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5 Questions With... Denise Brennan-Nelson (MAESTRO STU SAVES THE ZOO)

by Denise Brennan-Nelson
 | Aug 31, 2012
Denise Brennan-Nelson is an award-winning children's book author. As a frequent lecturer and speaker she encourages adults and children to tap into their imaginations to create richer, fuller lives. She also shares her enthusiasm for reading and writing in unique school presentations across the country.

The transformative power of imagination is a prominent theme throughout your books. How will that thread continue into your next release, MAESTRO STU SAVES THE ZOO?

Often we think of imagination as something artists, writers, and children have an abundance of, and the rest of us…well, it’s in short supply. And though it’s true that some have a more developed imagination than others, the reality is we all have imaginations, and we use them more often than we realize.

In MAESTRO STU SAVES THE ZOO, Momma and young Stu listen to the animals. She could call these sounds “annoying,” but her imagination kicks in to put a positive twist on them; it’s a symphony! Stu pretends to be a maestro conducting the animals in a symphonic performance. The illustration shows Stu holding a wooden spoon with a blanket tied around his neck like a maestro’s cape. No fancy props needed; just an imagination and an adult encouraging child’s play.

Later in the story, when the animals realize they are going to lose their home, Stu uses his imagination to help the animals come up with a solution. “I have an idea,” he tells them. Promising words from anyone, but especially a child!

We all have ideas. And our ideas become richer, clearer, and more frequent when we take the time to nurture our imaginations. A developed, utilized imagination can transform a room, a party, a story, a life. It can take the ordinary to extraordinary, the mundane to magnificent!

In MAESTRO STU SAVES THE ZOO, and several of your other books, a child is able to have a large impact on the people and events around him/her. Why is it important for young people to hear this message?

“Children should be seen and not heard,” was a popular adage when I was a kid. And coming from a family of eight children, I’m sure my mom and dad had that thought often. But the adage, “To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world,” is one I would like all children to hold in their hearts.

In SOMEDAY IS NOT A DAY OF THE WEEK, Max can’t find “Someday” on the calendar and tries to convince Momma that they need to pick one of the seven days to go to the fair. Momma acknowledges Max by saying, “You’re right. I never thought of it like that.” I’ve spoken those words many times as my own children have taught—and continue to teach—me many of life’s valuable lessons.

All children should know that their ideas should be shared with others and what they think and feel is important. They have a fresh perspective on life and can teach us much if we let them.

In WILLOW, a little girl helps her art teacher rediscover creativity and her love of art. In your career, what inspiration or renewed passion have you found from students and/or readers?

Willow gives her art teacher, Ms. Hawthorn, a gift. And it’s more than just her well-loved art book. Ms. Hawthorn is the recipient of Willow’s “magical” smile, her non-judgmental attitude, and her colorful spirit!

When I spend time with students, I receive similar intangible gifts for inspiration. I am inspired to think outside the box, learn something new, keep my imagination turned on, notice things around me, ask more questions, play, not worry so much about the little things… The inspiration is endless!

Encouraging others to believe in themselves and their dreams, talking to them about overcoming obstacles, perseverance, etc. inspired me to get off my duff and I recently competed in (and completed!) my second triathlon.

Your “…Likes to Say” series focuses on idioms, a colorful element of speech that is often ignored in the classroom. Why did you decide to shine a light on these commonplace and oft-overlooked phrases?

My mom was the queen of idioms! She said so many funny, odd things when I was a child. I didn’t always understand or appreciate what they meant, but I still loved hearing them. For years I scratched my head wondering what Mom meant when she said “If the shoe fits, wear it” or “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” It was these expressions and many more which were the inspiration for MY MOMMA LIKES TO SAY, the first in the Likes to Say series.

One of the reasons I love writing about idioms is that it gets everyone talking about the things their momma, daddy, or grandparents like to say. I also hope that by “shining a light on them,” it helps children, especially ESL learners, to understand these often confusing expressions.

In your speeches you talk about something you call a “morale bank.” Can you explain this concept and how it can help our members to improve their colleagues’ and their own work?

If you have a bank account, and make withdrawals but fail to make deposits, you become overdrawn, or worse, you go bankrupt. The same concept applies to our “morale bank” which is where our confidence and enthusiasm are stored.

I once heard someone say, “I cannot take care of you if I do not take care of me.” We can’t give what we don’t have. If we don’t feel good about ourselves and what we do, how can we serve others?

Keeping ourselves emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually full will ensure that our morale bank account won’t become overdrawn and we will have a reserve of positive feelings, attitudes, and experiences to draw from.

© 2012 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.
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