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Teachers' 'Gnoming Around' Children's Book Encourages Environmental Exploration

Book is a collaboration between Barbara Daly-Byrnes and Jan Cohen, who work at Pine Grove School and are former Avon Teachers of the Year.

After visiting her relatives, who have a tradition of hiding gnome figurines, at their lake house a few years ago, Farmington resident Barbara Daly-Byrnes, 48, had a vivid dream about a little boy who found some gnomes while walking near a lake.

The Pine Grove School reading consultant, a former second-grade teacher at St. Thomas the Apostle in West Hartford, knew right away that it was fodder for a story and jotted the dream down before she could forget it.

That dream came to fruition, no pun intended, through a collaboration with illustrator and Pine Grove School art teacher Jan Cohen, 49, that resulted in the 2010 publication of their children’s book – Gnoming Around.

The story takes children on an outdoor adventure with Connor, a boy who discovers a “colony of gnomes” by a lake and must decide whether or not he’s going to tell anyone about his magical finding, according to Daly-Byrnes.

“He loves to explore and look around, but he knows the importance of keeping all that he finds in nature in nature,” Daly-Byrnes said.

Like Connor, Daly-Byrnes and Cohen share a love of the outdoors. Daly-Byrnes said that the way children play is much different than when she was a kid, partially because it is an “electronic age.”

The “whole idea of preserving nature,” a central theme in the story, was important to co-authors, Cohen said. They also sought out to develop a book that encourages kids to go outside, explore and use their imagination, according to Cohen.

“When I read it, I really picked up on that piece,” Cohen said, “ and so I was really was trying to push for that even through the illustrations, you know, just include as many different things that I used to enjoy looking for out in nature as I was drawing.”

It took Cohen a summer to produce the illustrations for the book. She did several different renditions of the gnome characters before reaching the finished version. Her childhood inspired her choice of putting acorn hats on the gnomes.

Toward the end of the book, Cohen includes pictures of “signs of life” for children to seek when “roaming” outside, or perhaps gnoming around, after reading the book. It was also a way to educate them about the “New England environment and things that are common to our area.”

The book includes a gnome cut-out for children to take with them as they explore the outdoors and “do a little scavenger hunt,” Cohen said.

When the co-authors first published it, Daly Byrnes and Cohen also made Gnoming Around merchandise like Christmas cards and fabric gnomes.

The two former Avon Teachers of the Year have showed their students the book from time to time. Daly-Byrnes is working on developing a lesson on the book that aligns with Connecticut common core standards that are part of the state’s education reform movement. Gnoming Around is geared toward younger children in kindergarten and first grade.

Daly-Byrnes said that publishing the book was a learning process and a challenge.

“It was like a secret world,” she said. “All of this was just Jan and I learning it together.”

She said that the book also teaches students the concept of “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” showing them that they can “be a teacher involved in a school, but that you can have your own interests too and try to develop those interests.”

“We kind of practice what we preach here with this book,” Cohen said.

The two have considered writing another book, but have no plans at this time.

Cohen has been teaching in Avon for 26 years, first at former Towpath Elementary and then at Pine Grove when it opened more than 20 years ago.

Daly-Byrnes joined the Pine Grove staff in 1999. She previously worked as a second grade teacher at St. Thomas the Apostle in West Hartford and was a reading consultant at Kelly Lane Intermediate School in Granby from 1992 to 1999.

About 1,500 copies of Gnoming Around were published by 1776 Press, a company owned by a Thompson Brook School fifth grade teacher Brandon Lynch. Local stores like the former West Simsbury Borders, Avon’s The Perfect Toy and West Hartford’s The Toy Chest used to carry the books. Hallmark may still carry copies.

Gnoming Around is still available for purchase on http://www.gnomingaround.com and teacherspayteachers.com. You can contact Daly-Byrnes at bdbkb@sbcglobal.net for more information.

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