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Volunteering in the classroom leads to childrens book series
Douglas Derrer read his book — merely a manuscript — to Lisa Pitcher’s fifth grade class at the now-closed Seabeck Elementary School seven years ago.
Recently he’s been reading the self-published childrens novel, “Pirate Peril: The First Voyage,” to Pitcher’s fifth graders at Cougar Valley Elementary School.
Wednesday he read the finished book for everyone.
Derrer and teachers said if it hadn’t been for the students’ comments and questions to his working drafts over the years, the book could have turned out different. It probably wouldn’t have even turned into a series of three books.
The first class of fifth graders Derrer read to are now seniors in high school and they as well as the other students he has read to over the years joined Derrer in celebrating the publication of the first book in the series of a boy’s adventures with pirates and princesses as he faces the end of the world.
“It’s pretty amazing what happens when you put things out there,” said Derrer, 71, last week at Cougar Valley where he still continues to volunteer and read in Pitcher’s class as well as other classes at the school and at Green Mountain Elementary School.
“They give me good feedback. They give me great ideas,” he said of the students’ comments to his writing.
Mike Jones, the protagonist of the book is based on and named after his wife’s son. Derrer said he originally wrote Mike killing off a pirate that is the villain of the story and had no intention to bring the pirate back. The idea of bringing the pirate back came from a student who was unhappy with the pirate’s death and lead to Derrer turning the book into a three-book series.
Neither Derrer nor Pitcher knew what would happen when he first decided to read his work to her students.
“I had no idea at the very beginning how much interaction there would be,” said Pitcher. “It made writing come to life.”
Derrer’s writing first came to life when he was isolated with nothing to do on the island of Adak in the Bering Sea.
He left his post as a psychologist at Naval Hospital Oakland in 1995, which was about to close, and transferred to Adak — a small community of 500. His bosses told him everyone there would be depressed.
“Everyone was fine. I had nothing to do,” said Derrer. “So, instead of turning into an alcoholic or going crazy, I wrote.”
Derrer has always enjoyed writing but his past published work had been on the technical side including a book on terrorism with the U.S. Naval Institute. With fiction, he’s able to let his imagination roam. He also enjoys the writing and editing process, which he shares with the students.
Since 1999, Derrer has been living near Lake Symington in Central Kitsap and retired from Naval Hospital Bremerton in 2001. After retirement, he wanted to spend his time helping children in the classroom so he started out as a volunteer in Pitcher’s class, tutoring fifth graders in math and writing.
Soon he was bringing in his own writing and read them aloud as examples.
“The first hand experience of seeing Mr. Derrer write a novel in front of my students is more than any lesson I could teach,” said Pitcher.
Austin Esser, now in sixth grade at Cougar Valley who was in Pitcher’s class last year, said Derrer explained the writing process to them as well as the events in a hero’s journey.
The 12-year-old said he likes “Pirate Peril” because of the good use of vocabulary and transitions. For many students, they said the actual story keeps them wanting more.
“After school, I’d constantly think about what the next chapter could be,” said Erik Cleven, 11.
Derrer said that the book is not a pirate story but rather a coming-of-age story of Mike Jones. The boy faces real challenges and dilemmas, he said.
“It’s really fun. There’s a whole bunch of details and he describes the characters well,” said Thora Berg, 11. Berg and Cleven were also in Pitcher’s class last year.
The second book is being edited by Derrer’s editor in Seattle and he will continue reading versions of it to students in the classroom.
Pictures that students have drawn from scenes of the story or characters in the book have been compiled on the book’s website — www.pirateperil.com — as well.
Pitcher said including her fifth graders this year, Derrer has read to about 175 of her students since he first started at Seabeck Elementary.
“I never envisioned anything like this,” Derrer said.