Author Hooks Kids on Books 

Jeanne Mansfield with her new children's book "Really?"

Jeanne Mansfield with her new children’s book “Really?”

A local author and a Gulfport illustrator are taking action to hook area third graders on literacy as a way to increase high school graduation rates.
Specifically, at-risk children who attend D- and F-rated elementary schools.


That’s the title of Jeanne Mansfield’s bait, which is her new children’s book, the first in a series.

“I heard not too long ago that some high school seniors are graduating with a third grade reading level,” said Mansfield of St. Petersburg. “That is just not acceptable to me. It made me crazy. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read.”

A national education study published in 2011 by Donald J. Hernandez of Hunter College in New York City, has identified reading levels in third graders as strong predictors of high school graduation rates.

Already a volunteer with Goodwill Industries-Suncoast’s established BookWorks – a program that focuses on literacy coaching for Title 1 pre-K and kindergarten youth in low-income areas – Mansfield had an idea to expand the concept into elementary schools.

BookSmart was started in November 2015 with Mansfield providing one-on-one tutoring to two third graders as an experiment at Lynch Elementary School in St. Petersburg.

“Her mission and passion really is literacy,” said Haydee Castro, BookWorks coordinator. “It is all about helping to empower children.”

So much so, that Goodwill is looking to expand the BookSmart program for the 2016-2017 school year at other locations like Gulfport Elementary.

Volunteers must register with Goodwill and pass a school district background check. For more information, visit

While cleaning and applying book plates to used books for distribution through BookSmart, Mansfield saw many titles that had content “like, ‘The apple is red. The ball is round.’ How boring is that?”

So, she thought, “Why don’t I see what I can do?”

The mother, grandmother and great-grandmother used one of her grandchildren as inspiration and wrote a book that encourages interaction with eight different primary-colored cats and a gray mouse that doesn’t speak up until the end. As an adult narrates, one or more kids provide the punch line at appropriate moments:

Adult: “The red cat can whistle.”

Kid: “Really?”

Adult: “The orange cat can dance.”

Kid: “Really?”

“When my granddaughter Heidi was really tiny, I’d say to her, ‘I love you more than french fries.’ And, she’d go, ‘Really?’ in a high squeaky voice,” said Mansfield.

“There’s humor there,” she said. “You’d be surprised how visual some of these little teeny ones are. They get it.”

The first book, just out, teaches children about colors in a story format. The next book will be about math and elephants. Another book will cover the alphabet. Each one, she says, will have an interactive and visual storyline – thanks in part to Jane Carpenter, an artist from Gulfport.

“I’ve been an artist most of my life,” said Carpenter. “People have always said to me, ‘You should do a children’s book. Your art is so whimsical, colorful and fanciful.’”

Mansfield found Carpenter through a mutual friend and the two collaborated for their first children’s book.

“She and I just clicked,” said Mansfield.

Mansfield publishes the book through Lulu but her dream is to get it into area elementary schools.

“That’s my dream,” she said. “I want to do the school route before I ever mess with stores. With me, it’s about hooking a kid on the right book.”

She bought a magic-themed book for the little boy she was tutoring.

“He went right into that and he went from reading at first grade level to catching up with his third grade class to student of the month during the school year,” she said. “I was so proud of that child.”

And “he said to me, ‘You know, I’ve quit playing games. I read now.’”

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