Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

January 1, 2009

Shelf Life

Shelf Life

Ever since he was a child, Leonard Villanueva (HI '02) displayed a talent for art and a passion for storytelling — perfect ingredients, one would think, for an author and illustrator of children's books. And that was indeed one of Leonard's dreams as a child. But ultimately — and to the benefit of hundreds of children — Leonard chose to channel his talents into teaching.

He has no regrets about his career choice. But he never gave up his dream of publishing illustrated stories for children. Being a full-time teacher, however, left little time to pursue that dream. Or so he thought.

Leonard Villanueva (HI '02)

His attitude changed in 2002, when he was surprised with a $25,000 Milken Educator Award. It wasn't the money that changed his mind. It was the support and encouragement he received from fellow Award recipients.

"My Milken brothers and sisters told me, 'You should do it!'" said Leonard. "With that encouragement, I came home and started sketching."

Working at night, Leonard completed three oil pastel illustrations and sent color photocopies of them to Mutual Publishing, along with a synopsis of his proposed book. The Hawaii-based company had recently launched a children's literature division called BeachHouse Publishing, and Leonard's material was just what they were looking for. Kaipo & the Mighty 'Ahi by Leonard Villanueva became one of the first titles under the new label.

Leonard is one of many Milken Educators who have experienced the joys — and challenges — of publishing their writing. From fiction to non-fiction, from literature to math, from children's stories to professional teaching aids, the published works of Milken Educators encompass a wide range of subjects, styles and genres.

How They Got Started

Equally diverse are the many ways that Milken Educators have become published authors.

Unlike Leonard, Margo Sorenson (CA '91) never had childhood dreams of being a published author. All she had ever wanted to do was teach. But after years of teaching creative writing at Harbor Day School in Corona Del Mar, California, people began to ask why she had never tried her hand at writing a book and getting it published.

Margo Sorenson (CA '91)

So she decided to collaborate with her school librarian on a reading record book full of imaginative activities and ways for children to keep track of what they were reading. The result was Margo's first published work, How to Sneak Up on a Good Book. Since then she has published more than two dozen books — mainly fiction for preteen girls and boys, as well as several nonfiction titles.

Alice Bertels (KS '00) became a published author out of instructional necessity. As a fourth-grade teacher at State Street Elementary School in Topeka, Alice had been searching for a concise text that could help teach her young students about the famous Kansas artist John Steuart Curry. No such book existed, so she wrote one herself and began using it in her classroom. The book has since been published under the title, John Steuart Curry: The Way Home.

For Dr. Jeff Gall (MO '96), opportunity came looking for him. Utah-based Gibbs Smith Publishing emailed history professors throughout Missouri, asking if any of them would be interested in writing a textbook on Missouri history. Jeff, who has been an associate professor of history at Truman State University since the late 1990s, replied with writing samples and ideas for the book. Gibbs Smith chose him as the author, and after two years of researching and writing, Missouri: Our Home by Dr. Jeff Gall was published in 2006.

The Hard Way

Of course, it's not always easy to get one's book in print. The classic image of the published author is one whose wastebasket is stuffed with crumpled drafts and rejection slips. In other words, getting published can be a long, difficult journey.


Retired math teacher Sanderson Smith (CA '88) has experienced plenty of rejection, as well as success, in a publishing career that spans ten books over four decades. He wrote his first book soon after leaving a private-sector job as an actuarial trainee and returning to his first love: teaching.

"When I started to teach again, I got the idea of writing a book that would introduce some practical financial topics," said Sanderson. "I thought the Society of Actuaries would love it and publish it, but they didn't."

He sought other interested publishers and received rejection after rejection. But he persisted and his book, An Introduction to Investment Mathematics, eventually found a willing publisher.

Though the book is now out of print, it gave him the knowledge and experience to try his hand at writing and publishing another book — an algebra book for community college, which he co-wrote with a junior college instructor. Eight more books followed, including a book on multiple choice tests, a puzzle problem book and his most recent publication, From Agensi to Zeno: Over 100 Vignettes from the History of Math.

One way to improve one's chances for publication is to conduct advance research. After the publication of How to Sneak Up on a Good Book — which was rejected by 20 publishers before Perfection Learning picked it up — Margo Sorenson heard that Bantam Press was interested in stories for what she calls their "squeaky-clean teenage romance series." Rather than writing whatever she wanted, Margo wrote to Bantam, asking for their guidelines, and wrote her tale to suit their needs. With a few editorial changes, Bantam accepted Margo's tale, Aloha Love, a teenage romance set in a fictionalized version of Punahou School in Hawaii, where Margo previously taught and whose alumni include presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and pro golfer Michelle Wie.

