By Joseph Robertia
Children often get the answers to many important questions while pursuing their educations, but kids in a few schools last week got clarity on some of life’s sillier queries, such as, how would an injured pig get to the hospital?
“In a ham-bulance,” said Mike Thaler, author of the “Black Lagoon” series of books, to the uproars of children during a workshop he led at Tustumena Elementary School last Wednesday.
He also visited Kaleidoscope and Redoubt Elementary schools, through funding from library fundraisers and PTAs, as well as several others around the peninsula and in the Anchorage area.
Thaler, up from Oregon, has written more than 250 books and received awards for some in the “Black Lagoon” series, including “The Cafeteria Lady from the Black Lagoon,” for which he earned a Kids Choice Award in 1999. He has also received awards from the Society of Illustrators, the Martha Kinney Cooper Ohioana Library Association, the National Cartoonists Society and others.
Thaler also is known as “The Riddle King,” and said he enjoys using riddles as a way to stimulate children’s interests in learning and creating.
“He loves working with the kids,” said his wife, Patty Thaler. “He goes around the world doing this. We were just in Spain in October, and we’ve been to Alaska visiting schools before, but this is our first time in this area.”
Rosy Thompson, librarian at Tustumena Elementary, said author visits from the Lower 48 are rare.
“I’ve been here eight years and we’ve had local authors, but not a big name like this from Outside. It’s pretty exciting for the kids,” she said.
That excitement showed, as an entire hallway to the library had been festooned in “Black Lagoon” cartoons and quotes, as well as some of the quotes for which Thaler is most famous. For instance, that his favorite nation is “Imagination.”
Thompson said that, more than just the fun of the visit, the children also take away important concepts from these author visits.
“It gets their brains going about how they can write and draw,” she said. “But, also, I think they realize this is something they could grow up and do.”
Laurie Cowgill, media specialist at Kaleidoscope, echoed similar sentiments to the importance of these kinds of workshops for kids.
“Having the ‘real thing’ connect with students is very valuable. The kids get excited about reading and writing when it is an author visit. They can envision themselves as writers when they get to talk to someone who is ‘famous’ and real,” she said.
Cowgill added that this applies for visits from other performing artists, too.
“The same proves true for visits from real artists, musicians and actors. It’s a personal priority to find funds for these visits as it provides life-changing experiences for some kids. They can see themselves in one of these professions and they are inspired to strive toward a goal,” she said.
Unfortunately, she said, a reality of the educational system is there is not enough funding for everything that is educational and beneficial, and so visits like Thaler’s have been moved to the back burner by some schools.
“Author visits have become somewhat rare in the last few years. I think there are a number of reasons, probably first of which is funding issues. There are only three schools in the area that were willing to spend funds on having an author visit,” she said.
This is odd considering the popularity of the books within schools, particularly with second- through fourth-graders who enjoy the books’ fun creepiness, as well as the overall pattern of predictability for the series.
“Also, travel has gotten a lot more expensive, which means the cost goes up. So costs go up, funding goes down. With the advent of high-stakes testing, what is valuable has somehow gotten skewed. And what can’t directly be correlated to data is no longer valued in some circles,” she said.
Cowgill added that local schools also used to be able to piggyback off the Anchorage “authors to Alaska” program, but as it has waned in recent years, too, so have the opportunities.
“They used to bring authors up to Anchorage libraries on a regular basis and we could tag on to those. As people have retired and moved on, that agency is not as active as it used to be. So less authors to Alaska is the bottom line,” she said.