Local organization combats children’s illiteracy.
Three siblings are transported to Lovania, a city surrounded by stone wall near snow-capped mountains. There, they befriend a kindly knight named Sir Norman, whom they watch compete in a jousting tournament.
This is the plot of “The Newest Knight,” a 31-page children’s book partially written by Noah Fraguela, who holds a rare title for someone his age.
The 12-year-old student at The Villages Charter School is a published author.
“I spent three to four months writing the book,” Noah says. “It was a fun experience because I had never really written a book before; I had only written paragraphs. When I told my friends at school that I had a published book, they were amazed.”
For Noah, this incredible opportunity was made possible by the Sarah Tirri Children’s Foundation, a Clermont-based nonprofit organization that promotes children’s literacy.
Noah became an author after winning a writing competition sponsored by the organization’s founder, Sarah Tirri.
Sarah writes the beginning and ending of a book, and students use their writing skills and imaginations to fill in the middle. She publishes the winning book through Amazon.
“For children, writing can help them feel happier, more confident, and relaxed,” Sarah says. “Writing also helps inspire their creativity and helps them express their thoughts and feelings. That’s why I launched this new writing competition.”
She provides plenty of incentives. Noah was awarded $500 for winning the competition and will receive 50 percent of royalties. The other 50 percent goes toward the foundation. Noah also has a nationwide audience since his book can be purchased on websites such as Amazon and Goodreads.
Of course, the most important aspect of the competition is encouraging students like Noah to embrace writing.
“I’d like to write some books about history because that’s a subject I love,” Noah says.
Those words are music to Sarah’s ears because she realizes how much children’s literacy matters. It’s a gateway skill that paves the path for future success. According to Sarah, children who lack vital literacy skills are held back at every stage of life.
She says that children lacking those skills won’t be able to succeed at school and as a young adult their job prospects will be limited. And they’ll be less likely to avoid hardships like poverty and homelessness.
“The mission of my foundation is to combat those things,” Sarah says. “I want to do my part in producing bright, confident, and energetic people in the workforce.”
For Sarah, the idea to form a foundation for childhood literacy started 23 years ago when she began reading bedtime stories to her children: Charlie, 7, Joey, 5, and Samantha, 3. She knows first-hand that a parent’s presence and soothing words, combined with the positive message of a story, can spark a child’s love of reading.
“We would lie in a tent, and I would create a story in my mind,” she says. “Each child had a starring role. I would take them to a strange land in the tent we were sleeping in. And then the following morning I would write the story on my computer and read it back to them. Reading to a child is so important because their brains are like sponges, and they soak it up.”
For years, Sarah kept those stories on her computer desktop. Two years ago, she decided to publish the stories as books, activate her foundation, and create a writing competition.
“I have 12 books that were published on Amazon free of charge,” she says. “It’s such a new and amazing technology.”
Each book begins with Charlie, Joey, and Samantha sleeping in Travis the Tent, the mechanism that takes them on magical adventures to strange lands full of vivid colors and incredible creatures.
Her books have been converted to e-books and audio picture books. Ideally, she hopes parents will read them aloud to their children.
“When you read books to your children, you stimulate their imagination and expand their understanding of the world,” she says. “It helps them develop language and listening skills and prepares them to understand the written word. It is easy for a child to slip through the net in the classroom. And if it’s not backed up at home with a parent reading, a child may fall a year behind. At that point, it is very difficult to catch back up.”
Sarah realizes that not all parents have the time or will to read to their children. With that in mind, she hopes to distribute her books to area schools. Another ambitious goal is pairing underprivileged children with reading devices like Kindle or iPad.
“Electronic learning is the wave of the future and something that is undeniably happening now,” she says. “We want children to grow, flourish, and be happy. There are a lot of spokes on the wheel that contribute to that, but reading is a big one.”
Meanwhile, Sarah is preparing for the organization’s second writing competition, which is open through December 31, by distributing informational fliers. Each flier has a scan code that takes students straight to the competition website and walks them through the process of writing. The winner will be announced in January.
Sarah hopes the next winner is as creatively gifted as Noah. “There’s nothing like creating a story to set children’s imaginations free,” Sarah says. “I certainly saw that with Noah. His imagination was great. There was a charm to his story that I liked, and how he described the setting was fantastic. He’s like an old man in a child’s body. When I met him, I was amazed by his confidence.”
Certainly, Noah has wowed plenty of others since becoming a published author.
“My teachers, friends, and classmates have asked me for autographed copies of the book,” Noah says.
Publishers are always on the lookout for their next hit. Thanks to the Sarah Tirri Children’s Foundation, they might just find a bestseller from someone still in grade school.