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Visiting author shares book, message with Penn students

NORTH LIBERTY– Jeanette Hopkins’ best ideas start with the words, “What if?”
The teacher, environmental educator and children’s book author got the idea for her first children’s story and picture book, The Ladybug Waltz, when her granddaughter Chloe was in the hospital after undergoing open heart surgery. Chloe saw a troop of ladybugs resting on the hospital window, and, inspired by the child’s wonder and delight, Hopkins imagined what it would look and sound like if ladybugs adorned in crimson-colored gowns, antennae tiaras and high-heeled shoes went waltzing and gliding through a magical night at the ladybug ball.
Her imaginings materialized into a children’s storybook and song, a melody Hopkins sang to her granddaughter every night for reassurance as Chloe continued her fight against heart disease.
Hopkins’ second book also started with an imaginative, “what if?” and is no less fanciful, though the characters aren’t dressed quite as nicely.
Hopkins visited Penn Elementary school Dec. 6 and 7, where she shared the Ladybug Waltz and her newest book, The Juggler, with kindergarten through second grade students.
Hopkins said she got the idea for the second book after shopping in Dubuque, where she purchased an art print of a juggler. On the way home, she thought about other personas the juggler might possess.
“I thought, what if he was a skinny farmer, juggling pigs?” she told the students. “And then I thought, what if he were jugging pink pigs– in tutus? Wouldn’t that be funny?”
The Juggler takes young readers to a farm where Henri the French farmer struggles to juggle more than three items at a time. Henri practices and practices, but improves not, until a circus stops near his home and one of the performers gives him a special gift– the courage to miss.
The message, Hopkins said, is that we all need to know it’s okay to make a mistake when we first learn anything; that hopes and dreams and passions are attainable, as long as we have the courage to not get it exactly right the first time.
It is message that parallels young Chloe’s life, as well. Chloe was the youngest baby ever to survive the operations she received to repair her stenosis of the heart. In 2008, she had a double valve replacement operation. After a total of five open heart surgeries, Chloe is now in second grade, and doing quite well, according to her grandmother.
“She’s a lifer,” said Hopkins. And unafraid to miss.
Penn Art instructor Heidi Rittenhouse-Goeken illustrated Hopkins’ The Ladybug Waltz, and has used Hopkins’ books in her classes to teach kids about illustrative artwork as well as how art can carry meaning and messages beyond their eyes and into their own hearts. Penn art classes studied the work of pop artist Jim Dine, who paints a lot of hearts. The students painted their own hearts that now line the halls of the school.
The students also learned about Chloe, talked about heart disease and were helped to understand what life might be like for children whose lives are constantly connected to hospitals and treatments and special medications.
“The kids have a connection to Chloe’s story,” said Rittenhouse-Goeken. “I think it’s important to empower kids to try to do something about a problem.”
To that end, Rittenhouse-Goeken encouraged the entire school to hold a penny drive, with the purpose of donating the money raised to the American Heart Association for pediatric heart research. Moreover, the University of Iowa Community Credit Union agreed to match the amount collected by Penn students to supplement the donation. Ultimately,
Meanwhile, the ideas of sharing your pennies, having the courage to keep trying after failure, and opening your heart to new possibilities are buoyed by the elements of rhythm and rhyme, interesting language, beautiful art work and the inspiring message that all come together in the story of The Juggler.
Katie, kindergarten student at Penn Elementary School, perhaps summed it up best.
“Chloe had a heart disease, and people who have heart disease have to pay for stuff,” she said. “It’s important to share your pennies so you can help them and be kind to them.”
And don’t be afraid to miss.