A Literary Mission

Rebecca Swift, a native of Yankton, and movie producer Sean Covel presented “Porter the Hoarder” at the Yankton Community Library last week as part of a federally funded effort to promote family engagement in literacy. (To view a video, scan this photo with your Yankton Interactive app.)

Authors of the “Porter the Hoarder” children’s book series engage kids and encourage families to read together.

Last week at the Yankton Community Library, Sean Covel, a children’s book author and movie producer, and Rebecca Swift — illustrator, makeup artist and Yankton native — made an appearance at the Yankton Community Library to introduce a children’s book series they are creating.

The books are based on the character Porter the Hoarder, a little girl who stashes all manner of things in her room, from toys to rotting banana peels and chewed-up bubble gum.

“What I love about Porter the Hoarder is that Rebecca’s taken such a simple drawing and pulled so much emotion out of this character,” Covel said. “This is great for a few reasons. One, because it’s fun to use a simple design and get big, big emotion, but secondly, because kids can draw this, and as part of the presentations that we do in class, Rebecca stands up and says, ‘Here’s how you do this: here’s a cookie for a head and bananas for hair and here’s how you do the McDonald’s arches for bows.’”

The children pick it up quickly and can begin to start drawing Porter — an emotional character — in ways that express their own emotions, he said.

“Remove her eyebrows and flip her mouth upside down and it’s a completely different emotion,” Covel said. “Kids have a blast.”

In fact, the idea for the character is based on a real child.

“My daughter, Logan, is 14 now, and when she was a little girl, I was helping her tidy up her room and I opened a drawer and I found a mountain of candy and garbage and just weird stuff,” Swift said. “I said, ‘My daughter’s a hoarder,’ drew up the picture, and told Sean about Porter the Hoarder.”

That was about nine years ago.

Covel, an Edgemont native, produced the movie “Napoleon Dynamite” and has been working in film for the last 15 years. He met Swift when they were both working on a movie in the Black Hills.

“Last year was the first time that we actually put something together,” Covel said. “Originally, this was a counting book. What happens is you’ve got the main character, Porter, and as you flip through, the reader — the adult — is reading with the child in the first 10 pages, let’s say, and they are laying out the way the story works.”

Covel and Swift made a visit to the second-grade class his sister teaches in Sturgis and read the book to her students.

“At first, it was, ‘Count the number of snotty handkerchiefs,’ but then, when we got the feedback from the kids, they were like, ‘This should be harder to find,’” Covel said. “Suddenly, it became a look-and-find book, and the second that happened, this could be her messy room, but we could have a new character that is Porter on a hike, or a new character that is Porter making pizza or a new character that’s Porter trick-or-treating in the monster neighborhood. That’s where we came up with the idea for these 64 books.”

“The reader gets to help Porter decide what stays and what goes,” Swift added. “Some things are absolutely disgusting and some things are toys and trinkets she can keep.”

As of this month, there are four complete “Porter the Hoarder” books available on Amazon.com. There are two more “Porter” books written and illustrated and Covel recently finished writing his seventh book.

Though Swift had the idea and drew the basic character, it was Covel who ultimately gave Porter a voice, not just through his dialog on paper, but through the presentations that he and Swift give around the state, a voice that, according to Swift, makes their young fans explode with laughter.

“In January, we did a project with a United Way of the Black Hill’s initiative called Black Hills Reads,” Covel said. “In that project, we gave away 2,400 copies of the book to every first grader in the Black Hills from as far north as Belle Fourche to as far south as Edgemont.”

After the Black Hills pilot, S.D. Statewide Family Engagement Center (SDSFEC) got involved. SDSFEC is one of 13 state family engagement organizations funded through a grant from the U.S Department of Education. Black Hills Special Services Cooperative and South Dakota Parent Connection applied for the grant in partnership with the South Dakota Department of Education, according to S.D. Statewide Family Engagement Project Director Morgan VonHaden.

SDSFEC’s goal is to ensure that all learners have the support they need to achieve academic, career and life goals, according to the group’s website.

The grant to promote family engagement in literacy and education was awarded last October and is for $4.8 million for five years, VonHaden said.

“We really were excited to partner with Sean and Rebecca with ‘Porter the Hoarder’ to get kids excited about literacy and reading and to have parents and kids read together, but also, on a side note, having their book at all these schools has opened the doors of more schools to learn about family engagement,” VonHaden said. “It’s been an amazing partnership.”

Covel and Swift will continue to work with SDSFEC promoting “Porter the Hoarder” and family literacy for the next four years.

As a reading activity, “Porter the Hoarder” was ideal for family engagement because it was written to be read to a child by an adult. When the book is presented in a classroom, the teacher reads as the students follow along on the large classroom display.

“Once the class has read it, they say, ‘Did you like the book?’” Covel said. “Then, suddenly, because of Family Engagement Center, because of United Way, because of Black Hills Reads, the teacher can say, ‘Guess what? You get your own copy right now for free.’”

Students are sent home with a special “homework” assignment for their parents. It explains the idea behind the book and asks that they read it with their child.

“The Department of Education is one of our biggest partners, and they have written lesson plans to go along with ‘Porter the Hoarder,’” VonHaden said. “So we have STEM lessons and a social/emotional learning plan that is coming from the Department of Education.”

Through the grant, SDSFEC will continue to purchase the books to give away to young readers.

“This week, we’ve given away 5,000 books. So far we’ve read to probably 1,500 kids; we will have read to another 1,000 by the end of tomorrow,” Covel said. “This is a five-year initiative where every first grader in South Dakota will get (his or her) own book every year for the next five years.”

During that time, Covel and Swift hope to continue to present “Porter” to schools and communities to bolster literacy across the state, but also to stay in touch with their core fan base.

“It’s really cool what the kids have to say,” Swift said. “They are our audience and that makes a difference for us. It’s really important to see what the kids have to say, because we want them to be happy.”

Follow @CoraVanOlson on Twitter.

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