Sanderson Smith (CA '88)

Once a book has been published, authors may sometimes find publishing opportunities coming to them, often because of the new contacts they have made. Not long after the publication of Aloha Love, Perfection Learning — the company that published Margo's first book — contacted her about writing a ten-book series of adventure novels aimed at boys who were reluctant readers. Margo applied all the lessons about storytelling she had imparted to her students as a creative writing teacher, and within three years she had finished writing all ten books, under the series title, "Cover-to-Cover Books."

Do It Yourself

Sometimes it can be just too hard to find a willing publisher. But rather than giving up, authors may consider the increasingly viable option of self-publishing.

Especially in today's world of do-it-yourself home repair and post-your-own-videos on YouTube, more and more budding authors are turning to self-publishing as a way to realize their goals.

By the time Alice Bertels decided to pursue self-publishing in 2003, she had sent her manuscript about Kansas artist John Steuart Curry to nearly a dozen publishers over a four-year period, all of whom had turned her down. Some sent generic postcards ("Your material does not suit our needs...") while others complimented the strength of her writing before explaining why they chose to decline her book.

"Usually the downfall was that I was not an established author," said Alice, "or that the subject matter was not wide enough for a varied audience, or that the field of education was not spending a lot of money on the arts."


Alice was undeterred. She had written her book out of need, and thought that other teachers would find it useful as well. So she decided to publish the book herself, researching the ins and outs of self-publishing until she found the company — Leathers Publishing, based in Overland Park, Kansas — that would help put her words and John Steuart Curry's paintings into print.

While self-publishing guarantees a book at the end of the process, it requires something else at the beginning: capital. Alice knew she would have to invest some of her own money, but to offset costs she raised half the funds for the project from various community groups and individuals who had an interest in or connection to the artist.

In September 2006, Leathers Publishing released John Steuart Curry: The Road Home by Alice Bertels, with an initial printing of 1,000 copies. More than 750 copies have been sold to date, and Alice is considering whether to pursue a second printing.

Though the book has not produced massive profits — and Alice has no illusions that it will — the process of self-publishing has been rewarding to Alice on many levels. While researching the book, she met and befriended several relatives of the late artist. Since the book's publication, she has been asked to speak about Curry in classrooms throughout the state. And when a young student in another state bought the book on and contacted Alice via the Milken Educator Awards Web site, a "wonderful" correspondence began among the author, the young reader and the reader's parents.

"That has been a very meaningful experience," she said. "It makes it all worthwhile."

Call It Publishing-It's Still Teaching

For many Milken Educators, publishing their writing is simply an extension of their teaching. Leonard Villanueva's books, for example, are not only colorfully illustrated children's stories — they are also lessons in language arts.

"I wrote the text with a lot of rhetorical devices so it could be used as a teaching tool," he said.

Like Alice Bertels, Leonard saw a need for a certain kind of educational text that he as a teacher found lacking.


Alice Bertels (KS '00)

"It's so expensive for teachers to buy picture books to teach literary devices," he said. "They have to buy a different picture book for each device: one to teach simile, another one to teach metaphor, onomatopoeia, etc. I was thinking of teachers when I wrote the book, so there are many rhetorical devices, from alliteration to synecdoche."

Even Margo Sorenson's adventure novels for reluctant readers had lessons built into them.

"I used a lot of big vocabulary words," she said, "but I used them in context so the reader would know what they meant."

For many educators, publishing represents an excellent teaching opportunity simply by enticing more young people to read.

"I think textbooks generally are not read by students because they don't tell a good story," said Jeff, whose textbook on Missouri history is full of fascinating stories, photos and artwork, from Civil War battles to Missouri's three most famous dogs.

"I had a wonderful publisher who said, 'Tell us a great story and tell the truth.' I was really pleased by that."

Margo makes her stories readable for young people by reconnecting with her own childhood.

"What I really wanted to do was try to write the kind of book that I loved to read when I was younger," said Margo.

Publishing also allows educators to expand the reach of their teaching across a wider audience. After Missouri: Our Home was published, Jeff received a letter from a fourth grader in Kearney, Missouri, who had read his story about the invention of the ice cream cone at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. The boy had discovered a Web page that claimed that an Italian in New York City had invented the ice cream cone in 1896.

