Penguin power entrances kids

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By Matt Gunn

Pasqual the Penguin is an unlikely hero. The young animal doesn’t quite fit in at the zoo, but he makes a difference in Rhonda Spellman’s children’s book “Fire and Ice,” teaching kids important lessons about fire safety along the way.

The story is written to appeal to a broad audience of young children, but it was created especially for those who don’t learn via traditional means.

“Teaching children who learn differently is really my mission,” said Spellman, a resident of Parker.

“Fire and Ice” was originally written to help her son Taylor learn what to do in case of an emergency. Taylor, 8, suffers from Asperger syndrome, a disorder within the spectrum of autism that affects young boys of otherwise normal intelligence. The symptoms of Asperger’s include difficulties in social situations and in communicating, and a sometimes-intense interest in specific subjects. Asperger’s recently was distinguished from other disorders, and some speculate that Albert Einstein may have suffered from it.

Writing “Fire and Ice” was a way for Spellman to help her oldest son, who could relate to a penguin in ways that he couldn’t to a person.

“He sees the world differently than the rest of us, and it took me a long time to embrace that,” Spellman said.

And after writing “Fire and Ice,” which was subsequently released through Oklahoma-based Tate Publishing, Spellman found that a good story is universal.

Kids from South Jeffco and students from Evergreen’s Wilmot Elementary came to the Barnes & Noble at 8136 W. Bowles Ave. on Jan. 26 to meet Spellman and to attend a book fair. Librarian Michele Bergeron-Coldsnow shared the book with students the week before and discussed the message of fire safety with them.

“They loved the book, especially when (Pasqual) was a little hero by saving kids from the fire,” she said.

During her two readings, Spellman engaged the audience by telling the story and expanding on what was written in the book. Afterward, she had photos taken with the kids, along with a life-size inflatable emperor penguin. She also autographed books for them.

Some seemed touched by Pasqual the Penguin’s message that, “You don’t have to be big to do big things.”

Kayleigh Evans, a Wilmot kindergartner who was visiting along with her mother, Wendy, said her favorite part was “when the penguin said, ‘We need to call 911!’ ”

While “Fire and Ice” is meant to get kids engaged and to teach them the cornerstones of fire safety, Spellman has other projects that empower children in other ways.

Her WrIte Program teaches kids the basics of storytelling by giving them a chance to create a “published” book. Spellman gives kids — disabled or not — a bound soft-cover book that is empty save for a couple of illustrated prompts. During a day-long program, she works with children to develop a setting, theme, plot and, most importantly, a message of accepting differences in others.

“Every child has an inner genius,” Spellman said. “It’s just that sometimes we have to try a little harder to bring it out.”

Contact Matt Gunn at matt@evergreenco.com. For daily news updates, visit www.columbinecourier.com.