Fifth grade science teacher Justine Holcomb and fifth grade math teacher Eric LoStorto teach just a doorway apart at Tuttle Elementary School and have shared a friendship over many years.
So it wasn’t surprising that last year, after LoStorto began working on his second educational book, “Unlikely Superheroes,” illustrated by Melanie Brustad, Holcomb had an idea of her own and wrote “Cutie Pie the Pumpkin and Her Pollinating Pals,” illustrated by Jason Fowler.
After the two teachers self-published through the same local company, The Peppertree Press, the books arrived at their houses on the same day last week.
With the books now approved by Sarasota County Schools, the teachers are excited to share the results, which will include an after-school parent night and a potential in-school reading for all students and staff.
Dr. Patti Folino, Tuttle Elementary School principal, has expressed support for the teachers’ work.
“At Tuttle Elementary, our goal is to instill a love for reading and learning in all we do,” said Folino in a media release. “Having two teacher authors serves as an impactful inspiration for our students. I am thrilled to share both Mrs. Holcomb and Mr. LoStorto’s recently published books with our Tuttle students and their families. I am so proud of their relentless efforts to bring their dreams to fruition.”
'Cutie Pie the Pumpkin and Her Pollinating Pals'
Justine Holcomb’s book “Cutie Pie the Pumpkin and Her Pollinating Pals” was drafted in two days during the last days of the 2022-23 school year as the story swirled in her mind.
She brought the text to LoStorto, who confirmed that she did indeed have a book on her hands.
“He’s a poet, but I’m not a writer,” she said. “He inspires me to want to try.”
“I was very proud of her,” he said.
The book, illustrated by Jason Fowler, centers on a grandmother and granddaughter who use scientific thinking to become hand pollinators and grow their own pumpkins by Halloween. The book is inspired by her own three-year journey with her own granddaughter.
Once Holcomb started bringing pictures of the pumpkins she was growing into class and saw the interest of the students, she realized she should write a book, and she created the draft of the story, which covers material for fourth- and fifth-grade curriculums.
Just seven weeks later, at the end of July, she was presented with a proof of the book at the office of The Peppertree Press.
“I was so stinking excited. I was like, beyond excited,” she said, stating she even burst into tears.
It was a process that had involved many edits, yet still another was needed; her mother Margot Joy, who was once an art student, told her the yellow flowers needed to be re-tinted as orange, which required numerous pages to be revised.
Holcomb said she is eager to read the completed book to students.
“They'll hear the words, but when you see it on the page, it just comes to life,” she said.
After that, there’s still more to look forward to. Amid her ongoing work with the pumpkins, she found further inspiration after one pumpkin decomposed in January. She now plans to release a sequel, having drafted the text during the summer.
Yet even as the enterprise grows, it’s all about helping the students.
“I'm not in this to make money. That's not the purpose of this."
Math teacher Eric LoStorto’s inspiration to write books like “Unlikely Superheroes,” came from a time when he was teaching science and another educator came to the school, engaging students through songs on topics like the water cycle.
Later on, LoStorto began to think about putting math concepts into rhyming verses and wrote three rhyming stories in the span of six months, one of which, "Rounding Rescue," was published in 2013.
The latest story to be published, “Unlikely Superheroes,” tells of unlikely math superheroes. LoStorto described them as unlikely, because most people don’t expect superheroes in math concepts, which led to the creation of Equivalent Fraction Kid and Least Common Multiple Man, who come to the rescue of a teacher.
The illustrator, Melanie Brustad, is Principal Patti Folino’s daughter. Brustad, too, is a product of Sarasota County Schools.
“There are kids who understand the reading process, and the math is challenging, but if you can read it, instead of just doing the math, you might have a better grasp on it,” he said.
The third story, which he hasn’t released yet, covers the order of operations.
In writing the verses, LoStorto would turn to Rhymezone.com to fill out the next words of the story. He also found inspiration from the school itself.
“I tried to find something that rhymed with, ‘The teacher knew who was just right for the job.’ And I thought, wait a minute, Ms. Schwab rhymes, so I used her name.”
A retired teacher at Tuttle Elementary who taught grades K-12, Joanne Schwab also vetted the content of the book.
She offered her own input, suggesting it should include that denominators should not be added or subtracted at the end of the problem — a common mistake. She also suggested it include simplifying fractions, in case it was required by fifth grade curriculums in other states.
LoStorto said kids may find the material more engaging considering it is included in a real book. The ultimate goal has always been to help the students, he said.
“If it can help one child learn fractions, it was expensive to get there, but it was worth it.”