Local author plants writing seed at First Street

Elementary students to publish own books
By: D.E. Kern, The News Messenger
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History remembers Robert Peary, at the expense of Matthew Henson. But in author Jeri Chase Ferris' opinion, that's an injustice that demands a response. So Ferris wrote "Arctic Explorer: The Story of Matthew Henson" as a means of recognizing Henson's contributions to Peary's 1909 expedition to the North Pole. "He was Peary's partner," Ferris told an assembly of fifth-graders at Lincoln's First Street Elementary School last Thursday. "But, when they got back to New York, Peary took all of the credit and Matthew Henson got none. "Years later, Peary said that he chose Matthew Henson because he needed help but he didn't want to share the credit for discovering the North Pole." Henson's story is one of 11 penned by Ferris, who specializes in writing biographies, particularly those of women and minorities swept away by the currents of popular history. "I want to demand justice for people who did very important things," Ferris told the First Street students. Her storytelling skills were on full display during Thursday's program as she provided snippets of what could be found inside her books. If the smattering of post-presentation questions were any indication, the kids - many of them leaning forward with chin in hands - were hooked. "Have you ever been to Italy?" one child asked, obviously stirred by Ferris' statement that she's traveled extensively to research her books. "What kind of dog is that?" inquired another, inspired by a picture of the author with her Scottie. Ferris should be right at home with raised hands and the accompanying groans used to request recognition. She taught elementary school in West Los Angeles for more than three decades. In fact, she wrote her first book, "Go Free or Die, A Story about Harriet Tubman," as a means of introducing her students to positive role models. "Basketball players were OK," she said. "But I wanted to teach them about people who had done substantive things for the country." To that end, she's also written biographies on the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Noah Webster, Abigail Adams and Sojourner Truth. Her own substantive contributions - in addition to her writing - include the speaking engagements she takes on at libraries and schools such as First Street. "We've been doing this for a number of years now in conjunction with an activity that we do here at school where the kids get to actually write a book and get published," Principal Ruben Ayala said. "We've brought different authors in the past that focus on different genres. This time we felt 'Let's bring in somebody who's local ...'" Teacher Anita Moya added she hopes Ferris' presentation helps her students realize that writing can become a career as opposed to merely an assignment. And the benefits flow both ways, according to the author. "It's wonderful to be with children again," she said. "I guess I'm still 8." Currently, Ferris is stretching her writing muscles by working on her first piece of fiction, an historical work on the 900-day siege of Leningrad by Nazi forces in World War II. She has a passion for all things Russian. Together with her late-husband, Tom, who taught history and Russian studies in Beverly Hills schools for decades, she traveled to the Soviet Union yearly between 1970 and 2000. The artifacts they acquired during those trips have become the Ferris Russian Collection and are recognized by experts as some of the best encapsulations of the "spirit and achievement of Soviet culture."