The Power of Story with Zeena M. Pliska

As writers, we know how powerful stories can be. I said recently in an Instagram post that although 2020 has been rough so far (understatement of the century), there have been SO MANY incredible books out this year—and we’re only halfway through!

If you haven’t read Hello Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story, get yourself a copy and prepare to fall in love. What makes this book incredible, in addition to the lovely language, is that it touches on so many elements. It’s a friendship tale. It’s a STEM book about the life cycle of a monarch butterfly. It’s a story about grief, and new beginnings.

I’m thrilled to have debut author Zeena M. Pliska on the blog to talk more about her incredible book!

Zeena M. Pliska

LL: I’m so excited to have you on the blog, both as a debut picture book author and a kindergarten teacher!

I’m hoping you can start by telling us how you use stories in the classroom. What qualities in a picture book make you think, Aha! I can use this in class!?

ZP: I am very excited to speak with you! Thanks for having me.

Picture books are the centerpiece of teaching in my classroom.

Before there were Common Core standards and high states tests, there was core literature and whole language. Then there were thematic units that highlighted picture books and balanced literacy. This was the time when picture books drove the curriculum. This was the time that I developed as an educator.  

I read picture books to my students every day right after lunch, after a morning of idea making, inquiry based projects, play, and story making. It is our classroom ritual that is never skipped. I use a variety of books from diverse authors. Last year on the first day of school, I began the year with Dreamers by Yuyi Morales. It set the tone. I think it’s important to read stories that reflect the diversity of our world, bringing race, class, and gender analysis to book choices.

Also, often times the read aloud books are student selected. I believe that it’s equally important to provide a student-led, text-rich environment in my classroom to normalize and habituate communication in print (and illustrations). My love of story drives all of these components, culminating in an approach that builds the conditions for student voices to emerge. My approach puts book making and storytelling at the center of my instruction as students learn the alphabetic principle.

If students have not made the selection, I choose stories that reflect the diverse human experience. I choose clever stories, multifaceted stories, stories that provoke student thinking and show experiences that help 4 and 5-year olds make meaning of their worlds. I look for picture books that are child focused. I avoid books that are trying to teach children a lesson or books that moralize. Children almost always know when they are being manipulated. They are attracted to books that use language playfully, stories that contain joy, and stories that are funny. They engage with authors who understand them and speak “their language.”

As a Reggio Inspired teacher, I listen to children intensely, document their words, and use that documentation to provoke their thinking. I am more of a facilitator of ideas rather than a traditional teacher. When I look for picture books for my students, I look for multilayer stories with multiple points of entry that respect the intelligence of young children. I look for books that have ideas imbedded in them that provoke discourse to deepen thinking, I look for books with themes that can expand into more idea making so the stories echo past the initial reading.

LL: This is all such fantastic perspective on storytelling!

Your debut, Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story was published by Page Street Kids in May. There are so many lovely components to this book. I’m hoping we can talk about each of them one at a time. First, this is a STEM story about the life cycle of a monarch butterfly. What inspired you to write a story about a monarch?

ZM: I am a kindergarten teacher at a public school in Los Angeles (Venice/Mar Vista area). Our school is a monarch butterfly way station. Milkweed is planted all over the campus. Monarchs flit, flutter, and swoop throughout the school yard. In fact, recently we changed our mascot to The Monarch. Many of my life science lessons revolve around watching the monarch life cycle as it unfolds in nature. Much of our project-based learning has developed from these endless observations.

One day seven years ago, I was walking from my classroom to the main office at recess. As I was walking, I saw a monarch flitting from plant to plant in between the classrooms. I paused momentarily and wondered, what must that butterfly experience as it flies overhead? What must it see? I was mesmerized by the moment and stood suspended in time. I was struck by the bittersweet realization that this magnificent creature would only have about 2 weeks in this form and then it would come to the end of its lifecycle. And the story of Orange was born.

The story developed further in my classroom. It was always intended to be a children’s picture book, but for a while it was a play that my students performed in our outdoor classroom known as The Wildlands. Little One came alive as its words were spoken by 5-year-olds, a part of our language arts lessons. Because I developed as an educator utilizing thematic units, I couldn’t help but put a scientific element into the story while exploring social studies, language arts, and social/emotional themes. It is how I teach and ultimately how I write. In our classroom as in life, everything is interconnected.

LL: Indeed! This is also a friendship story with so much heart. To me, these elements are what makes the story so powerful and dynamic. Can you tell us more about your writing process? Did these different themes occur organically in your writing, or did you intentionally weave each one into the story?

