Snakes aren’t really slimy, and bigfoot might not be a hoax.
From the wonderfully weird tales of nonfiction writer Kelly Milner Halls to the straight skinny from artist Brad Sneed on how to become a book illustrator, about 1,000 Franklin County elementary-age students had the opportunity to meet nine authors at the 12th annual Children’s Literature Festival Wednesday on the Ottawa University campus, 1001 S. Cedar St., Ottawa.
The festival, sponsored by the Franklin County Reading Council, included third-, fourth- and fifth-graders from Ottawa, West Franklin and Central Heights schools. Wellsville students did not participate this year because the school district was on spring break, organizers said.
“If you grab a snake and scare it, it will bite you, but snakes won’t chase you and try to attack you,” David Nieves, author of “Reptiles Up Close,” told students Wednesday.
“Trying to pick up a snake is no different than trying to pick up a cute little squirrel,” Nieves said. “If you try to pick up a squirrel, what will happen?”
“It will bite you,” the students replied.
Also, contrary to popular myth, “snakes aren’t slimy, and that’s because they don’t sweat like humans,” Nieves said.
The Nebraska native’s career as a research herpetologist has taken him to many “amazing places” to study and photograph reptiles. Some of his photographs are found in his two children’s books: “Reptiles Up Close” and “More Reptiles Up Close,” according to his website, www.reptilesupclose.net
With a small anaconda wrapped around his arm and hand, Nieves explained to students that the snake, which he said was bending his fingers in unusual ways, was using his arm like a tree branch, because it was scared of falling just like a human would be.
“I don’t mind it when a snake treats me like a tree — I think it’s kind of cool,” Nieves said. “What I don’t like is when a dog treats me like a tree. That’s not cool.”
The author told the children anacondas can grow up to be 20 feet long and weigh 300 pounds, but they do not get to be as large as buses, like they are sometimes portrayed in the movies.
To close his presentation, Nieves held up a 13-foot, 70-pound python named Samson.
“When fully grown, Samson will be 20 feet long and weigh about 200 pounds,” Nieves said.
The python was a show stopper for fifth-graders Dayne Clary, West Franklin, and Cassidy Williams, Ottawa. Both students said the python was their favorite among the various snakes, giant lizard-like cape monitor and other reptiles that Nieves showed to the students.
“I thought it was amazing, and I learned a lot,” Clary said of Nieves’ presentation. “I liked the python the best.”
Students had an opportunity to use their imaginations as author and illustrator Sneed explained to the youths how a book is illustrated, from start to finish.
Sneed, a Kansas City-area illustrator who studied his craft at the University of Kansas, has illustrated more than 25 children’s books.
He explained how rough sketches, or thumbnail sketches, are put together into a story board, or a road map for the book. Using examples from several of the books he has illustrated, including his first, “Grandpa’s Song,” Sneed said he is an “old-fashioned” artist who makes his illustrations through the use of watercolors, rather than generating them with a computer.
One of his rough sketches of a wolf howling at the move looked realistic enough that it prompted one of the young students in the audience to throw back his head and howl — just for the fun of it.
Sneed showed how he adds details to his sketches and makes up a dummy book to show where the words would go as he makes the illustrations for each page. Sneed explained how he works with editors and art directors to craft the illustrations. He said he does not work with the authors during the illustration process, and he always is hopeful his imagination for what the story should look like will please those responsible for the books’ words.
The illustrator told the students he draws on his imagination and own life experiences to paint his illustrations. Sometimes, he said, he also takes photographs of people posing for him to help him visualize the end product.
He showed an example of a photo he took of his young daughter to use for an illustration.
“See how the lighting on one side of her face creates a triangle shadow on her cheek and the shine of her hair — those are details I wouldn’t have been able to create in my imagination,” Sneed said. “That’s an example of how a photograph can help you.”
One student asked the illustrator if he blocked off a certain amount of time to draw each day when he was a young boy.
“I was very active, but I drew whenever I had spare time,” he said. “If I had a few minutes when I wasn’t doing anything, like right before dinner or at the end of a class [period], I would draw.”
Another student asked how he was able to make such detailed drawings with watercolors.
“I use a special paper designed for watercolors, and I use a sable brush, which has a very fine point,” he said. “To make a really fine point, you have to use a sable brush — and have a steady hand.”
A writer of more than 30 books and 1,500 magazine articles on all things weird, author Halls talked with students about research she did on a duckbill dinosaur named Leonardo, who was the most intact dinosaur ever discovered. About 70 percent of the dinosaur’s body tissues were fossilized — including its internal organs — along with its bones, Halls said.
“Even its last meal — about 40 different plants — was fossilized in its stomach,” she said.
The Spokane, Wash., author also discussed her research about albino animals, such as the albino squirrels and penguins — even an albino dolphin.
“I’ve always been interested in weird stuff,” Halls said. “But when you write nonfiction, it’s important that you do your research, because it’s important that you get the facts right.”
Halls said she initially studied to be a journalist but decided covering meetings and writing about adults would be “too boring.”
“I’d rather write about weird fun stuff that you guys like to read about,” Halls told the students.
Halls also said she completed extensive research about Bigfoot for one of her books. She provided details about her discoveries — from fake footprints to a possible authentic video shot in 1967 that scientists have been unable to discredit.
“There are reputable scientists who think Bigfoot exists,” she said. “Bigfoot would be the only great ape to walk on two legs.”
Her website www.wondersofweird.com includes a link to the Bigfoot video.
Halls also talked about a salamander, with lungs and gills, that is being studied by University of Indiana researchers.
“If its leg is cut off, it will grow back,” Halls said of the salamander. “And if you cut off its head — it dies. So don’t cut off its head.”
But Halls used the example that if a little boy got his finger cut off in a spinning bicycle wheel, and it was eaten by a dog before the boy had a chance to pick it up, scientists would like to learn how to make the boy’s finger grow back. She said the amphibious salamander might unlock that secret for researchers.
“I thought it was great,” Kiersten Baber, a fourth-grader at Lincoln Elementary School in Ottawa, said of Halls’ presentation. “I liked the part about Bigfoot the best.”
‘A good day’
The festival also featured authors Julia Cook, Robert Goodin, Carol Gorman, David Greenburg, Laurie Keller and storyteller Evester Roper.
Vickie Hall, Lincoln Elementary School fourth-grade teacher and co-organizer of the event, said she was pleased with the quality of authors assembled for the festival and for the turnout.
“A couple of weeks ago, when we had all the snow, we were a little worried,” Hall said. “But it’s turned out to be a good day.”
Hall thanked co-organizer Linda Fredricks, a librarian at Garfield Elementary School, and “all the people who helped out and supported” the festival.
“It’s an ongoing process to put this together each year, and a lot of people have a hand in it,” Hall said as she smiled at a group of students lining up for the next author’s presentation. “It’s fun when we can bring all these authors together.”