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Illuminated Manuscript

A retiree aims to be a children's book author with help from creative writing classes
December 3, 2018

“I find myself asking, ‘How can I merge these two great passions: my love of writing and my love of art?’”

Drawn Chutes and Ladders game based on TOM SAWYER
Mark Twain novel as board game

Stephen Nesser stands out among Professor Julie Schumacher’s “Writing Young Adult Fiction” students this fall. First off, he’s about 40 years older than most of his undergraduate classmates; he's already earned a BA degree. Second, he’s the only one whose notes on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are organized as a Chutes & Ladders game board.

When Professor Schumacher asked students to respond to required reading, Nesser began playing with format. “Julie said you can do drawings in your work journal,” says Nesser. “And it just started building.

“The goal is to use it as a reference book for me,” he continues. “And it’s causing me to think about taxonomies. You know, what if you looked at Tom Sawyer compositionally as a children’s game? Nancy Drew’s got these magical powers (unfortunately one of them is Deus ex Machina—she’s stupid lucky). That [1930] novel made a lot of sense as arguably the first super hero comic.”

Nesser retired two years ago from a career as family court evaluator and mediator, but that’s not the whole story. He also has an MFA in conceptual art, and his paintings are in museums in Europe, Australia, and the US, including the Smithsonian. For decades, he’s been entranced by children’s books. This fall he illustrated his first picture book, Child of Wonder, adapted from a song by Marty Haugen (GIA Publications).

Nesser with portrait of his teacher, Professor Julie Schumacher
Nesser with portrait of Professor Schumacher

He enrolled in Schumacher’s class with the goal of improving his writing so he can publish a children’s book of his own. Through the University’s Senior Citizen Education Program, he reports, “you get the incredible privilege of taking classes for a reasonable price”—free, that is, if you’re over 62 years old and auditing the course. (The Minnesota Daily recently covered the program.)

Besides the board game, Nesser's course journal now features author portraits, a two-page Nancy Drew comic, and a illustrated booklet inside a fancy envelope. It also includes notes on a recent field trip to the U’s Kerlan Collection, where he found correspondence between an editor and author Christopher Paul Curtis (Bud, Not Buddy) that transformed how Nesser critiques his classmates’ work, and his own.

“I’m going to wring every possible lesson out of this class,” Nesser vows. “Just to see how it can improve my writing and my movement through the world.”