Naperville North teacher writes a holiday tale for kids
If you've been a parent of young kids on Christmas morning, you've probably ended up playing referee more often than Santa.
You know the scene: siblings clashing over presents, complaining they didn't get what they wanted on their wish list.
What do you do? Appease them with more presents or Christmas cookies and go on your merry way? Warn them that if they misbehave again, they'll have to wear a pink bunny costume from their Aunt Clara?
OK, not everyone has an Aunt Clara.
But Mitch Martin faced a similar Christmas morning two years ago when his sons, Soren and Alec, were tussling over a toy truck on a heap of wrapping paper.
The Lisle dad solved the immediate problem of ending the scuffle — and sprang on a bigger idea.
"I remember thinking I've got to do better than this," Martin said. "I've got to find a way to talk to them, to teach them what I really want them to learn."
Martin decided he would write a children's book that aims to teach kids to value their family and not their wish list.
Writing a book was a natural fit for Martin, an English teacher at Naperville North High School who's pursuing a master's degree in creative writing at Northwestern University. He also was a journalist for about 12 years and describes his family as "book people." Each night at 8 p.m. sharp, Martin, his wife Susan, and their two sons sit down to read a book — no excuses.
After a series of drafts and a failed rhyming attempt, Martin wrote and published "Op-Op the Triceratops: A Cretaceous Christmas Tale." It's a 24-page, brightly illustrated book geared toward kids ages 4 to 8.
"I actually wrote the vocabulary just a little higher than maybe I was supposed to, but I also think that's good for kids," Martin said.
All Op-Op, a young dinosaur, wants for Christmas is a "JetBoard 0-400." He receives something else instead that leads him on an adventure with lessons about family and responsibility — themes relevant to kids and the parents reading to them.
"Everyone has had a boyfriend or a girlfriend or a job that they desperately wanted, and they think if I just get this, everything is going to be wonderful," Martin said. "It almost always turns out you don't get the gift you want, and it's usually for the best."
Why dinosaurs and Christmas? All scientific and theological impossibilities aside, Martin explains, paraphrasing a scene from "Mad Men."
"People don't want things that are new, and they don't want things that are old," Martin said. "People want things that are new with a twist."
And besides, dinosaurs tend to have a strong grip on imaginations.
"Kids today can name 40," Martin said.
Originally, Martin wrote the book in rhyme, but admits "it was terrible." He preserved some repetition, though, and the main character's name, inspired by his son's imaginary friend, dubbed "Popo."
The book has another Naperville connection: Martin hired a former student at Naperville North to illustrate "Op-Op."
Beth Tomashek had impressed Martin with an assignment on Mark Twain, creating "the most beautiful drawing," he said.
At first, Tomashek took a more serious approach to Op-Op in her sketches, but after back-and-forth talks with Martin, settled on a quirky caricature of the dinosaur, complete with a hint of belly.
"I learned from her the joy of the marriage of words and pictures much more deeply than I had before," Martin said. "It brought an excitement to my own writing that I had not expected."
Tomashek, 18, who also contributed to a mural project with other high school students at the Van Buren parking garage in downtown Naperville, now studies computer animation at the Ringling College of Art and Design.
"Holding our work together, it was mind-blowing," Tomashek said. "Seeing how all that work pays off, it pushes me harder to see that I can accomplish something."
Martin dedicated the book to Soren and Alec, now 6 and 4 respectively. And their reaction? Martin says they've requested the book during family reading time.
"It's better than really any sort of audience approval to have your kids want to read the story you wrote for them," he said.
"Op-Op" is available in print via Amazon and as an e-book for Amazon's Kindle. E-books are available for iPads and pending for Barnes & Noble's Nook.
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