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Professor earns 'Teachers' Choice' recognition for children's book

September 02, 2009

Frank Serafini is living the dream. The associate professor of literacy education and children’s literature in Arizona State University’s College of Teacher Education and Leadership is combining his passion for teaching with his love of nature photography to produce an award-winning series of children’s books.

The second in his “Looking Closely” series, “Looking Closely Along the Shore,” has been recognized by the International Reading Association as a 2009 Teachers' Choice winner. Published by Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ont., Canada), “Shore” is part of a series that currently counts four books and will total eight by 2011. Included in the series are “Looking Closely Through the Forest,” “Looking Closely Along the Shore,” “Looking Closely Across the Desert” and “Looking Closely Inside the Garden.” On tap for release over the next two years are “Rainforest” and “Pond” (2010), and “Swamp” and “Meadow” (2011).

The “Looking Closely” series takes children on a journey of discovery, challenging young readers to guess the identity and ask questions about each of a number of close-up photos. On each subsequent page, the full photo is revealed, accompanied by a simple but detailed description of the habitat. The books are designed to help build problem-solving skills while also encouraging a curiosity about environments full of unexpected wonders. The Washington Post says of “Shore”: “(Young readers) will be enthralled by a book that teaches children how to find animals that live in plain sight … and you’ll be fascinated by it, too,” while the School Library Journal praises the series' “close-up photography accompanied by bold, brief rhyming text will draw the attention of even large groups of children.” 

“I am humbled by the honor, as most of my works speak to teachers,” says Serafini, who earned his master's degree in elementary education and his doctorate in curriculum and instruction from ASU. “For instructors to say they like the work, well, I like that; it’s a good thing.”

The award is actually the third in a string of honors for “Shore.” Earlier this year it received an honorable mention from the Society of Children’s Libraries, and also shared accolades with “Forest” as a Bank Street College of Education Featured Children’s Book.

In each of his books, including “Shore,” Serafini has the final say on which pictures are featured.

“I don’t want children not to be able to guess,” he says. “They should be able to guess at least 50 percent of the pictures – not all of them – because it would not be fun for them. I want the young readers to be surprised by some of the photos that are featured.”

In the “Photographer’s Note” at the conclusion of “Shore,” Serafini writes, “I can spend hours wandering along the shore, through the forest, across the desert or in my garden, looking for interesting things to photograph. My destination is not a place, but rather a new way of seeing. By creating the images featured in this series of picture books, I hope to help people attend to nature, to things they have normally passed by.”

Each of the books in his series closes with a final photo on the outside back cover that invites his young readers to explore nature. In “Shore,” it is a picture of a sandy tropical beach with footsteps leading toward the horizon.

“Children are naturally curious about the world around them,” says Serafini, whose photography bug was fed in his native New York where he hiked and snapped shots in the picturesque Finger Lakes region while growing up. “The books are designed to get children to slow down and see what’s around them. At the end of each book there is an invitation in the final photo to go out into the environment and explore and discover, to look very closely and notice things.”

And while the awards are impressive and the “crop and reveal” format of the series unique, Serafini’s journey to teaching and photography is a Renaissance tale of sorts – his business card could easily read teacher, photographer, musician, world traveler.

His teaching career was jump-started after he earned his bachelor's degree in business administration at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. He moved to the Valley in 1985 and played his guitar and waited tables along Mill Avenue, a stone’s throw from ASU’s Tempe campus, gathering a pretty good following along the way. Eventually, he landed a substitute teaching gig at a local elementary school, and it took just three days in the classroom to get him hooked.

“The first day was horrible – I had P.E. with the fourth graders,” he remembers. “But, I taught for three days and signed up for the post-bac education program at ASU.”

Once he completed his master’s work, it was on to doctoral studies and his Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, eventually leading to nine years as a grade-school teacher and another three in the Washington Elementary School District working with teachers as a Title I staff development coordinator/literacy specialist.

“I can remember calling my mother and telling her, ‘I have a new career move,’” he says. “I was always looking for that one thing I could do well, and this was an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children.”

Serafini broke into the college ranks of teaching in 1993, working as a faculty adjunct professor in literacy education at ASU and later at Northern Arizona University. In 2001, he accepted a position as assistant professor of literacy education and children’s literature at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and left in 2008 to take his current position at ASU. At ASU’s West campus, Serafini teaches undergraduate courses in language literacy in elementary schools and graduate courses in assessment, children’s literature, and reading methods and theories of literacy education.

In the meantime, he has traveled the world taking photographs, appearing as a keynote speaker at state and regional conferences, and consulting with international governments on education issues. He is widely published and has contributed articles and served on editorial boards for education’s top journals. He stills finds time to play the guitar in a local band, Frankie and the Tornadoes.

When asked what he enjoys doing most – teaching, photography, performing – he answers, “yes.”

“I don’t want to give any of this up, because life is very balanced for me,” Serafini says. “I can enjoy all of them and have a blast at the same time.”