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Around the South Bay

Authors Aren't About to Write Off Young Readers

May 16, 1985|BOB WILLIAMS | This column is by Times staff writer Bob Williams

Scores of authors abandoned their typewriters and word processors one day this week to meet some of their favorite people: present and future readers of the written word.

The encounters in 57 South Bay schools, sponsored by the Torrance Area Reading Council, appeared to please both sides and belie reports that reading is a dying interest in a television-saturated society.

Keo Felker Lazarus of Santa Barbara, one of 66 writers participating in the council's sixth annual Authors Fair, said the exposure to fans of her children's stories "really charged up my batteries" and gave her ideas for more stories.

Several students said the meetings with real people who write books gave them a clearer understanding of how ideas in the author's mind are translated into a story on paper. Many of the estimated 10,000 youngsters who listened to the authors and asked them questions about their work prepared for the meetings by reading some of their books.

"We often hear that people today are reading less and less," said Shirley Drake, president of the council and a teacher at Torrance Elementary School. "But events like this remind us again that reading fulfills needs of the mind and imagination that can't be met in any other way."

Television requires little involvement or participation from viewers, she said, but reading uses the mind's ability to create its own pictures and reflect on the meaning of a story and the motives of the characters.

At Birney Elementary in Redondo Beach, author Lazarus used scenes and characters from her published works, such as "Shark in the Window" and "Rattlesnake Run," to illustrate how writers draw the reader into a story.

"When I write, I try to give you a sense of what something looks and sounds like, how it might feel and taste and smell," she told her audience of fifth- and sixth-graders. "I try to make my characters so real to you that you feel as if you know them as well as I do."

Lazarus, who has written eight published books and "innumerable manuscripts," said she sketches her characters and then works with them "until they become like my own children. I talk with them about what they should do next or how they should handle a particular situation.

"If they don't want to do it my way, I say, well, what do you want to do? And they tell me. They take me by the hand and pull me through the story."

It's equally important for the author to see the story and characters from the reader's perspective, Lazarus said, illustrating her point with an episode from her childhood. She recalled standing by a table and talking with her mother.

"My mother was looking down at the table from her height, while I was looking up and seeing wads of bubble gum stuck to the underside," she said. "My idea of the table was different from hers.

"So when I write for you, I try to be your age, your height and level of knowledge, what you know and would like to know. I must write eye-to-eye with you, not down or up."

In a good story, she said, characters and readers also experience together a growth in knowledge and wisdom. "It's like rolling a snowball up a hill," she said. "By the time all the obstacles are overcome, the character is wiser and more able to deal with the next problem--and so is the reader."

Lazarus got her strongest reaction from the youngsters when she invited them to make up their own story by answering five basic questions--who, where, when, what and why. Virtually all of the students waved their hands, eager to contribute ideas for the plot and characters, and in less than 10 minutes a story had been created.

The "who," they decided, were a surfer, a canary and Felice (a character in one of Lazarus' stories). The "where" was France. The "when" was two years in the future. The "what" involved going on a trip to Hawaii, and the "why" was to look for an ancient treasure map and "find peace and happiness"--an element that pleased Lazarus since, she said, "stories for children must always be upbeat."

The plot of the collective effort: On the way to Hawaii, the plane crashes in the Pacific Ocean, but a ghost ship rescues the passengers. The captain drew the treasure map but lost it and needs help from Felice and her friends in finding it. They ride the surfer's surfboard to an island "surrounded by awful, man-eating sharks."

After struggling through a scary forest "full of weird noises," our heroes make contact with the natives, who had torn up the map and hidden the pieces (one of them covered with bleu cheese dressing) in caves and other places. In the end, all the pieces are found and our heroes are rewarded with a "treasure of jewels and diamonds and stuff."

Several of the excited students said the meeting with Lazarus had inspired them to go home and read a book or even write their own stories. "I want to be a writer," said 11-year-old Willie Wright. "I think it will be a good way to learn about the world and everything that's happening."

Only one youngster injected a sour note into an otherwise happy ending. "I watch a lot of TV," she said. "I don't think I could get into this reading thing."

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