"I had a wonderful time writing him back and saying that's what history's all about — debating what actually happened in the past," said Jeff. "But how great is that? The student didn't take the textbook at face value — he did some work on the Internet. I thought that was wonderful."

Just Do It

Published Milken Educators have enjoyed multiple honors for their work.

Two of Margo Sorenson's books — Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and Don't Bug Me — were nominated by the American Library Association for its Quick Pick List for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, and her book Funny Man was a finalist for a 2003 Minnesota Book Award from the Minnesota Humanities Commission in the Young Adult Literature category.

Dr. Jeff Gall (MO '96)

In June 2007, Alice Bertels's John Steuart Curry: The Road Home was one of 18 books to be named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library.

Leonard Villanueva's second book, The Hungry Pua'a and the Sweet Sweet Potato, won an award called the Kapalapala Po'okela from the Hawaii Book Publishers Association for Excellence in Children's Illustrative and Photographic Books.

Not all books enjoy such plaudits. But no book can receive acclaim of any kind if it's not first written, then published, for people to read.

It remains to be seen what new books authored by Milken Educators will find their way to America's bookstores, libraries and online stores. Sometimes all it takes is a little nudge from the right people.

"If it weren't for the Milken Family Foundation and the encouragement of my Milken brothers and sisters, I don't think I would have stepped out of the boundaries of my classroom and done the first book," said Leonard. "We're so busy as educators, encouraging children to explore their talents and interests. Teachers should make some time to explore their own talents and interests, because what we learn out of the process is ultimately going to get back to the classroom and the kids. It's going to make you a better teacher because you're exploring new avenues — something that's out of the textbook, out of the teaching arena.

"If you have the talent and patience to be a teacher, you can definitely write a book."

For more information, contact Alice Bertels at, Dr. Jeff Gall at, Sanderson Smith at, Margo Sorenson at and Leonard Villanueva at


A Partial List of Published Books Written and/or Edited by Milken Educators

Children’s Literature:

Ambrose and the Cathedral Dream
by Margo Sorenson (CA ’91), with illustrations by Katalin Szegedi

Ambrose and the Princess
by Margo Sorenson (CA ’91), with illustrations by Katalin Szegedi

The Hungry Pua’a and the Sweet Sweet Potato
by Leonard Villanueva (HI ’02)

Kaipo & the Mighty 'Ahi
by Leonard Villanueva (HI ’02)

The New Neighbors
by Barry Sneed (OH ’96)


Educational Books:

Agnesi to Zero
by Sanderson Smith (CA ’88)

Each Writes of Passage
by Gary Bacon (CA ’92)

The Educator’s Book of Quotes
by John Blaydes (CA ’88)

Essential Ingredients: Recipes for Teaching Writing
by Sandra Worsham (GA ’92)

Finding Favor with Your Students
by Ken Almon (GA ’98)

Missouri: Our Home
by Dr. Jeff Gall (MO ’96)

Planning for Technology
by Bruce M. Whitehead (MT ’96), Devon F.N. Jensen and Floyd Boschee

The Research Ready Classroom by Mike Anderson (NH ’04) and Andy Dousis

Success in Restructuring: A Road Map for Administrators
by Dr. Jane Foley (IN ‘94)

Supervision for Learning: A Performance-Based Approach to Teacher Development and School Improvement
by James M. Aseltine (CA ’88), Judith O. Faryniarz and Anthony J. Rigazio-Digilio

Survival Skills for the Principalship
by John Blaydes (CA ’88)

Teaching for Understanding with Technology
by Martha Stone Wiske and Lisa Breit with Kristi Rennebohm-Franz (WA ’00)

Collections of Student Work:

Four Years to Life
by Chris Mazzino (PA ’03)

Pieces: An American Story
by Carol Coe (WA ’95)


Plank Fence
by Paul Pioszak (MI ’03)


The Complete Kwanzaa: Celebrating Our Cultural Harvest
by Dorothy Winbush Riley (MI ’94)

From Ghetto to God: The Incredible Journey of NFL Star, Reggie Rucker
by Reggie Rucker and Nadine McIlwain (OH ’93)

John Steuart Curry: The Road Home
by Alice S. Bertels (KS ’00)

My Soul Looks Back, ‘Less I Forget: A Collection of Quotations by People of Color
by Dorothy Winbush Riley (MI ’94)


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