Camas children’s author explores ‘Goodbye’

Retired longtime teacher debuts first published book

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

Published:

 

If you go

  • Debut book release: “Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3,” by Gretchen Brandenburg McLellan, illustrations by Grace Zong.
  • When: 3-5 p.m. Saturday.
  • Where: 625 N.E. 4th Ave., Camas.
  • On the web: https://gretchenmclellan.com

No more laptops, no more books, no more teacher’s tired looks. Pack up that and clean up this, now give Mrs. McBee a goodbye kiss!

OK, that may not scan perfectly, but Gretchen Brandenburg McLellan doesn’t care. This is exactly what she wants kids — and their parents — to do with language: play around with it. Make stuff up and have fun with it. Share it. That’s the way to master it, McLellan said.

McLellan was a longtime reading specialist in the Camas School District who retired last year to pursue a promising new career as a children’s author. You can meet her and hear her read from her debut picture book, “Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3,” at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Camas Public Library. There will be activities for kids, prize drawings and photo ops with McLellan’s big, inflatable pencil.

Tearful goodbyes

A few years ago, with a new school coming online, the Camas district interviewed all elementary teachers and specialists about switching buildings. It was an exciting opportunity, but it also spread anxiety through the ranks of both staff and students, McLellan said.

Teachers worried where they’d end up. Students worried where their favorite teachers would end up.

You might not think they’d care, given the original words to that childhood rhyme of summertime liberation. But McLellan found otherwise in a career that had her intervening in the lives of literacy-challenged kids. Many came from backgrounds of deprivation and chaos, she said, and for them school never meant boredom and oppression. Just the opposite: it was an anchor of stability, offering everything from reduced-price lunches to caring professionals — such as McLellan.

Yank those caring grown-ups away, she said, and you create more disappointment and uncertainty in needy kids’ lives. McLellan knows something about that, she said, because she grew up an “Army brat” who was always moving between schools. McLellan said tearful goodbyes to a lot of teachers, she said (and, at least once, she was too choked up to speak); then when she was a teacher, she also became aware of her students’ attachment: Would she be there next year? Even if they were moving on, could they come visit her?

For years, her answer was no problem. But now, McLellan has endured one more goodbye: she retired last year to focus on writing. Against all odds, she has made it into the increasingly complex, cutthroat world of professional publishing — where nothing happens these days without market analysis and an eye on the bottom line, she said — and has sold several manuscripts to major publishers like Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House.

Expected out in fall 2018 is “When You’re Daddy’s a Soldier,” focused on military brats like McLellan — because, she said, that’s a group of kids who “never get to see or read about themselves.” But first, children’s book firm Peachtree Publishers launches “Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3,” aimed at readers ages 3 through 7, with illustrations by Grace Zong.

Observant introvert

Major news from Mrs. McBee: She will not be back after summer break. Her students are shocked, but most manage to get on with their lives via a big end-of-year packing-up project.

But not William, who’s overwhelmed by sadness and retreats into a cardboard box. Jamaika, who elects herself boss, is not amused and keeps reporting his truancy. But William, it turns out, is dealing with change in his own quiet way: drawing pictures of all his happy memories of Room 3 and Mrs. McBee.

William was helping them remember, the kids realize. “Every one of you has your own special way of helping,” Mrs. McBee explains. “Just as every one of you has your own way of saying goodbye.” This is the kind of moment in life that’s called “bittersweet,” she adds. (But it’s nothing that a group hug followed by swirly ice cream cones can’t cure.)

Most classrooms include a Jamaika and a William or two, McLellan has found — that is, instinctive leaders and observant introverts. Like many artists and writers, McLellan was always one of the latter.

As a reading specialist, lavishing attention on one child at a time came naturally to her, she said; what always was more of a stretch was standing in front of a whole classroom or — in this latest chapter — giving book talks at publisher conventions and writers’ conferences (not to mention interviews with the scary Columbian). But becoming a published author has been McLellan’s lifelong dream, she said, and nowadays marketing yourself is a mandatory part of that.

Adults and devices

A toddler spots something wiggly on the ground and says, “Wiggly worm!”

Is there an attentive parent around to respond, “Yes, look at that funny, wiggly worm. What’s it doing? Where’s it going?”

“Dialog is how children learn vocabulary and sentence structure,” McLellan said. “Parents naturally expand two-word sentences into more complete sentences and ideas.”

And a parent-child discussion of unfamiliar feelings is how a notion like “bittersweet” might come up — helping an ambivalent child understand the meaning of ambivalence. Emotions are complicated, McLellan said; language is key to exploring them.

McLellan’s “most profound concern” is that parents are ceding their socializing role to teachers, she said. What today’s families do instead, she said, is stare at screens.

“When parents and children are all behind phones, they’re not talking,” she said, and they’re not bonding. “A 2-year-old can look around and see that every adult is more interested in their little device than in him.”