By Christine Sampson
It was far from the dark and stormy night one might associate with a typical mystery book.
In fact, bestselling young adult author James R. Hannibal, who writes the “Section 13” mystery series, encountered a bright and balmy morning when he visited Sag Harbor Elementary School on Thursday to lead third through sixth-grade students in the creation of a story as a group.
To the approximately 300 kids at the assembly, Mr. Hannibal asked, “Who likes to write stories?” About half of them raised their hands — surely an encouraging sign for the teachers present in the audience.
He then asked, “Who gets afraid when the teacher tells you to write a story?” Only about 20 hands went up.
Mr. Hannibal spent six years flying stealth bombers — the announcement of which elicited an impressed reaction from the children — and is now a commercial pilot. His series follows a pair of teens who work together to decode clues and find artifacts to solve a mystery of the past to prevent something bad from happening in the present. His books “The Lost Property Room” and “The Fourth Ruby” have been optioned for films through Columbia Pictures.
Showing off what he calls a “beat board,” in which he compared the various parts of a story to the beats of a song, Mr. Hannibal led the children through a simplified version of the process he uses to write stories. He said he typically starts out with a character who will undergo a transformation from an “orphan” to the “hero.” One famous example of this, he said, is “Harry Potter.”
But on Thursday, rather than talking about other authors’ stories, Mr. Hannibal and the Sag Harbor students created their own using elements like character development, plot, setting and theme.
The hero was Fluffy the Fox, who lives in a futuristic harbor town, and who must stop all the boats from sinking — a plan hatched by an evil stink bug. Along the way, Fluffy saves her friend Bob the Bunny from drowning and learns important skills from an orca whale, but experiences difficulty before ultimately sending the no-good stink bugs packing.
“The story has its ups and downs,” Mr. Hannibal told his audience. “What makes it enjoyable is we feel those ups and downs along with the hero.”
Both Daniella Andrango, a fourth grader, and Wolf Boswick, a fifth grader, thought Mr. Hannibal’s presentation was “really cool.”
“I think it was really creative how we made the hero go from orphan to hero. I learned more about writing,” Daniella said.
Wolf said it was “pretty inspiring.”
“I’m going to work on how to write mysteries like him,” he said.
Sag Harbor Elementary principal Matt Malone said in honor of Mr. Hannibal’s visit, the school would be making a donation of copies of his books to the pediatric departments of local hospitals.
“I thought he did an amazing job taking what sometimes is a very daunting task for children and presenting it in such a way that the children could be creative and thoughtful in coming up with a story,” Mr. Malone said following the assembly. “The kids walked out of here not only wanting to read his stories but also wanting to write stories of their own. It was very inspiring.”
Sag Harbor School Board vice president January Kerr, who helped connect Mr. Hannibal with the school, agreed.
“I think it was very unique,” she said. “The children were definitely captivated and involved.”