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Tales from the wildlife trail

The Baltimore Sun

Whether he's writing a book about American crocodiles that he hunted in the Florida Keys, or a black bear that he spotted on his Vermont farm, Jim Arnosky spends his life teaching children about nature and wildlife.

He recently visited Darlington Elementary School, where he entertained students with original stories and songs.

"I want the kids to hear what it's like for my wife and I to go to a place and have our experiences turn into a book," said Arnosky, who has written 105 non-fiction children's books.

Arnosky, who began his career writing for Cricket Magazine and other children's publications, said he wrote and illustrated his first book in 1976.

Some of his book titles include: Every Autumn There Comes a Bear; Manatee Morning; Little Lions and Grandfather Buffalo. The books are based on Arnosky's excursions around the country.

Arnosky's visit to Darlington was funded by the school's PTA, as part of a program where authors visit and interact with the students. The visit includes presentations to the students, as well as lunch with the author for some pupils.

"This unique opportunity encourages students to understand the author craft, as well as understanding that non-fiction gives us meaningful information," said school Principal Brenda Taylor.

The idea to invite Arnosky originated with the Harford Content Literacy Focus, an initiative started this year by the county school system to teach children how to get information from non-fiction books, said Laura Hocker, the school's literacy leader for the past 14 years.

To prepare for the visit, the pupils had an author series that included Arnosky. They received a packet of information and they read his books in class, Hocker said. The school librarian, Dawn Stickles, also introduced the students to the author during library time.

"We had the children read the author's works," she said. "After spending so much time reading and preparing for his visit, the students are so excited to meet him and talk with him. Then today, they got to see that he is a real person, with a real life."

The children also decorated classroom doors with themes from Arnosky's books. One door included wildlife and short profiles on the reptiles or animals depicted. In the hallway of the school, the children created a woodland scene.

"It was a lot of work decorating the doors and reading the books," said fourth-grader Scarlet Dare, 9. "But it was very interesting. I like his use of details."

Johnathan Garrison discovered that he prefers non-fiction books over fiction, he said.

"Mr. Arnosky's books tell facts about animals, and they include accurate pictures," he said. "He tells things like the actual sizes of the animals. I learn a lot from his books."

Arnosky told stories and sang to the children, who seemed to be mesmerized as they listened to his hourlong presentation.

He explained that he and his wife, Deanna, hunt wildlife at remote locations all over the country. His wife comes along because she is not afraid of some of the things he fears, Arnosky said.

"My wife is not afraid of snakes and I am," he said with a wide grin. "I always hope we don't see any snakes, but Deanna hunts for them anyway."

Many of his books start out as songs, he said. He taught himself to play the guitar, and wrote a lot of his own songs and music.

Arnosky told the children a tale about a big black bear that he saw on the way to a fishing hole. He was driving in a Jeep without a roof and saw the bear on the side of the road. After the bear went down into the swamp, he drove up the road and saw the bear again.

Then he sang the pupils a song he called "Big Old Bear."

"He was a Big Old Bear, with big flat feet ..." he sang. "... that old bear stood up and waved at me."

When the song was finished, he put down his guitar, and drew the paws of a black bear and a grizzly bear.

The way you tell a black bear's tracks from a grizzly bear's tracks is that the grizzly bear's fingernails are up much higher than the black bear's, he told the youngsters.

Later, he read a few lines from a book called Every Autumn Comes a Bear.

"The bear follows every trail to see where the trail leads," he read. "And that's what I do. It's my motto."

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