Author driven to teach

By Patricia Ann Speelman -

MINSTER — Writers write for all kinds of reasons: fame, money, legacy, because their stories burn to be told.

Richard L. Stein, of Minster, writes to get back into the classroom. He writes so he can teach. The children’s book author is a retired teacher and school administrator who seems to be happiest when he and illustrator Mary Coons are talking about their latest book, surrounded by elementary school children sitting at their feet.

They will be at the New Bremen Coffee Co., 115 W. Monroe St., New Bremen, Saturday, Feb. 3, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. to sign copies of “Anthony Ant: A Valentine Tale.” Coons will create some drawings and bookmarks to give away. She also will sign copies of “The Piglys and the Hundred Year Mystery,” a book she wrote and illustrated.

The duo have made hundreds of presentations in dozens of schools, Stein reading sections of his books as Coons rapidly creates illustrations on the blackboard behind him while students wildly wave their hands in the air to answer the questions Stein poses.

“I don’t read a (whole) book (to them). I might read a section. We don’t waste kids’ time. We teach something,” Stein said recently. He teaches how to write a story, among other things. For those classroom presentations, he and Coons created Storysaurus, a dinosaur that illustrates the components of tale-making.

“It eats light bulbs, because you can’t write without an idea. It has humps, because in a story, you have to solve a problem. It has a sloping tail for the unwinding of the story. And the tail has a ribbon on it, because you have to tie everything up at the end,” Stein said. The dinosaur holds a pencil in its claw — for rewrites — he added with a smile.

“Anthony Ant: A Valentine Tale” is the fourth in his series about a young ant who is definitely not the industrious type the ant kingdom is famous for. In the first Anthony book, he is late for lunch and surprised when his mother has nothing left to feed him. “Anthony Ant Sees the Light” and “Anthony Ant: Seeking Santa” find the fellow trying hard to improve his ways, but he can’t seem to avoid getting into trouble.

Stein and Coons have collaborated for almost 20 years and produced about a dozen books for children, including two coloring books. Most of the books are geared toward kids in kindergarten through fourth grade and almost all of them are in rhyme.

Stein said his most popular book is “Boo,” which has just 107 words.

His passion for writing grew out of a penchant for making up stories orally. Besides telling stories to his children at home, as a school curriculum director in the 1980s, he developed an enrichment program called Write Now. Students could write with no rules and no teacher intervention over a six-month period. Sometimes, Stein would work with children one-on-one and make up a story on the spot.

“Then I started to write them down,” he said. “I sent some out and got good rejections. So I started my own press, Write-Away Productions,” he said.

He found his collaborator, Coons, through the newspaper.

“Every town has a draw-er. I kept reading about this Mary Coons person. She was in St. Marys. I called her one day,” he said.

Coons, now living in Indianapolis, has made a career of commissions to make “portraits” of people’s houses. She has done more than 500 of them. She also illustrated work by authors for a publisher in Dubuque and for Coldwater author Judy Bruns. She enjoys the school presentations she does with Stein.

“Kids’ attention is a precious commodity. Interacting with kids is so much fun,”she said by phone, Friday.

When she works with Stein, he sends her a completely written book and she begins to draw.

“He lets me add something with illustrations to the story, so if you’re a savvy reader with your eyes, you’ll see a lady bug on very page (for instance). I can add things in illustration that flow along with Rich’s text. Kids who have favorite books — lots of times, it’s the details that cause a book to be a favorite,” Coons said.

A native of New Jersey who studied at Rutgers University, Coons lived in St. Marys for 23 years. She illustrated projects for the Girl Scouts and school districts, as well as an in-house magazine for the company she worked for. When she paints for herself, she makes big, abstract, black and white line drawings.

Coons is developing an adult coloring book and said her Pigly book is for children in fourth- through sixth-grades. She appreciates the freedom Stein gives her to share in his storytelling.

“I’ve been fortunate to get to ride along on his projects. Rich lets me have a lot more fun that most illustrators get to have,” she said. “He is a very generous author.” As an example, Coons noted that in “Anthony Ant: A Valentine Tale,” there is a game. They couldn’t figure out how to get the game into the book.

“I came up with an idea for an illustration, and he let me do it,” Coons said. And in the Christmas book, it was Coons who created the sANTa whom Anthony wants to meet.

Anthony, himself, is based on a quite industrious real ant that Stein watched in the woods near his Lake Loramie vacation house. The ant carried leaf after leaf past the writer.

“I wrote the beginning during a Reds baseball game,” he said. He put it away, thinking, “I’ll finish this sometime.” It was months later that his secretary at school, Wilma Kuenning, asked, “What ever happened to Anthony Ant?” Stein went home and finished the story over a weekend.

It took just 15 minutes for him to write “Boo” on an envelope, when his son, then 6, said, “Write me one of these poems.”

It’s Stein’s wife who is the first arbiter of his work.

“I wake her up and read stories to her in the middle of the night,” he said. He wants her opinion on whether she likes it and whether she would buy it. When he finished the first coloring book, “Oscar, a Color Me Story,” designed to teach children their colors, she surprised him by saying it was cute, but she wouldn’t buy it. Stein had not included pages for the colors orange and purple, because he couldn’t figure out how to rhyme them. That would scotch sales to anyone trying to teach kids the eight basic colors, his wife said.

Stein went into rewrite mode and figured out how to solve the problem: he put the colors into the middle of lines and rhymed the ends.

Another book, “The Thanksgiving Train,” began as a poem which ended up being in the center of the finished story.

As much as he likes writing stories, he likes telling them in the classroom even better.

“When people ask me, ‘What’s the best thing about being an author?’ I say, ‘Right now — if I can share it with kids,” said the man who is driven to teach.

By Patricia Ann Speelman

Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.

Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.