Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: Teacher’s books connect with students’ imaginations

CorrespondentMarch 18, 2012 

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John Claude Bemis is Tarheel of the Week and is photographed here in Hillsborough on March 15, 2012. Bemis recently returned to teaching at Cameron Park Elementary School in Hillsborough after taking time off for a 3-book deal with Random House. He was inspired by his students to write his Clockwork Dark fantasy trilogy, and in turn inspires them to be readers and writers.

SHAWN ROCCO — srocco@newsobserver.com

  • John Claude Bemis Born: Dec. 8, 1972, Oriental Residence: Hillsborough Career: Teacher, Cameron Park Elementary School; Author, “Clockwork Dark” trilogy (Random House Children’s Books, 2009-2011) Awards: His first book, “The Nine Pound Hammer,” has received a number of honors: nominated for North Carolina and Pennsylvania state children’s book awards, to be awarded in April; N.C. Juvenile Literature Award, 2010; named a New York Public Library Best Children’s Book for Reading and Sharing, 2009 Education: B.A. Elementary Education and Art History (N.C. Teaching Fellow) and M.E.D. Literacy, both from UNC-Chapel Hill Family: Wife, Amy Gorely; Daughter, Rose Fun Fact: Bemis started playing violin when he was 8, and guitar at 12. After playing in what he says were horrible punk and rock bands, his musical path led him to American folk music. He still plays with his band, Hooverville, though he says he doesn’t play shows as often now that he’s a father.

— When John Bemis started teaching, he was struck by how deeply his students connected with books. It reminded him of his own youth, when he found escape from his rural Pamlico County home in fantasy classics such as Madeline L’ Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.”

The experience led the already accomplished musician and teacher to add another title to his resume: award-winning children’s author.

Bemis returned to teaching this year after taking three years off to complete his “Clockwork Dark” trilogy, a series of fantasy books aimed at an audience of fourth- to eighth-graders. His first book, “The Nine Pound Hammer,” has won several awards, and is the only book by a North Carolina author to be nominated for the state’s children’s book award this year.

But writing books is just another outlet for Bemis, who also writes songs and plays the guitar, fiddle and accordion with local band Hooverville.

And it’s a natural extension of his classroom teaching. Bemis says he grew up writing stories, but never pictured himself as a published author until he entered the classroom.

“Teaching elementary school kids made me think about how powerful books are for people that age,” says Bemis, 39. “When you read a book at that age, it can feel life-changing. That made me excited to write for them.”

Sharon Wheeler, owner of Purple Crow Books in Hillsborough and a former teacher, says Bemis is the rare educator who’s willing to learn from his students, which has helped him write books that build children’s interest in reading.

“He has his finger on the pulse of his children and what they like,” she says. “He’s established a real following.”

Wheeler says Bemis’ gifts as a teacher also translate well to his role as a local author.

“He always has time to sign a book, to stop and talk to children about what they’re writing,” she says. “He’s always encouraging them.”

Love for classrooms

Bemis grew up in Oriental, a place so rural he says there was one stoplight in the entire county. Growing up in such isolation sharpened his imagination, Bemis says.

“I didn’t have movie theaters or the mall, so we had to work hard to entertain ourselves,” he says. “You got out in the woods and played. You spent a lot of time on your own, reading books and making up stories.”

He says he wanted to be a teacher early on, following his mother, aunt and grandmother. His father was an accountant.

“I’ve always seen that kind of love that they have for the classroom,” he says. “I know how rewarding it was for them, and it made it appealing to me.”

He went to UNC-Chapel Hill as an N.C. Teaching Fellow, and soon felt at home as a teacher. He is in his 13th year in the classroom, having taught in Chatham and Durham counties before coming to Cameron Park Elementary, where he teaches the school’s academically gifted students.

With his roving curiosity, he has enjoyed teaching elementary school, which allowed him to teach science and math as well as reading and writing.

Drawing on Americana

In a recent class, the tall and lanky Bemis wore Levis and a collared shirt. He leaned against a desk and read a book in which a mouse lives in a cinder block. He paused to describe a cinder block – explain why it has holes, and how those holes might make a nice mouse home.

He discussed the idea of animals as main characters, and asked the class to write about what animals they think are smart. At the end of class, they shared their responses, which included squirrels, dolphins and dogs.

A fourth-grade boy asked Bemis when he wrote his first story.

“I’ve been making up stories, just like you make up stories, since I was your age,” he responded.

His class allows students to freely chime in with their thoughts. But these side conversations are quickly related back to the day’s task, and the class moves briskly.

“I’ve worked hard to make it a loose environment,” Bemis says. “I feel like kids perform best when they are enjoying themselves and when they feel valued.”

The same logic applies to his books. Bemis says he doesn’t try to fill them with vocabulary words or science concepts. Instead, he tries to make them compelling enough that students will want to read them.

To do that, he’s drawn on his passion for Americana that is an outgrowth of his interest in blues and folk music.

He describes his books as science fiction fantasy, along the lines of J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Lord of the Ring” series, but using American folklore instead of the more European themes of wizardry and dragons.

“The Nine Pound Hammer” uses the story of John Henry’s contest against a steam drill, which he wins, but then dies from the effort.

“The story has always fascinated me,” Bemis says. “It says something about fears about the technology to come and how they could confront all of these enormous changes. It speaks to our time now.”

His next book, due in May, will be a sort of futuristic “Jungle Book,” in which a cast of animal characters encounters a human boy who lands on Earth in a spaceship crash.

For each of his first three books, he held launch parties patterned after an old-time medicine show, with live performances and children’s activities. Current and former students, some of whom are now in college, always attend.

In his years reading and writing children’s books, Bemis says he has lost patience with adult books.

“I love the way the stories are boiled down,” he says of children’s books. “There’s a lot of heart, and there’s usually something important to say about life. There’s not a lot of filler.”

He doesn’t teach his own books in class. But as he reads favorite books from his childhood with his students, he’s also aware that a beloved children’s book can influence generations of readers. He can only hope, he says, that his own books might have that kind of impact.

“That’s the dream,” he says.

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