art and as I nurture a new group of emerging readers and resourceful, imaginative student authors.