April 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Teacher Appreciation Week, May 2–6 | Authors and Illustrators Remember Their Mentors

Mrs Shepard(Original Import) Image courtesy of Sophie Blackall © 2011 and Abrams Books for Young Readers

“Mrs. Shepard”
Image courtesy of Sophie Blackall © 2011
and Abrams Books for Young Readers


Whenever Teacher Appreciation Week rolls around, I am reminded of this piece, which we first posted in 2011. I’m determined to update it, and promise to do so before the next year’s celebration. Until then, I hope you enjoy this mix of reminiscences from authors and illustrators. They’re timeless.

Sophie Blackall, the illustrator of The Crows of Pearblossom (Abrams, 2011) and other titles:

Mrs. Shepard, my ninth grade English teacher, was old, authoritative, Irish, and beloved. She had mauve hair and papery skin and frosted lipstick and an enormous, ancient, black handbag. On the first day of our first class she announced we’d be studying Shakespeare. “There are a lot of curse words in Shakespeare”, she said. “I find it’s helpful to get the tittering out of the way before we begin.” She stood at the blackboard and in perfect copperplate, wrote a list of the filthiest words in the English language. It was a thing of beauty, and in that baking hot classroom of thirty raucous Australian girls you could have heard a pin drop.

Will Hobbs, author of Take Me to the River (HarperCollins, 2011) and other titles:

My most memorable teacher? My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Pilch. We both loved reptiles. None of my previous teachers cared at all for reptiles, especially snakes. Mr. Pilch loved snakes.When Mr. Pilch found out I spent most of my free time roaming the hills searching for gopher snakes and king snakes, he let me stock the classroom terrarium with a “snake of the month.” He even let me bring in lizards for the snake to eat. When the snake got into hunting mode, Mr. Pilch suspended whatever we were doing so everybody could watch it feed. There was no air conditioning in our school. Whenever Mr. Pilch opened the windows he had a fly problem. I was the solution. He recognized my superior ability as a fly catcher. Mr. Pilch never minded when the sudden clap of my hands interrupted him mid-sentence. Oh, and Mr. Pilch turned me on to reading. I read a whole shelf of those orange-covered Landmark biographies in his classroom.

Tim Wynne-Jones, author of Blink & Caution (Candlewick, 2011) and other titles:

I’m always jealous of those artists and writers who can point proudly, their eyes shining, at some teacher who turned them on to the wonders of the creative life. I had reasonably good teachers, I suppose. None made a huge impact on me, until I got to college, that is, with one exception. This is a great opportunity to tip the hat to Miss Schultz in grade three at Irwin Park School, Vancouver. (Or was it Miss. Schwartz?) Anyway, she was great, and I think I was kind of in love with her. Why? Well, she let Graham and me stay in at recess and draw. She even gave us paper—as much as we wanted. It was that cheap paper with chunks of wood floating in it, but that didn’t matter to Graham and me. We drew battles. He was great at drawing cavalry men with arrows through them; I was good at charging horses. Day in, day out, we’d cover sheets of paper with cowboys and Indians and soldiers going at it with every conceivable weapon. We’d show every picture to Ms. Schultz and what we showed her was always wonderful. Her eyes would light up and she’d point to deaths she felt were especially spectacular. She never once tried to steer us towards another topic, like landscapes or kittens, or something equally awful. She just let us draw. There is also one high school teacher worth mentioning, my senior year math teacher, Mr. Plante. Math, you say? Yeah, well… the plan was that I was going to architecture school—or not, with the kind of math marks I was getting. So the principal and Mr. Plante and I sat down and came up with a plan of action: I’d take math all morning, every morning of the week. I sat in Mr. Plante’s room half of my senior year. I was a special case and boy did he work me. He was unendingly patient. And he always had a smile ready for me, when I finally got it right. Not an ounce of cynicism in his body, that man. God bless him. God bless them both. And God bless teachers who care that much.

