Students get lesson in art of storytelling

Students get lesson in art of storytelling

DANVILLE – With a little imagination and some "magic" crayons, East Park students Savannah Robbins and Jamar Davis became Savannah the Sea Turtle and Jamar the Jellyfish.

The colorful sea creatures – which also included Lyric the Lobster, Melissa the Manta Ray and Santiago the Swordfish – were inspired by a group of fourth- and fifth-graders, then drawn on an easel pad by noted children's book author and illustrator Ashley Wolff.

"We have all of these great characters – a sea turtle, a jellyfish, a crab, an octopus," Wolff said as she drew suction cups on a tentacle of a purple octopus named Ochien. "Pretty soon you have a story."

A San Francisco resident, Wolff, 51, is the author and/or illustrator of about 50 books, including "Stella & Roy," "Only the Cat Saw," and the Miss Bintergarten tales. She also visits schools across the United States to show students how they can take aspects of their lives, mix in a little imagination and create interesting stories, as she has done.

Her visit to East Park was made possible by a $2,000 grant from the Danville Community Public School Foundation.

"If you've ever thought about writing a book or illustrating a book, she's showing you how you can fulfill that," said art teacher Mandy Richter, who organized Wolff's visit.

Dressed in a red jacket covered with butterfly and ladybug pins, Wolff spent the day reading students "Stella & Roy" – her spin on the tortoise and the hare fable set in Golden Gate Park. The main characters – Stella and her little brother, Roy – were inspired by the author's two sons, who played in the park.

Wolff also involved students in drawing exercises to illustrate how simple using an event or person in their lives – even themselves – can be the basis for their own characters, setting and plot.

"Who's going to be a character?" Wolff asked, telling students their character must be an animal that started with the same first letter of their name.

After she had drawn several creatures swimming in the ocean, she asked students to think about what they were saying and doing. Based on their replies, she suggested a plot.

"We could say a fisherman is trying to catch these characters for an aquarium," Wolff said dramatically, as she drew a blue barracuda caught in a net.

As the story unfolded over several pages, Wolff taught the students about some of the basic rules of storytelling and tricks of illustrating such as characterization, forward momentum and point of view.

"Sometimes I look at characters at eye level," she said. "Sometimes I like to go above my characters and look down at them like I'm a bird. Sometimes I like to go down below them like I'm a caterpillar or a mouse and look up at them. ... See how I draw this catfish so it's looking up at the bottom of a boat?"

Wolff ended the exercise with a cliffhanger: Lucas the Lionfish chewed a hole in the rope netting, allowing him and the other creatures to escape.

"Now it's up to you to finish the story," she said, encouraging the students to make themselves the hero of their tale. "You only need three things to do that – paper, crayons and your ideas."

The students, who were selected for the exercise because of their interest in art, said they were inspired by Wolff's visit.

"I'd love to draw like her," said Jesse Hord, a fifth-grader. He said he would like to write a book in which he's the main character. "I'm a superhero who stops all of the arguing in the world."

Wolff told the students that if they like to draw, they should keep it up.

"Once you get to middle school, don't stop drawing," she said, adding that being an artist is a never-ending process for her. "The more you draw, the better you're going to get."

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