Because April is the month to celebrate the Oklahoma Land Run, we thought it was appropriate to feature Oklahoma author and teacher Una Belle Townsend. Una Belle teaches Title 1 Reading and is a Librarian at Riverside Elementary in El Reno. Along with teaching, she is the author of several picture books, many of which celebrate Oklahoma’s history. OCAI:Can you share with us how you juggle all the many hats you wear--teacher, wife, mother, and author?How do you fit writing into your busy schedule?Do you have a daily writing time? Una Belle:I do feel like I'm juggling many hats each day. I am a wife and mother. My husband is a pilot, and we have two grown sons. I wish I could say that I write daily, but I don't. With the grants that I sometimes write for school, there's always a deadline, so I know I need to push myself to write them and send them off. I enjoy 4-H, and stay busy with the fair, 4-H projects, etc. I received a wonderful honor at the last county fair. I was named the Canadian County Citizen of the Year. I enjoy working with Ag in the Classroom and sometimes present my books at their conferences and workshops. I sign books at local bookstores and conferences throughout the year. My puppet, Grady, always comes with me. One marvelous signing in December was in Guthrie at their Victorian Christmas event. I was dressed in a lovely Victorian hat and long dress. I have also been a re-enactor at Fort Reno where I talked about the fort's part in the land run, and showed the visitors some bonnets, older items from around that time, etc.
OCAI:How did you get your idea to write about the Oklahoma land run?
Una Belle: For many years, I taught 4th grade. It's the year we introduce students to Oklahoma history and the land run. I felt that books (other than the textbook) were needed on a much lower level. I felt students needed to know more about the land run, the date of the first one, etc. I hoped that once a topic on Oklahoma history was introduced, the teacher could supplement with other books, posters, bulletin boards, activities, etc.
OCAI:How has being a teacher influenced your writing? Una BelleWhen I wrote Grady's in the Silo, it was for my 4th grade class. It was a local story promoted by public and school libraries. Teachers told their classes about Grady, but there wasn't a book about the incident that portrayed the story correctly. Then, as a teacher, I started working with Ag in the classroom to promote agriculture. I mentioned the Grady story, and curriculum was written for teachers to use. Still there wasn't a book. So, I wrote one, sent it to Pelican Publishing Co., and they published it. I received an Oklahoma Center for the Book award as well as a Children's Choice Award (IRA) for Grady.
One of the best days of being a teacher/librarian was the day that a former student came by the library, and I showed him my book. When he had been in the 4th grade, he had asked many times to go to the library to get the "cow" book on Grady. I had told him that there wasn't one. During the next few years, he still would go to the library and ask about the "Grady" book. I was so excited when I finally got to show him "Grady's in the Silo". I think he was at least a 6th or 7th grader by then, but he sat right down and read it two or three times. It made my day! OCAI:Certainly, there are many teachers out there with great ideas for children's books. Do you have any advice to help teachers who want to do what you're doing? Una Belle:As for tips, don't use the child's name or parent's name and make sure it's funny. Stories need to be tight, usually less that 500 words, and of course have a strong beginning, a middle, and ending. It usually means that the character shows growth at the end of the story. A story often has two instances where the challenge fails or just doesn't work that the character tries, and then the ending where there is success. I'd also advise teachers to go to writing workshops, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)(www.scbwiok.org) conferences and schmoozes, and work with someone who can critique their work. A dictionary, thesaurus, and rhyming dictionary are a must. Also, re-write, re-write, and then re-write some more. OCAI:Thanks, Una Belle!
Check out this excellent interview with Una Belle!!!!
Una Belle's Popular Land Run Picture Book . . .
What a day to become a man. April 22, 1889, was only the biggest day in the entire state. It was the day that two million acres of “unassigned lands” were given away to the first person to pound a stake into it. Although he has long dreamed of such a moment, Pa is unable to claim a new home for his family due to an injury. “I can do it, Pa,” says nine-year-old Jesse, “I can get us some land.” So it’s up to the boy to race for his family’s future.
Reins in hand, Jesse sits beside Pa in the wagon as they line up for the big race. He finds himself competing against Sooners and roughnecks among thousands of others. The race is a challenge for any grown man, and Jesse is nervous to say the least, but Pa’s steady words of advice comfort him and guide them both over the difficult terrain. Finding a surveyor’s stone will mean a new home and a new start.
Above all the tension, Jesse keeps his head and Pa’s wagon on track. The uneven prairie is no match for them. They find a plot and claim 160 acres of their own. As he finally pounds his stake, Jesse understands that futures don’t come easy and there will still be challenges ahead.
Una Belle's claime to fame (along with being a published author!) is that she was born and raised in Marshall, Texas, the same town that many famous people came from, including Susan Howard (actress), George Foreman (boxer), and Bill Moyers (PBS). Also, Lady Bird Johnson went to high school there. Although Lady Bird graduated at the age of 15, Una Belle did not.
Una Belle Townsend lived with her parents and her two sisters, Ruth and Beth. Her father worked for the Texas and Pacific Railroad until his death, when Townsend was only twelve years old.
Townsend received her B.S. in elementary education from East Texas Baptist College. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she continued her education and earned her master’s degree in elementary education from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.
After teaching grades one, two, and four in the Marshall Public School System for five years, she married her husband, Virgil. They moved to McAlester, Oklahoma, where she taught for a year and a half. She and her husband now reside in Yukon, where he works as a pilot at Wiley Post Airport and where Una Belle currently teaches at Riverside Elementary School in El Reno, OK.
Una Belle has several picture books for readers of all interests. Her first, Grady's in the Silo, is based on a true-but-hilarious story of a cow who got stuck in a silo in rural Oklahoma. Her second, The Racecar Driver's Night Before Christmas, is written in rhyme and sure to please. And her latest, The Oklahoma Land Run, is perfect for teaching about Oklahoma's historical land runs.
Una Belle enjoys speaking to groups of all ages (even teachers!) and even has a 'cow friend' she can bring along with her which your students will enjoy.