Joan Bauer, author of Close to Famous (Viking, 2011) and other titles:

Mr. Deihl He wore weird socks. He had small eyes that glowed when he was irritated, and he was irritated with me a lot. I was convinced he slept upside down in his classroom like a bat. He was my honors sophomore English teacher—always after me to, you know, improve. He’d stop me in the hall and say, “You didn’t work very hard on that paper you turned in.” Define hard. “You didn’t begin to plumb the depths of Ethan Frome.” That’s because Ethan Frome is flat-cold boring. Occasionally he would write next to a paragraph of mine, “Now, that’s fine writing!” Then he’d draw an arrow to everything beneath it and write, “What happened here?” Sophomore year was my worst year ever; everything I cared about was at sea. “I know what you can do,” he told me week after week. “When you apply yourself, Joan, you can write.”   I remember knowing I was smart, but feeling like I was wearing a winter coat in summer. I remember sitting in class, not caring, not getting it, just hurting. And how I pull from that time as a writer. Mr. Deihl, you’re in everything I write, compelling me to not be mediocre, to always go deeper and plumb the depths. Thank you for your irritation and for never letting me get sloppy with words. From you I learned that words are to be weighed, not counted.

Maira Kalman, illustrator of Why We Broke Up (Little, Brown, 2012) and other titles:

Mrs. Walters was my seventh grade teacher. She had black bangs like commas across her forehead. She told me that I was a good writer. And that was it. What was she wearing when she told me that? I think it was a blue jacket with matching blue skirt. Were her shoes black patent leather? They must have been. What was I wearing when she told me that? A pleated blue skirt with a white blouse.

Lauren Myracle, author of Ten (Dutton, 2011) and other titles:

I’ve been blessed with a multitude of amazing teachers, with very few crab apples thrown in. I’d like to give an extremely special shout-out to my sixth grade English teacher, Mr. Kimzey. Everyone loved him, and he loved us. We knew he loved us because he was so dang hard on us—especially when it came to grammar. Hard-core grammar, the rules of which he drilled into us the way my parents’ teachers drilled the rules of grammar into them, and the way I’m now drilling those rules into my own children, who have been “corrected” by others for using “I” instead of “me,” when the subjective case was indeed called for. “Stay strong!” I tell my kids. “You’re the last of a dying breed—do not go gentle into that good night!” (Gently, Mr. Kimzey would have corrected, before allowing that a writer can break the rules on occasion, but only if she or he knows the rules in the first place.) It’s because of Mr. Kimzey that I know when to use “I” and when to use “me.” It’s because of Mr. Kimzey that I know when to use a comma, when to use a semi-colon, and when—if I feel like it—to use the awesome dash, which, of course, is an entirely different beast from the hyphen. Mr. Kimzey’s passion for words (and how they fit and work together) fed my own passion for words, and I am forever grateful.

Aidan Chambers, author of The Kissing Game (Abrams, 2011) and other titles:

Three teachers. One I loved, one I loathed, and one who saved me. The one I loved was Miss Ainsley. She tried to teach me to read from the day I started school, aged five, till the day I left her, aged seven. She did not succeed. She called me her “little problem,” sat me on her knee, cosy against her maternal bosom, and read aloud while I looked at the pictures in the book. I suppose I had no desire to give that up, and therefore no incentive to read for myself. The day I left I told her I would come back and marry her. I was nine when the teacher I loathed caned me across the hand with his bamboo stick twice every Friday for not getting my maths right. Presumably, “Gooty” McGoran held the view that corporal punishment induced learning. He was wrong. I am still hopeless at maths. His method of teaching physical education during winter was to make us strip to our vests and shorts and run outside into the playground. He put on his winter overcoat, scarf, and flat cap and watched us through the classroom window. To give his commands, he raised the window and shouted them out: e.g., “Running on the spot! Begin!” Then closed the window till time for his next instruction. The teacher who saved me was Jim Osborn, Head of English at the academic high school where I was sent late, aged 14. Jim took me in hand, created in me a passion for reading, taught me how to think, write, and talk about literature. He it was who decided I should become a teacher. Rigorous, uncompromising, totally unsentimental, I will be grateful to him till the day I die.

