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Celebrating Reading, Film, and a 100th Birthday, Too

  • After singing Happy Birthday to their school, students finish their cupcakes before heading outside for a school photograph. From left are Alonna Battis, Tyler Craig, Abby Carson, Meredith Young, Ricky Fennimore and Kris Fennimore. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    After singing Happy Birthday to their school, students finish their cupcakes before heading outside for a school photograph. From left are Alonna Battis, Tyler Craig, Abby Carson, Meredith Young, Ricky Fennimore and Kris Fennimore. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Outside Newbury Elementary, students and staff form a 100 in celebration of the school’s 100th year and the 100th day of classes this school year. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Outside Newbury Elementary, students and staff form a 100 in celebration of the school’s 100th year and the 100th day of classes this school year. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Micheala LaCount, a fifth-grader, holds hands with first-grader Matthew Corti when forming one of the zeros in the 100 outside the school. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Micheala LaCount, a fifth-grader, holds hands with first-grader Matthew Corti when forming one of the zeros in the 100 outside the school. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • After singing Happy Birthday to their school, students finish their cupcakes before heading outside for a school photograph. From left are Alonna Battis, Tyler Craig, Abby Carson, Meredith Young, Ricky Fennimore and Kris Fennimore. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Outside Newbury Elementary, students and staff form a 100 in celebration of the school’s 100th year and the 100th day of classes this school year. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Micheala LaCount, a fifth-grader, holds hands with first-grader Matthew Corti when forming one of the zeros in the 100 outside the school. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Moving pictures were a nascent form of storytelling in 1914, when classes first met in the building on the village green where Newbury students have been educated ever since. Now, given the choice of watching a movie or reading a book, today’s Newbury Elementary School students will often choose the former, a development with good and bad consequences.

Rather than lament this trend, or try to force reading down students’ throats, a group of Upper Valley filmmakers saw an opportunity to share their love for their craft with Newbury students, and at the same time help them identify what makes the books they enjoy so great.

One of the activities funded by a Children’s Literacy Foundation “Year of the Book” grant, the “book trailers” project at Newbury brought actors and filmmakers like Richard Waterhouse of Newbury and the husband-and-wife team of Faith Catlin and John Griesemer of Lyme to create a series of short films with Newbury’s second- through sixth-grade students to promote the books they most enjoy. Newbury students were the stars of the trailers, but were also responsible for choosing books they wanted to shoot as trailers, then worked with their directors to recreate scenes from the book.

“The idea,” Catlin said, “was to get kids cranked up about reading.”

The book trailers premiered last Tuesday, as Newbury celebrated the 100th day of this school year, and the 100th year of classes in the school building. Students didn’t have a red carpet to walk en route to the library, where the “Newbury Reads!” trailers were screened, but there were paper bags filled with popcorn for the students to enjoy and excitement in the air as they filed in, anxious to see their film debuts.

“Kill the lights,” Catlin called to Waterhouse, “and show the film.”

Each grade chose a different book as the subject of their trailer, and accordingly, each trailer took on a different tone. The second-grade class, who picked Junie B. Jones and the Stupid, Smelly Bus as their book, highlighted the humorous moments in Barbara Park’s story of a kindergartener who can’t seem to stay out of trouble, and hides in the classroom supply closet to avoid riding the bus. And just as snippets from critics’ reviews often make it into film trailers, the second-graders gave their thumbs up to Junie’s story. “You should read this book,” one student said, “cause it’ll make you laugh out loud.”

The third grade conveyed the humorous and suspenseful elements of Bunnicula, James Howe’s series about a wayward vampire bunny, by showing a group of students stumbling through the dark and using flashlights to catch the bunny. To the tune of a hip-hop backbeat, the miseries of middle school were shown in the fourth grade’s trailer for Diary of A Wimpy Kid, whose narrator suffers the indignities of gym class dodgeball tournaments and sitting alone in the cafeteria, with only the trash can for company. More serious was the trailer for Touching Spirit Bear, the story of a troubled teen from a broken home who’s sent to live in isolation on an Alaskan island for a year. A series of suspenseful thuds and unnerving shots, like one of blood on the school’s front steps, framed the dramatic, heartbreaking aspects of the book.

The creation of the “Newbury Reads!” book trailers has been one of the activities made possible by the “Year of the Book” grant from CLiF, which has also included residencies with Vermont writers like poet Leland Kinsey and children’s book author Natalie Kinsey Warnock, who helped students write about their family histories. By the end of the school year, the Year of the Book will have allowed each Newbury student to take home 10 books to read for pleasure.

Based in Waterbury, Vt., the Children’s Literacy Foundation works to promote literacy and a love of books in children living in New Hampshire and Vermont, with a particular focus on children from low-income communities. The Year of the Book program is designed to boost literacy in New Hampshire and Vermont schools where more than 30 percent of the student population qualifies for free or reduced cost lunches, and where 25 percent or more of students have scored “below proficient” on the reading and writing assessments of the New England Common Assessment Program.

Newbury Elementary is one of six schools that received a Year of the Book grant this year. Given that it is celebrating 100 years in the building, “we used that as a point in the nominating grant, that it would be a great time to bolster literacy,” said Kim Goody, an instructional coach at Newbury who is coordinating the school’s events for the Year of the Book, in conjunction wth CLiF.

Though films are often seen as a hindrance to children becoming readers, the book trailers used the medium to help students discover what excites them about reading. “A lot of the kids understand that films and filmmaking is a form of storytelling as well,” said Duncan McDougall, CLiF’s executive director.

To kick off the project, Griesemer and Catlin met with students in each grade to help them identify possible books to use for the trailers. Each class narrowed their choices down to two, debated the merits of each book, and voted on which one to film. “It got them focused on what they liked about the books and helped them think about what might go into a trailer for the book,” Griesemer said. “Once they clicked on those ideas, they had a really great time.”

Filming the trailers would be a learning experience for many students. After the screening of the trailers concluded Tuesday afternoon, McDougall asked the students what surprised them the most about making a film.

“Like, remembering what to do,” said one student.

“Not looking at the camera,” offered another.

“In the first scenes, we had to do it over and over again. We did it like 10 times,” said student Carissa Lasure.

“You know what that’s also like? Like writing,” McDougall said. Then he asked how many students wanted to be actors as a result of making the book trailers. Few raised their hands, but judging by the excitement students showed in watching the trailers, the project seemed to have achieved its underlying goal of making reading more fun.

“It makes you want to read a book more,” explained sixth-grader Mason Tomlinson. “If a movie trailer makes you want to see a movie, a book trailer makes you want to read the book.”

For Catlin, the payoff has come in seeing students get excited not only about their own book trailer, but in reading the other books they saw in the project.

“They’re saying to me now, We want to read Frindles,” she said, referring to another book profiled in a book trailer. “That’s exactly what it’s supposed to do.”

Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at kbryan@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.