By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Be yourself, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Though he never said exactly those words, that was the message that local author, illustrator and Sage College professor Matthew McElligott brought to Craig Elementary School on Friday, Feb. 6, when he spent the day at the school reading, teaching and signing books for his young readers.
“I love to read books, I love to draw pictures, and I love to make up my own stories,” McElligott told his second audience of the day, a group of rapt second- and third-grade students sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor of the elementary school’s cafeteria.
He told them he was born at Albany Medical Center, not far from where they were sitting, and grew up in Latham. He wrote his first book, a gift to his dad called “The Book that You and I Will Love,” when he was an elementary school student. In short, he showed the students that even though he was first published in his mid-20s (ages away in the minds of his 8- and 9-year-old audience), he was just like them when he got his start as an author.
All day, from 8:15 a.m. to 1:45 p.m., McElligott read his book “Backbeard and the Birthday Suit: The Hairiest Pirate Who Ever Lived” to two grade levels at a time.
After a dramatic reading that had kids and teachers laughing, he guided the kids through the process of creating a book. Midday, he signed about 135 of them for his young readers.
The daylong schedule of presentations by McElligott was organized in tandem by Craig librarian Suzy Sogoian, who returned from maternity leave days before the event, and the PTO’s Arts and Education Committee.
“It’s teaching, but they don’t really see it as teaching,” said Carol Gascoyne, who heads the committee and whose son, Caleb, attends Craig.
Whether they saw it as a lesson or not, the children were undeniably entertained, especially while McElligott dramatically retold the serendipitous, silly moment that brought to life the “Backbeard” book he read to the Craig kids.
One day, while canoeing with a friend’s family, his friend’s father stood up and pretended to be a pirate. He was shirtless, and very, very hairy. (This part of the story, of course, had the students in stitches.)
Someone jokingly called the man “Blackbeard,” but McElligott misheard the exclamation as “Backbeard,” and the legend of the hairiest pirate who ever lived was born. He couldn’t wait to get out of the water so he could write the idea down.
But the author also instilled in the students the fact that the lightning strike of a good idea is the easiest part of writing a book. “Backbeard” took three years from conception to publication.
“The first time I write my stories … they’re terrible,” McElligott confessed to the students. His revisions often number 15 or 20 before he even sends a story to a professional editor, he told them.
Finally, after revealing the process of creating a book and its illustrations, McElligott involved the students in it. His brightly colorful illustrations start as sketches, which are then filled with color and texture taken from hundreds of photos that the author snaps himself during his daily life, from his own closet to the feathers of his friend’s pet bird.
Part of story
As the presentation drew to a close, he chose three volunteers from the crowd of eager students. He asked them to stand perfectly still, and he took one picture of the back of each student’s shirt. One was striped, one leopard-printed, and one rainbow with a variety of neon hearts.
Then, on a projection screen, he pulled up an illustration from the “Backbeard” book he had read earlier, which was published in 2007. While the students watched, he used Photoshop to change the main character’s coat to match the rainbow sweatshirt. An old woman’s dress became purple and leopardprinted, and a tablecloth was transformed by the third volunteer’s striped sweater.
“I think I like yours better,” he said, admiring the new version of the illustration, transformed by the fashion sense of Craig students. “I wish I had met you guys a few years ago.”
That final moment of magic was student Jordan Bell’s favorite moment of the presentation.
“[I liked] when he took all the different patterns and put them onto the computer,” Bell said, clearly a bit dazzled by what he had seen. Even before he met the author at school, Bell said his favorite book was by McElligott, a storybook called “Even Aliens Need Snacks.”
Classmate Gillian Pizzolo said she had fun learning about writing, since she was a writer, too.
“This year in class, I wrote a story about people being crazy,” she said. “They had to go to jail!”
That plot line may not have much in common with the creations of McElligott’s adult students at Sage, but many of the points he made to the young audience matched his lesson plans for the older ones. “I share a lot of the exact same material with them,” he said. “A story is a story.” A certain sense of wonder about the creative process is also constant. “It’s magic to me, too,” he said.