With murals drawn from his “Stone Fox” book as illustrations, John Gardiner talks to Skagway children, teachers and a few parents about writing their stories and getting them published. –Jeff Brady

Author draws stories from Skagway children
John Reynolds Gardiner conducts writer workshops

Best-selling children’s book author John Reynolds Gardiner was in Skagway this month in search of stories – not ones he will tell, but stories that can be told by only those who experienced them.
During a visit to Skagway Oct. 15-16 , he presented workshops to budding adult writers at the library and children’s writers at the school.
Gardiner, of Huntington Beach, Calif., is the author of children’s favorites, “General Butterfingers’, “Top Secret’, and “Stone Fox”. The latter, a story about a sled dog race, is widely read and taught in Alaska. Teacher Jo Trozzo learned about Gardiner’s availability at a recent conference in Anchorage, and lured him to Skagway with the assistance of Pat Taylor, who provided Community Education grant funds for the visit, said school Superintendent Michael Dickens, a fan of the stories.
“These kids know these books,” Dickens added during his introduction, pointing to several murals on a school wall that greeted the author. They depicted scenes from chapters in “Stone Fox”.
Before about 100 students in two workshops in the school cafeteria, Gardiner told everyone that they were three steps away from being a best-selling writer.
“You have to have something to say, and you have to know how to say it,” Gardiner said.
The last component is sending it out to publishers. “Everyone in this room is one ‘yes’ away from a book.” he said, adding that he knew one man who sent out 112 copies of his manuscript. Of those, 111 came back with rejection slips, but the one “yes” was all he needed.
“My job today is to convince you that you have good stories,” Gardiner said.
He directed the kids to write this in the middle of the page: “It was not easy when...”. And then finish the sentence.
Gardiner claims the main character in every published book can finish the above sentence. “Making it easy is boring,” he added. “Not easy is interesting.”
He continued by describing how the “not easy feeling” from memories drives writers, whether at the end there is a feeling of anger, or happiness that the “not easy time is over.” He said teachers often become the best children’s writers, because they have these moments every day.
One of the murals at the school showed a musher holding his dead dog. “It took me three days of tears to write what you can read in three minutes,” Gardiner said, and then described how, as a seven-year-old boy, he watched his own dog die at home.
“When the writer feels something and you feel something, that’s your best story,” he noted.
He had the children put the sentence in the middle of the paper because one usually starts a story when the “not easy time begins.” And the best writers tell how that feeling came about.
Several hands went up when asked if their sentence involved a pet dying.
One child wrote: “It was not easy when my dad had to put my dog down.” After talking about it over with the author, the beginning became, “Our dog was eating, but it was still skinny.” He then urged the young writer work on putting down good memories with his dog.
Sometimes the feeling can come from reading or hearing about the stories of others. Another student said her “not easy time” was “when the hijackers hit the Twin Towers.” To this, Gardiner explained that “a lot of stories will come out of this to make us feel good,” such as the stories of brave firefighters.
However, if you don’t feel something strongly enough, then he urged the young writer to move on to another story. He then explained that often the best stories come from the simplest themes, kids not wanting to eat their vegetables, or hippos trying to get rid of hiccups. They become good stories because their authors aren’t afraid to turn off the TV and write about their feelings.
Learning how to tell the story well takes practice, he said, adding that sports legends Tiger Woods and Jerry Rice never fail to credit their practice time for their success.
And once you finally have it down on paper, you have to send it out, or have someone send it out for you. Gardiner’s best example was his own daughter, who wrote a moving piece about moving and having to leave her room behind. Gardiner discovered the sixth grade homework assignment in the trash, sent it off, and it was published.