Lauren Wohl: “Extravaganza at the Plaza” Guest Post

Today, author Lauren Wohl stops by with a guest post about her newest illustrated chapter book for young readers, Extravaganza at the Plaza.

The first inkling for the books came from stories I had read about children who were giving back to their communities: kids who made hats for newborns out of old brassieres (no kidding!); who knit, worked with wood or clay to create gifts for people less fortunate than they; who organized cookie sales and craft fairs with proceeds going to raise money to care for people who were ill.  There were kids who took to the streets with lemonade stands, backyard theater productions with ticket sales going to charities, babysitting fees shared.

Their stories started to show up more frequently in the brief good-news portion of television nightly news broadcasts – stories about how young people were changing lives in communities across the country; stories that touched viewers’ hearts.

Local newspapers carried stories, too: neighbors – including young neighbors — helping neighbors not only in times of crisis, but also on a day-to-day basis from children organizing a trash clean-up in a neighborhood park or painting the peeling walls of an old building to parents and children working together to build play equipment and transform an abandoned lot.

Most surprising to me was how young many of the children were. I expected tweens and teens to be involved, but the children I saw interviewed on TV were in fourth grade – and younger!  Many of the “spokespeople” for these efforts were as young as seven. Second graders modelling what all of us ought to be doing.

But were other children aware of all this happening? Did they watch the news? (Frankly I hoped not – the news is often frightening.) I wanted lots of kids to hear about what their peers were doing to make their communities, their city, their state, our nation, better places.

Here was my opportunity to bring those kinds of stories to 6-9-year-olds. I could write a small series of books that young children could read on their own, books that starred children just like them doing good works.

It was important to present stories in which the actions of the characters were replicable. I felt certain that if the projects were simple enough – clear and focused – readers might give them a try.

In BLUEBERRY BONANZA, seven-year-old Nico Preston takes advantage of his family’s backyard blueberry bushes to set up a blueberry-selling business and raise money to pay the cost of finishing the playground floor at Raccoon River’s new community center.  In EXTRAVAGANZA AT THE PLAZA, Hannah Levin wants the town to renovate its old theater. She decides that she and the kids of Raccoon River can get everyone in town to realize what a good thing it would be to have their own performing arts center, and step-by-step she wins over public opinion and the Plaza comes back to life. In ZOOAPALOOZA (Fall 2019), the youngest of the Raccoon River Kids finds a dog but soon discovers that there is no animal shelter or veterinarian in town.  This is something Raccoon River clearly needs. And by the end of the novel, readers will be sure they are going to get one.

I knew I had to give readers enough detail – enough “how-the-kids-in-Raccoon-River-pulled-this-off detail – to follow the characters’ example. And I was certain that they would – that young readerswould bring this kind of activism to their own school, their own town, and maybe beyond that. No need for an adult to point out the moral of the story.  Youngsters would recognize it on their own.

In the third book, readers will find a pledge form that they can photocopy and then sign, committing to helping their own home town be a better place in whatever way they choose.

I hope many will be inspired to do just that! We need them to lead us now — more than ever.

Extravaganza at the Plaza
By Lauren Wohl, Illustrated by Mark Tuchman
Audience: Children 7-10
Pages: 88

“It isn’t fair that our town doesn’t have its own theater,” eight-year-old Hannah complains.

A lot of thinking, planning, dreaming, and list-making later, and Hannah – along with the kids of Raccoon River – is up to her ears in a brand new project: saving the town’s old abandoned Plaza Theater. But first, they have to get a look inside. It’s spooky – spider webs and creaky floors, and one slowly-swaying stage curtain. Can Hannah and her friends rally the community together to save the Plaza Theater?

Although the kids may not be able to fix plumbing or install new lights, sew curtains or patch holes in the roof, they can raise money. In a boastful moment, Hannah pledges that they will raise $2,500.00 – the price tag for some special equipment they want to donate. But now with only three weeks to go before opening night, it looks like they are not going to reach their goal…unless they get big help from unexpected places.

Lauren Wohl tells a story of determination and hard work, cooperation and more than a little bit of luck where the kids of a small town make a real difference in their community.

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