By Marlena Hartz
Her granddaughter refers to her simply as “book.” It isn’t too difficult to understand why: Susan Stevens-Crummel is the author of 11 of them.
Lively and animated, the Fort Worth, Texas, author shared the secrets of her trade Friday with 20 James Bickley Elementary students who were selected by teachers to attend the workshop.
She handed them a blank sheet of lined paper, and the students — a hodgepodge of third-, fourth-, five-, and sixth-graders — brainstormed plot ideas for a character Stevens-Crummel named The Little Red Pen.
What emerged is indicative of student talent:
n The red pen runs out of ink (and discovers, after some trial and error, she is better suited to orange ink);
• Gets mad at her parents because they are blue;
• Goes on a dangerous correcting spree;
• Gets bribed to put an ‘A’ on a report card.
The ideas that emerged are also indicative of something else — the lesson Stevens-Crummel shares with students across the country is clicking. She closed her Friday presentation with a simple directive: Follow your dreams.
Stevens-Crummel aspired to major in English. However, after a professor highlighted her mathematical aptitude, she spent 30 years teaching students about numbers, equations and shapes. In her high school geometry class, she asked her pupils to write haiku on circles and parallel lines. And she read books, instead of writing them.
Janet Crummel, a multi-media artist, lured her sister into a creative partnership several years ago. Now, Stevens-Crummel spends 120 days out of the year telling students about her stories, and the rest, writing.
Once the sisters teamed up, Susan became the wordsmith and Janet the artistic mastermind. The result: Eight acclaimed books, and one on the way, along with multiple writing awards.
The duo spins folk tales, nursery rhymes and real-life events into stories of their own, said Stevens-Crummel. The characters in their books are chiefly animals.
“I take little pieces of nursery rhymes and sprinkle them into the dialogue. We use old fables, and movies, and stories, and legends,” she said.
Stevens Crummel knew she found her authentic voice in “And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon.” The cover of the novel features a lithe and sly-looking spoon, cradled by a coyish dish — just one of her sister’s inspired illustrations. The idea sprung from her sister’s playful query: When the dish ran away with the spoon in the nursery rhyme, where did they go?
“I love to rhyme and use puns, and I did that in “Dish and Spoon.” When you write something,” said Stevens Crummel to her student-audience, “it is important for you guys to use your own voice. When you write something the way you feel or act or think, you will know you nailed it. You’ve found your voice.”
“And make sure you have a villain in your story. Make sure your plot leads to a crisis. Start your story off with a bang and make ‘em want to turn the page,” the author added, rattling off a list of writing tips after students shared their Little Red Pen plots.
Stevens Crummel waved her hand across the shelves of books in the James Bickley library.
“There are only about 10 good plots out there,” she said, instructing would-be-authors to use them freely. In the next breath, sweeping back a strand of hair, she emphasized the importance of ingenuity.
Her hair in pigtails, James Bickley student Aycel Villalobos, 10, divulged some newly acquired knowledge: “I mostly write about things that happen to me. When she told us to start our stories with excitement, that’s something that might help me,” Villalobos said.
Stevens-Crummel visited other local schools throughout the week. She showed students power-point presentations, read portions of her books, and acted out some of her stories using stuffed animals, puppets, student volunteers and props.
James Bickley Visiting Author Committee member and teacher Connie Williams said the school chose to host Stevens-Crummel because she is from the area.
“She is kind of a local author and she has the same background as some of our students,” Williams said.