Grace Kuhn, an author and college student from Westfield, reads to a Littleville Elementary School class on June 11.

Reminder Publishing photo by Amy Porter

HUNTINGTON — Littleville Elementary School reading specialist Margaret Petzold arranged a special visit to the school on June 11 from two young authors to speak to second and third graders about writing.

Ella Nguyen, a 17-year-old rising high school senior from the eastern Massachusetts town of Sharon, wrote and illustrated a children’s book called “Smoke-Breathing Dragon,” and Grace Kuhn, a 20-year-old Westfield resident who attends the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has written three mysteries for young adults, and is working on her fourth book.

Nguyen said her book was inspired by her concern about the environment. She said the dragon, which represents a polluting power plant, goes to a town of young animals and fills it with billowing smoke, forcing the animals to wear masks. The animals see the devastating impact of climate change, and muster the courage to take back the town.

Nguyen said her goal is to heighten awareness of the devastation of the environment using symbolism, poetry and a rhyming scheme. She plans to donate proceeds from her book, which is self-published on Amazon.com and just came out in March, to an environmental justice organization. She said she is currently researching which organization to select.

While reading her book to the second and third graders in the library, Nguyen captivated them with the story. Afterward, they had many questions for the young author.

Asked how long it took her to come up with the idea for the book, she said she had the idea three years ago, and it took that long to create it.  She said she came up with the idea by herself and did the drawings herself, in answer to another question, but her family saw it all throughout the process, and gave a lot of feedback.

“Ever since I was a little girl, [I was concerned with] how to protect the environment, and came up with the idea. I used to paint and I love to write — this was a way to express my creativity and put everything in one place,” Nguyen told them.

A student asked if Nguyen was the panda character in the book. She said her name is Ella, and she was the elephant.  Asked if she drew the elephant because her name is Ella, she said, “Yes, I love elephants.”

Petzold reminded the pupils that last year, this area experienced effects of the Canadian wildfires, which caused a similar smokiness as in the book. The second grade teacher told the students that there are places where people have to wear a mask all the time to protect their lungs.

Nguyen said she has taken a lot of courses on the environment and sustainability, and used to volunteer with the Massachustts Sierra Club. She said environmental justice communities — places with a higher rate of low-income residents — are bearing the brunt of environmental impacts due to their proximity to industrial sites. That’s how she came up with the idea of a dragon harming communities, she said.

The third grade teacher said their class had been studying John Muir and the Sierra Club, and how he wanted to protect the environment by establishing national parks.

Petzold, a reading specialist for kindergarten through fifth grade, said the book reminded her students of Dr. Seuss books. Nguyen said she took creative writing classes and poetry, and wanted to write a  book with rhyming to make it engaging and interesting and to flow throughout, which is why she used no punctuation.

She said she wrote the story first and came up with the final draft. She then illustrated the book on her iPad in the program ProCreate. She said she sketched it out on the device first, then filled in the drawings.

“It’s wonderful for the children to see that you went forward with something you were passionate about,” said one teacher. Nguyen admitted that it was a really long process, and she did get discouraged at times, but she was committed to it.

Before the session, Nguyen said she has been reading to different grades, and the significance of her book for the students changes depending on the grade. She also read her book to kindergartners at Littleville later that day. 

“Everyone has enjoyed seeing a book written and illustrated. Some are inspired to create their own story,” she said.

“My goal with writing this book is to create change in people’s lives — on the systemic level, on a really broad scale. I’ve been trying to reach as many schools as I can so I can share,” she said, adding that she has gotten notes from a lot of the classes she has visited. She said on one note, a student wrote, “Your book inspired me to care about the environment,” which Nguyen said was so nice to read.

Grace Kuhn’s audience is a little older — she said she writes for fifth grade and up — but the second and third graders were equally excited to hear about the three mysteries she has written, “Knox Hollow,” “Dalton Ridge” and “Sterling Heights,” all self-published. Some of the students on the June 11 visit also knew her from working as a substitute teacher and at summer camp at Gateway.

Kuhn is now a rising junior at UMass Amherst, where she is studying speech pathology. Although she doesn’t have as much time, she is still writing, and just finished writing her fourth book. For this one, she signed with literary agent Gillian McKenzie, who encouraged her to write a love story, although she said it still has the twist in the end, which she likes. The fourth book is in the editing phase, and does not yet have a title.

Kuhn started writing her first book, “Knox Hollow,” when she was 15 in Westfield High School over the summer break of 2019.

“Sometimes you just need to start,” she told the students.

She said when school began that fall, it stopped the writing process, but then in March when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down classes, she picked up the book again, and completed it in three months. The others took longer, nine months each.

Kuhn said her second novel, “Dalton Ridge,” started when she went apple-picking one fall, and thought an orchard would be a good setting for a book.

“All it takes is a small idea — go with it,” she said.

Talking to the students about the writing process, Kuhn said she now uses a graphic organizer and outline process, something she started after her first book, when she said she didn’t even know “who did it” while she was writing.

Now she’ll write down the names of the chapters with a couple of bullet points under each. She also talked to students about taking the scenic path when writing, as opposed to driving the shortest distance from A to B just to get there.

“Add on details to make it interesting,” she said, like when creating characters, “You want to know them like you know your best friend — what are their favorite colors — would this be something the character would say or do. Characters don’t have to be perfect, they can mess up,” Kuhn said.

She also recommended slowing down when describing the setting, such as the setting for her second book, the apple orchard in the woods. She said to fill in the sensory details, which are about the five senses.

“What are your characters seeing, hearing and tasting? Did I add in the detail for each sense?” she asked.

The third grade teacher became excited about this advice, as she just had her students do this exercise, to go back to what they had written previously and add sensory details.

When asked what inspired her, Kuhn said, “inspiration is everywhere. When you’re writing, observe. You can find inspiration everywhere. There really aren’t any rules about how you tell your story the way you want to write it, and that’s really cool,” she said.

Kuhn said she started writing because she loved to read, although she admitted she didn’t really love to read until the eighth grade. She said mysteries were her favorite books.

A student asked if she ever got startled when she wrote a chapter. Kuhn said she doesn’t, because she knows what’s going to happen, but there are times when she reads other mysteries that she does.

Asked which of her three mysteries is her favorite, she said “Sterling Heights,” her third book, although she said her parents’ favorite is still her first book, “Knox Hollow.” She said she would make changes to that book if she went back to it.

The teacher said it’s just like baking a cake, the first one is not exactly perfect; the second time, it comes out really nice, and the third time, even better.

“As long as you’re improving, that’s what counts,” Kuhn said.

Asked if there are any pictures in her book, Kuhn said she’s not a great artist. She also said a lot of older children’s chapter books don’t have too many pictures.

The teachers said she should come back next year and teach a writing course to fifth graders, which Kuhn said she would be interested in doing.