Gennifer Choldenko, author of No Passengers Beyond This Point (Dial, 2011) and other titles:

When children ask me: “Did you write stories when you were a kid?” I tell them about a story I wrote in third grade. It was called “The Adventures of Genny Rice” and it was about a grain of rice that went down the garbage disposal and all the characters she met down there: the bent spoon, the half-grapefruit lady, the coffee-grounds man. I talk about the sophisticated outfits Genny Rice wore and all the elaborate illustrations I drew of my fashionable protagonist, but mostly I talk about how much fun it was to write that story. A few years ago, I found “The Adventures of Genny Rice” and I reread it. Oh what a painful experience that was! The story went on and on and on. I had hoped I might be able to spot some clever turn of phrase I could read to the kids—one sentence would have sufficed—but I could not. “The Adventures of Genny Rice” was just plain awful. And yet from third grade on, I held in my heart a secret knowledge that I had talent. Virtually every English teacher I ever had encouraged me to keep writing. How did they know? I am at a loss to figure that out. But I will always be grateful to Miss Sharon Brockie, Mrs. Virginia Gangsei, Mrs. Sylvia Rosenthal, and many other amazing teachers.

Chris Gall, author of the forthcoming Substitute Creacher (Little Brown, 2011) and other titles:

When I was in seventh grade, I won the school spelling bee. I hadn’t foreseen, or prepared for this achievement. But thankfully, being an avid reader, I had retained enough vocabulary to stumble my way through to victory. My next event would be the city championships, several weeks away. My English teacher, Mrs. Merrick, was as surprised and pleased as I was about my prospects. I figured my luck would carry me into the championships without further preparation. Mrs. Merrick had other ideas. A strict and passionate teacher, Mrs. Merrick was prone to long lectures on personal accountability. And when upset, she was known to throw a stapler at the wall (hard) to get our attention. She held me after school (two hours every day) for the next 3 weeks, drilling me on the spelling of words I had never even seen in print, let alone used on the playground. And though I finished 6th overall, I was always grateful for the care and attention she gave me. And along the way, I was encouraged to become the writer I am today.

Andrea Davis Pinkney, author of Bird in a Box (Little, Brown, 2011) and other titles:

A Letter to My Favorite Teacher Dear Mr. Dwyer: You were like no other teacher I’d had before. You wore turtleneck sweaters and a full beard in an age when most male teachers conformed in crew cuts and starched shirts. You taught 7th grade English in a public school that included only a handful of African-American students, most of them bused in to integrate the place. As a new student, I sat in the back of your classroom, in a corner, hoping the anxious apartness I felt would soon go away. Though I lived in the town where our school was, most days I was adrift among the lessons you taught about books whose protagonists seemed foreign to me, and outside the realm of my experience. You must have seen me withering in that corner, because you tossed me a book that changed everything—your dog-eared copy of The Contender by Robert Lipsyte. And you said, simply, “Read this.” And I did. And I loved that book. And I felt proud because it was the first novel I’d ever read from page 1 to the very end. You gave no one else in that classroom The Contender. It was my book. You’d hand-picked it, just for me. Though I was one of those few black kids in that school, it was you, Mr. Dwyer, who crossed the color line so that, through literature, you could reach a student who was fading, but whose potential you saw. Did you somehow know I would someday meet Robert Lipsyte, and come to love his fiction and sports biographies? Did you know that I would grow up to become an author, and that I’d take an eager interest in boxing, history, sports, and great fiction? Could you have imagined that the shy girl in the back of your classroom would, someday, like Robert Lipsyte, become a journalist, and would also write her own books about history, sports, African-American life and culture, and even a novel that centers around prizefighting entitled Bird in a Box? You must have had a keen sense of your students, Mr. Dwyer. That’s why this is so much more than a letter—it’s a thank you for being the teacher you were, and for making me the reader and writer I am today. Yours sincerely, Andrea Davis Pinkney

Jenny Han, author of Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream (Little, Brown, 2011) and other titles:

