Be yourself, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Though he never said exactly those words, that was the message that local author, illustrator and Sage College professor Matthew McElligott brought to Craig Elementary School on Friday, Feb. 6, when he spent the day at the school reading, teaching and signing books for his young readers.
“I love to read books, I love to draw pictures, and I love to make up my own stories,” McElligott told his second audience of the day, a group of rapt second- and third-grade students sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor of the elementary school’s cafeteria.
He told them he was born at Albany Medical Center, not far from where they were sitting, and grew up in Latham. He wrote his first book, a gift to his dad called “The Book that You and I Will Love,” when he was an elementary school student. In short, he showed the students that even though he was first published in his mid-20s (ages away in the minds of his 8- and 9-year-old audience), he was just like them when he got his start as an author.
As the presentation drew to a close, he chose three volunteers from the crowd of eager students. He asked them to stand perfectly still, and he took one picture of the back of each student’s shirt. One was striped, one leopard-printed, and one rainbow with a variety of neon hearts.
Then, on a projection screen, he pulled up an illustration from the “Backbeard” book he had read earlier, which was published in 2007. While the students watched, he used Photoshop to change the main character’s coat to match the rainbow sweatshirt. An old woman’s dress became purple and leopardprinted, and a tablecloth was transformed by the third volunteer’s striped sweater.
“I think I like yours better,” he said, admiring the new version of the illustration, transformed by the fashion sense of Craig students. “I wish I had met you guys a few years ago.”
That final moment of magic was student Jordan Bell’s favorite moment of the presentation.
“[I liked] when he took all the different patterns and put them onto the computer,” Bell said, clearly a bit dazzled by what he had seen. Even before he met the author at school, Bell said his favorite book was by McElligott, a storybook called “Even Aliens Need Snacks.”
Classmate Gillian Pizzolo said she had fun learning about writing, since she was a writer, too.
“This year in class, I wrote a story about people being crazy,” she said. “They had to go to jail!”
That plot line may not have much in common with the creations of McElligott’s adult students at Sage, but many of the points he made to the young audience matched his lesson plans for the older ones. “I share a lot of the exact same material with them,” he said. “A story is a story.” A certain sense of wonder about the creative process is also constant. “It’s magic to me, too,” he said.