Shelley Pearsall, the author of five juvenile fiction books, visited Niles Middle School early this month for the third time to give a lesson to language arts students about building characters.
Pearsall, who lives in Akron and has family in the Niles and Cortland areas, recently published "Jump Into the Sky," a book about paratroopers during World War II.
Her last visit to the school was in 2011, when she spoke about the different parts of writing a book. Her visit this year, however, focused on just one part of the writing process - building fictional characters.
The Niles Times / Kathleen Evanoff
Author Shelley Pearsall, left, helps Colton Smith, 13, choose a shoe for his fictional character study during a seventh and eighth grade language arts class at Niles Middle School.
"The more ideas you put in your head, the more you have to put on paper," Pearsall said to students in a seventh and eighth grade language arts class.
Rather than meet with all students in an auditorium setting, Pearsall chose to meet in individual classrooms over the course of four days.
The process of creating a character involves getting to know that character, Pearsall said. She began her instruction by playing a song recorded by Elvis Presley called "Walk a Mile in My Shoes."
"The idea behind the song lyrics is to try to understand what their life is like," Pearsall said. "When you create a character, you do the same thing."
One way to create a character, Pearsall said, is to look at shoes. Holding up a scuffed and worn men's dress shoe, Pearsall encouraged students to try to come up with a character who might have worn those shoes. As students began making suggestions, each idea became part of a schematic written on the blackboard by her husband, Mike.
Ideas included a physical description of the person who might have worn the shoe, as well as different ideas about that character's profession, hobbies and interests and personal life.
As the schematic grew larger on the classroom blackboard, Pearsall asked students to tell her how many different stories could be created from the ideas brought out about that one character.
Following her demonstration, Pearsall dumped two bins of shoes on the floor and asked students to choose a shoe they would like to use to build a character.
"Create characters that are realistic," she told the students. "You have to respect your character and you should be able to relate to them as well."
Enthusiastic students crowded around the piles of shoes and after choosing their example, began writing their own schematics based on the characteristics of the shoe they chose.
Pearsall, a native Ohioan, has been writing since she was a middle school student. Her first historical novel, "Trouble Don't Last," was the recipient of the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2003 and her first contemporary novel, "All of the Above," was a 2007 ALA Notable book.
Before publishing her first book, Pearsall was a public school teacher and a museum historian.