Ms. Hunt was a grand dame. She was nearly six feet tall—at least to my 11-year-old eyes—and she had shocking white hair that fell in glamorous waves around her face, like a ’40s film star. She always wore lipstick, crimson lipstick that stained the coffee mug she carried everywhere, and she wore perfume that smelled like roses. She would sweep around the classroom like it was her stage and we were her rapt audience. On my stories, she would write things like “Flip!” and “Fabulous!” and “A++!” It was Ms. Hunt that taught me about adverbs, and Lois Duncan, and short stories. It was for Ms. Hunt that I would take Drama as an elective, just so I could be in her class again—even though I was terrified of getting up in front of people and the stage was the last place I wanted to be. But she made me feel like I belonged up there. She certainly did. Ms. Hunt was a writer, a performer, and a teacher, all at the same time. She was a class act, that Ms. Hunt.

Ingrid Law, author of Scumble (Dial, 2010) and other titles:

For better or worse, my third grade teacher, Mrs. H, taught me an indelible lesson. It all started with the robin’s egg I found one sunny morning, and ended when I made a mistake and “brang” that eggshell to school to share. “Look what I brang!” I announced, displaying the fragile shell on my open palm. Mrs. H clutched her chest like I’d shot her with a No. 2 pencil. “BRANG?!” she fired my word back at me. Curling my fingers into a protective cage around the egg, I lowered my palm a little. “Look what I . . . brung?” I tried again. “BRUNG?!” Gulp. Still wrong! And now the other third graders were staring, not at the beautiful, sky-colored egg, but at me and my loftless word skills. I sat down at my desk and put away the shell. By lunchtime, it was squashed beneath my math book. That day I brang a piece of delicate beauty to school, hoping to fill the air with downy oohs and aahs of wonder. What I brought home was a few broken bits of calcium and the determination to make my words strong enough to peck their way out and fly.

Seymour Simon, author of the forthcoming Butterflies (HarperCollins, 2011) and other titles:

I’ve been both a teacher and a student (both in New York City public schools) so Teacher Appreciation Day is also Student Appreciation Day for me. As a student, I remember best my 7th grade science teacher, Mr. D., exhausting the air in a tin can and my gasping as I watched the tin can crumple inward under the pressure of the atmosphere. I also vividly remember hearing my 7th grade English teacher, Ms. K., reading aloud a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I fell in love with poetry that day, an affair that still lasts. As a teacher, my favorite memory is once teaching a science lesson and the bell ringing to signal the end of the period in the middle of the lesson. The students spontaneously groaned at the interruption, then burst out laughing at themselves, grabbed their books and raced out of the room. But for that brief moment, they paid me the highest compliment one can ever give to a teacher: their complete interest in my lesson.

Tomie dePaola, author of Let the Whole Earth Sing Praise (Putnam, 2011) and other titles:

When I was at King Street Elementary School during the early 1940s in Meriden, CT, we did not have art, music, or physical education as a regular part of the curriculum. Instead we had three “supervisors” who came at regular intervals to all eight public schools. Mr. Conklin was the Music Supervisor. Miss Fesiden was the Physical Education Supervisor and the wonderful Mrs. Beulah Bowers was the Art Supervisor. Oddly enough, kindergarten and first grade were exempt from these MUCH ANTICIPATED visits. So, for two years, I watched Mrs. Bowers come down the hall wearing her blue artist’s smock carrying a box of large colored chalks. I was smitten. After all, I was going to be an artist when I grew up. I needed her! When I made it to second grade (you can read that whole account in my books, The Art Lesson, and in chapter 5 of Why?), I loved Mrs. Bowers and I think—no—I know she loved me. Even after I left Meriden for Brooklyn to go to Pratt Institute, whenever I came home I’d call her or visit to tell her of my failures and successes. She was always interested. This friendship lasted until Mrs. Bowers passed away in the early ’60s. She was—and still is—my guardian angel of art.

Daniel Handler, author of the forthcoming Why We Broke Up (Little, Brown, 2012) and other titles:

I had many wondrous teachers who did many wondrous things, and the most wondrous teachers and things who stick with me are the ones who brought me the books of the authors who changed my brain and my heart forever. Mrs. Parrot introduced me to Beverly Cleary. Mrs. Abad introduced me to Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Mr. Bachmann introduced me to Stevie Smith. Ms. Rogers introduced me to William Faulkner. And Mrs. Lewis, the queen de la cremé, introduced me to Elizabeth Bishop and Virginia Woolf both. What words could I have for these teachers? The best words I know are the ones they brought me.

