Ellie Gerhard emerged from a pack of children petting a Siberian husky, a smile on her face and a warm feeling in her hand.
“He was soft, and I like how pretty they are,” the Valley View Elementary fourth grader said of the magnificent creature, one of six tethered together in the school parking lot. Ellie was aglow with the delight of seeing a real sled dog, just after reading a story about an intrepid pig who dreamed of being one.
Along with 650-plus other Valley View students and their families, Ellie read “The Adventures of a South Pole Pig” by Chris Kurtz, a self-described “novel of snow and courage.” Flora the pig journeys from a small-town farm to Antarctica to pursue her goal of being a sled pig, and proves her bravery under harrowing circumstances.
The book brought together students, parents, grandparents and teachers for a three-week community reading project called One School, One Book. Valley View partnered with Read To Them, a nonprofit that aims to “create a culture of literacy in every home” through shared reading aloud, and which provided materials, books and guidance.
Funded by a $4,000-plus grant from the Valley View PTO, the school bought books for every student and staff member, including bus drivers and custodians. Families were given reading schedules of two chapters a day, including weekends. Decorated hallways, a Skype session with the author, daily book trivia and a student vote on their favorite characters pumped up the project.
It all worked just fine for Ellie, who enjoyed the book as well as the real sled dogs who capped the experience.
“I liked how the pig Flora explored and stuff,” Ellie said. “She never gave up.”
Bonding Through ‘a Common Language’
That theme of perseverance was one reason third grade teacher Kristin Hubner chose the book in working with a Read to Them representative. The pig’s perseverance is something everyone could identify with, said Hubner, who spearheaded the project along with Principal Jeremy Karel.
“I wanted a true story-telling type of story,” she said. “I wanted something that would get in their hearts and stay forever.”
Besides reading at home with their families, students also could hear the book read each morning at school by guest readers, from volunteer parents and school administrators to Superintendent Michael Shibler. Teachers went to a community center to read to students who may not have read it at home.
It was a powerful community experience, connecting parents with children and families with each other, Hubner said.
“I feel like it gives us a common language,” she said. “It gives us something to think about and talk about. We were all loving at the same time, we were sad at the same time. I don’t think we realized we didn’t have that until we did this.”
Sara VandeByl, secretary of the PTO, said she read to her two children every night.
“It was really great knowing that we were all having the same experience as other families at Valley View, and just having that togetherness every night with our kiddos,” VandeByl said. “It was a great book about teamwork, and not giving up on your dreams and believing in yourself.”
Real-life Sled Dogs
Vandebyl and her son Brendan gathered in the school library for a presentation on sled dogs by Dan Anderson, of Tun-Dra Kennels & Outfitters of Nunica, who gives school presentations around the state. A former competitive sled dog racer who breeds Siberian huskies, he showed students various kinds of sleds, mushers’ gear and animal pelts. He described the Iditarod, the nearly 1,000-mile Alaska race that begins March 7, and the powerful huskies who cover up to 150 miles a day.
Students peered excitedly at his dogs outside, then went out and swarmed them with petting. The huskies responded with gentle licks.
Morgan Lefevre said she read the book with her brother Cole and her parents, and found it “very exciting” with “lots of information and lots of characters.”
Alexa Dekraker, Peyton Pegues and Isaac Anderson all gave thumbs-up to the book, as did Isabelle Schubert. Her favorite character was Oscar, a sled dog who befriends Flora the pig.
“He was cool and he didn’t give up,” Isabelle said. “And he’s cute.”