Author to College Place, Walla Walla kids: It can pay to be different

During a visit to the area Tuesday, Kelly Milner Halls urged students to believe in themselves and to be critical thinkers.

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Children's author Kelly Milner Halls holds up plaster molds believed by some to be Bigfoot's footprint. Halls was at Meadow Brook Intermediate School in College Place for a visit Tuesday.

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Meadow Brook Intermediate School students raise their hands to ask author Kelly Milner Halls questions when she spoke about her books on Tuesday.

COLLEGE PLACE -- Feel free to call Kelly Milner Halls weird. She won't mind.

For Halls, being the "strange" kid in school, the one way too curious about the world and asking way too many questions, was a distinction that fueled her success as a children's books author.

Halls doesn't just write stories. She researches the strange yet often true tales found in nature and the world, particularly about animals, then uses words to educate and captivate young audiences.

Halls was in town Tuesday to speak to students at Meadow Brook Intermediate School, as well as students at Sharpstein Elementary in Walla Walla. Her visit was coordinated by The Literacy Connection of Tri-Cities, a group of retired librarians who help plan author visits to area schools. Coordination and funding was supported by the schools' PTAs.

Meadow Brook Librarian Jenny Detwiler said her school sponsors an author visit every year.

Halls was to visit 19 schools, most in the Tri-Cities region, throughout the month. Meadow Brook and Sharpstein were the only Walla Walla-area schools on the tour.

At Meadow Brook's library Tuesday, an audience of fourth- and fifth-grade students sat on the floor while Halls talked about the curious things she has researched for her books.

She shared about her own life, like the five cats she owns and her nearly 5-foot-long pet rock iguana, Gigantor.

"Does he bite?" one student asked. The children learned Halls' iguana is more likely to use his tale like a whip.

"He's a little like having a pet dinosaur," Halls said.

Dinosaurs are one of Halls favorite book topics. In "Dinosaur Mummies: Beyond Bare Bone Fossils," Halls writes about Leonardo, a duck-billed dinosaur that was discovered fossilized with most of its soft-tissue intact. That included its bill, tongue, and even its stomach, with a variety of undigested plants still inside, she said.

"He's the most complete dinosaur ever found," Halls told the students. "He's weird, and I knew I had to write about him."

In "Tales of the Cryptids," Halls set out to study and debunk stories of strange creatures -- but ended up learning that some were fake, some were real, and some could not be proved to be either.

A notable "maybe" creature is the legendary Sasquatch, or Big Foot, which has had thousands of sightings around the world, and some scientific backing, but no definitive proof.

Halls said her favorite hoax is the Fiji Mermaid, a sideshow of the P.T. Barnum Circus acts of long ago, which was eventually discovered to be half a monkey and half a fish sewn together.

Halls brought treasures to share, and held up two plaster casts of 17-inch footprints believed to have been made by bigfoot and discovered near Walla Walla.

She showed off her collection of fossil replicas, as well as one real fossil -- a piece of dinosaur dropping estimated to be about 77 million years old.

Detwiler said she helped students prepare for Halls' visit several weeks ago by researching her books, but also by learning about nonfiction, and how to conduct good, solid research.

"She's trying to make you question, and delve in and think for yourself, through research," Detwiler said.

Halls stressed the need for good research in school, and in life.

"You can't believe everything you hear," she said. "You have to be critical thinkers."

Halls is currently working on a book about the history of video games, as well as one on the real life journey of an elephant in Thailand that lost its foot to a land mine, but was rehabilitated and fitted with a prosthetic foot thanks to an elephant sanctuary.

Halls reminded the students that they all offer something, and that some day one of them might take over writing books about the weird and strange.

"I don't want you ever to doubt yourselves," she told her young audience. "Every single one of you has something special to offer this world."

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317.

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