Paul Zelinsky, reteller and illustrator of Rapunzel (Dutton, 1997) and other titles:

Early in high school I had a run-in with an unfortunate art teacher. Her assignment: draw a landscape based on any photo from a magazine, but break it into small, geometric shapes, and color them using a limited palette. I knew what I liked. I filled my large painting of a Puerto Rican hillside, densely, with abstract houses, relieving the claustrophobia with a band of pink sky across the top. Miss Cassella was not pleased—she told me I had to break that sky into pieces. I was polite, but I declined. This upset Miss Cassella hugely. I was unconvincible. I remember watching her get angrier and angrier, but it was my painting. For days she kept at me, but to no avail. Then one day she walked into class with a triumphant look on her face. She had discussed my case with the Chicago Sun-Times‘s art critic… and he agreed that I was wrong! I had to break that sky up. But I didn’t. Miss Cassella’s appeal to a higher authority was ridiculous, but what I did next was far more so. I’ve been going through old papers from my parents’ house, and found a copy of the letter that I then wrote—and sent it to Pablo Picasso, no less, explaining the controversy and hoping to get word from him that I was right and the art critic of the Chicago Sun-Times was wrong. Pretty embarrassing!

Sharon M. Draper, author of Out of My Mind (Simon & Schuster, 2010) and other titles:

“We’ll begin each day with poetry,” she would declare each morning in a tone that was both loving and demanding, “and end it with passionate prose. In the middle I’ll teach you all you need to know and more.” The person who showed me the power of a true educator was my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Kathadaza Mann, a strong African American woman who taught us to be proud of our heritage as well as our capabilities. She was undoubtedly an early influence on my love of learning and teaching. Mrs. Mann was truly powerful—boldly speaking for us who did not yet know how to speak for ourselves. She taught black history long before it was politically correct or socially acceptable. From her we learned so much more than math and spelling. She challenged the accepted standards to prove to us we were wonderful, and we believed her. And she read literature to us—Shakespeare, Thoreau, and Dunbar—and we loved it and learned it because no one ever told us we couldn’t or shouldn’t. She gave us the power to dream. Because of Mrs. Mann, I became a teacher, a poet, a writer, a lover of language. Unlike most of us who rarely get the change to go back and give appreciation to the teachers who made a difference in our lives, I was given the opportunity to thank Mrs. Mann. At a conference session entitled, “Favorite Authors Talk about their Favorite Teachers,” several authors got to tell wonderful stories of teachers who had made a difference in their lives. One story was poignant, one was funny, but when it was my turn, I stood up, spoke briefly of her powerful impact on my life, then announced, “And I’d like to introduce her to all of you. She is here today!” The crowd exploded with applause as the tiny 75-year-old teacher approached the stage. The planners of the event had brought her in (she lived nearby), and I got to give her flowers, a poem, and my heartfelt gratitude. Neither she nor I will ever forget that day.


I was ten and full of wonder

Anxious then for school to start

With red plaid dress and brand new crayons

Fifth grade dawned to grab my heart.

Our teacher met us at the door

How low and silky hummed her voice

A mystery of books and chalk dust

She offered challenge, change and choice.

She wore pearls and silky dresses

Laughed and cheered each sweet success

Marched with us to higher visions

Never stooped or stopped for less.

Cloakroom hooks and home for lunch time

Days of hot and cold extremes

Games for math and bees for spelling

Fifth grade memories, magic, dreams.

With a smile she taught us patience

Whispered secrets breathed us strong

Words and rhymes and tales of beauty

Filled our minds with joy and song.

Through her wisdom we dreamed visions

Of fruits of pride and hope’s moist vine

Because of her life, I am a teacher

Touching lives as she touched mine.

Curriculum Connections

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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.



  1. My favorite children’s book was Patricia Palloco’s “Thank you, Mr Falker, and he,was her teacher!