'Skippyjon Jones' author shares sense of humor with Walla Walla children

'Skippyjon Jones' author Judy Schachner and fellow children's author Blue Balliett are in town for an annual reading program.

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Students wearing Skippyjon Jones masks they made stand and wave as the popular children's book author Judy Schachner takes the stage at Cordiner Hall Monday morning for a talk as part of the annual Walla Walla Kids Read program.

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Peering below his cut and colored Skippyjon Jones mask, Orrin Hallowell laughs broadly during children's book author Judith Schachner's talk at Cordiner Hall Monday morning for the Kid's Read program organized by local author Patrick Carman. Hallowell sat with the rest of his class wearing the masks or playing with them throughout the talk.

WALLA WALLA -- With a playful smile, 7-year-old Luis Diaz explained exactly what he loves about the adventurous kitty in the Skippyjon Jones series of books.

"Skippito es muy funny," said Diaz, a first-grade bilingual student at Green Park Elementary, mixing his English and Spanish much like the feline hero. So the chance to meet the author who brought "El Skippito Friskito" to life was an added treat Monday morning.

Diaz and fellow Green Park second-grade student Aldo Feria, 8, took to the stage of Cordiner Hall Monday to welcome author and illustrator Judy Schachner to Walla Walla.

The creator of the popular Skippyjon Jones books is in Walla Walla, along with author Blue Balliett, as part of the Walla Walla Kids Read program.

Schachner presented to kindergarten through second-grade students, while Balliett spoke to third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. Balliett's mystery novels geared for young adults are "Chasing Vermeer," "The Calder Game," and "The Wright 3," all critically acclaimed.

Local author Patrick Carman launched the program in 2007 with the goal of exposing all of the city's elementary school children to nationally-known writers. Each year, the program has brought children's books authors to present to elementary school children at no charge to the schools or community.

On Monday and Tuesday, Schachner and Balliett talked to more than 3,000 children from a dozen elementary schools throughout the valley. The authors spoke about their own inspiration, and how imagination and literacy can work together to realize dreams.

During her Monday morning session, Schachner shared details of her life, and how her zany pets offer enough inspiration each day to fuel her work.

In the popular books, Skippyjon Jones is by birth a Siamese cat, but his oversized ears and giant head make him, in his own mind, a Chihuahua with a drive for adventure.

Skippy's popularity among the young audience was apparent. Children from Berney Elementary's Homelink program came wearing hand-made Skippy masks, adorned with large, pointy ears and black Zorro-like masks drawn over the eyes.

"How many of you like Skippyjon Jones books?" asked Liz George, librarian at the Walla Walla Public Library, at the start of the talk. What looked like all the students in attendance immediately raised their hands.

During the presentation, the children learned that Skippy was Schachner's own Siamese cat, who died a few years ago. In her presentation, filled with photographs of her pets and home, Schachner showed a photo of Skippy smiling for the camera, showing off his sharp teeth. After the talk, Diaz said the picture of Skippito smiling was the highlight of the talk for him.

Schachner encouraged the children to borrow from their daily lives to craft stories.

Cats with absurd sleeping positions, like her own Siamese, or pets that can't seem to keep out of trouble, are really begging to have stories written about them, she said. Schachner even offered her own formula for writing and creating.

"You take a cup full of real, and you take a cup full of make-believe, and you mix it all together," she said.

While pets are often an endless source of amusement and inspiration, any memory from the past can fuel an imagination.

"If you have wonderful memories, you should draw them and write them," she said.

As they left the hall to return to school, students passed by Schachner, who had walked down from the stage. The children offered her hugs, and quick anecdotes about their own pets.

"Write about him," she told one student about a pet. "I want to read about him. Send me your stories, OK?"

Although initially hesitant to fly across the country for a lecture, Schachner said she was impressed with the coordination of the program and the children's reception of her works.

"This is a tribute to how wonderful this community must be," she said.

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

Authors Judy Schachner and Blue Balliett will be at the Walla Walla Public Library tonight from 5:30-7 p.m. to answer questions and sign books. The event is free and open to the public.

More information about the Walla Walla Kids Read program is available online at www.wallawallakidsread.com.

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