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Thursday, April 24, 2014

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Thornhill teacher writes children’s book

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Thornhill Woods Public School teacher and librarian wrote and published her first children’s book called Petunia Peachim’s Predicament. [Michelle Bitran photo]

For teacher and librarian Marilyn Wagman, achieving your goals begins with a dream. This past June, the 54-year-old teacher and librarian at Thornhill Woods Public School self-published a picture book that she has been diligently working on for the last three years.

“At Thornhill Woods, the motto of our school is dream it, believe it, achieve it,” Wagman said, adding that writing her own children’s book has been a dream of hers for years.  “We tell [our students] to persevere with things that are difficult, and I did.”

Wagman’s book, Petunia Peachim’s Predicament, tells the story of a school librarian, who bears a striking resemblance to Wagman herself, with a fear of lending out her cherished books.

Realizing that they cannot take out their favourite books, Petunia’s students slowly stop coming to the library. One day, a young boy named Percival helps Petunia deal with her fears of lost or ruined books and convinces her to begin lending them out.

In the “About the Author” section, Wagman writes, “Marilyn wants to make it abundantly clear that she does indeed let students take out treasured books from her library. However, she does readily admit that it is not always easy for her to part with them.”

For anyone who has met Wagman or seen her library at school, this admission will bring a smile to their face.  Wagman’s love of literature, and children’s literature in particular, shines through in her enthusiasm as she talks about books. Her library is brightly decorated with whimsical butterflies, colourful rugs and comfy nooks for students to curl up with a good book.

For her, writing her own children’s book was a natural extension of her 30-year teaching career and her work as a librarian and a literacy coach.

“Through my experience of working with kids, I know what they like,” Wagman said. She brought rough drafts of Petunia Peachim’s Predicament to school, reading it to students from grades 1 through 8, and getting feedback on how to improve the story.

“I said to them, ‘I really want your input,’” she said. “I was very committed to make this story a professional story and a publishable story.”

The impetus to begin writing was Wagman’s 50th birthday. “I found that 50 gave me the freedom to actually have the time to write this book,” said Wagman, who has two sons in their 20s.

Finding a story came easily to her once she found the time to write. “I teach [students to] ‘write about what you know’ – these are going to be the most successful stories.” Wagman did just that. “I know Petunia because she’s my voice,” she said. “I hope, too, that children find her endearing.”

Wagman incorporated alliteration into the story, using P-words throughout. She also made the book a learning experience with challenging vocabulary and an important lesson for children.

“I think it’s an opportunity to see that people can change and overcome their fears, including adults,” she said. “Children [like Percival] can be problem solvers, and they have a voice.”

Wagman wrote about 20 drafts until she was finally satisfied with every word in the story. Then, she brought illustrator Robyn Gram on board to bring Petunia and her world to life.

“I wanted to find an illustrator who actually had my vision of what I wanted Petunia to be,” she said. The book is bright and colourful, and Petunia’s library brings to mind the Thornhill Woods school library that Wagman decorated. “It’s exactly like I visualized it in my head,” she said of how the drawings turned out.

Because of the tough market for publishing picture books, Wagman decided to self-publish under the name Teapot Publications, a decision she is happy she made. “I loved the idea that I had complete control over the text, over the illustration,” she said. “The book I wrote is the book I wanted.”

With the help of her friends, family, colleagues and school parents, Wagman was able to put together not only her book, but also a marketing plan that has allowed her to begin selling it.  “My support system has been fabulous,” she said.

Petunia Peachim’s Predicament, which has already been bought by children’s book wholesaler Tinlids and Toronto bookshop Another Story, will be debuted to Wagman’s students this fall, since it was completed only after the kids went on summer vacation. Following that, she will have a book signing at Indigo in Richmond Hill.

For more information about Petunia Peachim’s Predicament, please email teapotpublications@rogers.com or call 905-886-1932.

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