ZP: I am a great lover of irony. As a writer, I tend to write conceptually starting from a “what if” setup. What if a young caterpillar made friends with an aging butterfly and couldn’t wait to fly with it? So the story became a friendship story about a new caterpillar who couldn’t wait to grow up and a maturing butterfly who savored its memories of youth. Youth yearns for age and age yearns for youth.

Because I have a deep respect for children and believe their point of view is equally as valuable as their adult counterparts, the story became a story of two characters who share their perspectives from their own unique moment in their life cycle. Two equally valuable points of view intersect for two weeks as the characters explore their world in the brief time they have together. The story of intergenerational friendship is steeped in irony, so at the end (spoiler alert) the elder character comes to the end of its lifecycle leaving the younger character to continue through its own life cycle.

The story has always had multiple hooks. Not because I intentionally inserted and planned it that way, but rather because that’s how my teacher brain works and ultimately how my author brain works.

LL: You’ve said that this is also a story about grief, and in turn, healing. The world has endured such a challenging time over the past few months as we’ve grappled with COVID-19. To me, this ties in with art imitating life. As a writer, how do you create stories that are relatable to real-life emotions children experience?

ZM: I am deeply connected to children’s words and sensibilities and spend my time as a teacher making learning visible. Children are natural storytellers. It’s my job to create the conditions for their voices to emerge, then all I do is stay out of their way and listen. I create stories that reflect the internal workings of children because I am immersed in their emotional interiors. My sensibility and children’s sensibilities are intricately intertwined. They have to be in a child-led classroom.

I also have my own child that I am connected to in the same way. Teaching informs my parenting and parenting informs my teaching. From the time she was young, I have tried to stop and ask myself, “What is happening for you in this moment?” I create stories based on my connections to the lives of children both as a teacher and as a parent.

Covid 19 did not exist when I wrote Hello Little One, but dealing with the difficult subject of death did. In my classroom, I have ushered students through the loss of a preschool teacher, the loss of a father and the loss of a mother (three times). I have used this story to set the context around death as part of the life cycle. Children are funny that way. Death is an obscure, intangible concept. Often, death is difficult to talk about as adults. We have so much context. But children are direct and often unfettered. Sometimes they are able to approach difficult topics with simplicity and directness. They are often more intellectual and have deeper thoughts than we give them credit for. In my class, we used my story as a way to connect with the fullness of the lifecycle. Its beginning, middle, and ultimate end. When my students would find dead creatures, they often noted that it had come to the end of its lifecycle. Of course this was pre Covid 19.

Now, increasing numbers of children have lost their loved ones due to Covid 19. Ironically, the number of deaths began increasing just as my book hit the bookshelves. I, myself, lost my aunt in April to the virus. It is my hope that this book will serve as a catalyst for families to have those difficult conversations, and will build the conditions for children to be heard as they work their way through their grief and find healing.

LL: Thank you so much for sharing your story, Zeena. One last question: where can we find you online, and how can we support you and your books?

ZM: You can find me at www.zeenamar.com. @zeenamar on Instagram, @zeenamar1013 on Twitter, at Zeena M. Pliska (author page) or ZeenaMar on Facebook.

The best way you can support me is to request that your local library carry Hello Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story by Zeena M. Pliska. The more libraries that carry it, the more access children will have to the book. Access and equity for all children is very important to me.

 If you would like to purchase the book you can find it at your local independent book (indybound.org or bookshop.org), Barnes and Noble, Target, or Amazon.

If you enjoyed this post and want to connect with me (Laura Lavoie), you can find me on Twitter and Instagram!

7 thoughts on “The Power of Story with Zeena M. Pliska”

  1. I think it’s so important to acknowledge a child’s point of view and help them navigate grief. I agree that we as adults sometimes shy away from talking about death and pain, but I also think you’re right that’s this year is giving us a chance to make up for that! I will try and request your book at my local library, Zeena! And, when our financial situation improves, I’d love to support you as a fellow writer and get a copy!

  2. Such a great interview! Listening to children is so important—I love how Zeena asks, “What is happening for you in this moment?” So important. Congrats, Zeena! The book looks great!

    1. Yes! I have a kindergartner this year and I wish Zeena could teach her. Her classroom sounds magical!

  3. You are an inspiration! I can’t wait to read your book with my babes. I will definitely request your book at my local library. Blessings and love,❤🙏

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