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The Inside Edge: Yamaguchi gives back in new role

Olympic gold medalist turned children's author tackles childhood literacy
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Kristi Yamaguchi reads to students as part of her ongoing efforts to aid early childhood literacy through her Always Dream Foundation. -courtesy of Always Dream Foundation

You may already know that when she's not writing about figure skating, your correspondent Sarah is a children's book author and illustrator with more than a dozen published books. Her new book, Madame Martine, has just been published by Albert Whitman and Company (it's dedicated to Drew, by the way).

A couple of figure skaters have tried their hand at writing picture books as well. Kurt Browning's A is for Axel: An Ice Skating Alphabet (Sleeping Bear Press, 2005) has real charm. Kristi Yamaguchi has written two picture books: Dream Big, Little Pig and It's A Big World, Little Pig, published by Sourcebooks in 2011 and 2012, respectively. She is working on a third book, so we called her to talk shop.

"I had always been interested in someday writing a children's book," said Yamaguchi, who has two young daughters. "The ultimate factor was becoming a mom. We tried to make reading part of the bedtime routine. I guess, like any mom, reading the same books over and over, I thought I'd like to do one [for my kids]. I learned they're not as simple as you think they are."

Most beginning children's authors start out with a lot of misconceptions about the book business. For one thing, many writers think they'll have to find an illustrator. In fact, most authors have no say in who illustrates their work, and may never meet the illustrator. As a celebrity author, Yamaguchi had a little more say than most.

"I was lucky," she said. "I got to approve the illustrations and have a little input, especially on the second book. It was exciting; it was fun to see. They sent a couple samples of Tim Bowers' drawings of pigs and a couple other animals, and I said, 'Oh, I like his style, I feel he's captured Poppy.' If I said no, I don't know if they would have changed [the illustrator]."

Yamaguchi was sure that her main character, Poppy, would be a pig.

"I was born in the year of the pig; I always thought they were good luck for me," she said. "And I loved Miss Piggy, and one of my favorite books was Charlotte's Web."

Authors do often share their special expertise to help the illustrator with research. Yamaguchi had some input, particularly in the second book, with skating fashions as well as the positions of the skating animals in the story.

"I sent a PDF of Evgeni Plushenko in a butterfly, and said, 'This is the position that Poppy needs to be in.'"

Although the two Little Pig books are about a figure skating pig, the book Yamaguchi is working on now will be about different animal characters, and it has a different concept.

"We're still ironing out the manuscript," she said. "I have this big, long story, and it needs to be de-complicated. I don't know how long it's going to take!"

The book, which will also be published by Sourcebooks, doesn't have a publication date yet. Yamaguchi hinted that it may feature some differently abled characters.

As well as writing, Yamaguchi is still deeply involved with her Always Dream Foundation. When Dream Big, Little Pig was published, she decided to focus the foundation's mission on early childhood literacy. The Always Reading program partners with a national literacy organization called Raising A Reader.

"Students receive a book bag every week and take it home," Yamaguchi said. "The parents are encouraged to sit down with the kids and read. We teamed up with them to bring in the technical side to the program. We incorporated tablets preloaded with 15-20 e-books. The kids will be not only exposed to the technology but hopefully also get inspired or encouraged to look at books even more."

The Always Reading program is in 12 schools throughout the Bay Area in Northern California. Yamaguchi says that they will launch in Arizona and Hawaii in the coming year, and she wants to expand into more schools in more states.

"We want to get into more areas where it's needed," she said. "We focus on underserved areas. I think our ultimate goal is to get kids off on the right foot. Just knowing the statistics of literacy in our country, there's plenty to work on right here."

As part of her involvement, Yamaguchi visits schools and reads her books to the children. She says that seeing their reaction is her favorite part of the whole process.

"When you actually finally see the expression on the kids' faces, when they hear the story, that's the best part," she said. "That's why we're doing it: to engage their imaginations, get their feedback and think, maybe this made an impact on them."

Golden Moment

Coming up in November, the "Golden Moment" skating show will support the Always Reading program. Yamaguchi and fellow Bay Area Olympic champion Brian Boitano are co-producers and co-hosts. Dorothy Hamill, Evan Lysacek, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Gracie Gold, Ekaterina Gordeeva, Nancy Kerrigan, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, and Polina Edmunds will appear.

"We're really working to make it not just another skating show but bringing to light our cause and our mission," Yamaguchi said. "We'll have 4,000 children in the audience from schools we help out. There's a reading challenge, and once that challenge is met, each kindergarten child receives four tickets to the show. So, the upper bowl will be filled with kids."

The show takes place Nov. 2 at 4:00 p.m. at the SAP Center in San Jose. Tickets go on sale Sept. 15. Visit alwaysdream.org for more information.

Pennington's dream continues

The latest of Parker Pennington's Skate Dance Dream shows will take place on Sept. 6, 2014 at 7:00 p.m. at the Kettering Ice Arena in Kettering, Ohio. Ryan Bradley is the headliner this time, joined by Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, Wesley Campbell and former Canadian pairs skater Jessica Miller. Each show includes dancers from the TV dance competition So You Think You Can Dance; this edition features jazz dancer Audrey Case and breakdancer Sara VonGillern.

Young skaters and dancers also appear in the show, and they spend a weekend taking skating classes or dance workshops with the stars. For tickets or for more information, visit SkateDanceDream.com. Net proceeds benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

Dance on,

Sarah and Drew

Follow them on Twitter @SarahandDrew