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Week of 22 January 1999

Vol. II, No. 20

Feature Article

You are what you read

CAS computer consultant publishes children's book

By J. Nicole Long

Basing his main character on a college roommate who often ate candy bars for dinner, CAS computer analyst Erik Kraft has written Chocolatina, the story of a little girl who, because she eats so much of it, turns into chocolate.

But Kraft isn't trying to moralize. The little girl, Chocolatina, wishes that the axiom "You are what you eat" were literally true. When it comes true, her feet melt to the pavement at recess, her friend refuses to sit next to her on the bus because she doesn't want to get chocolate on her new shirt, the health teacher scares her, and Chocolatina shakes so badly that she fears she'll crumble into a pile of chocolate chips. Finally she cries a chocolate syrup tear. Before Chocolatina magically sheds her candy flesh and resumes her human one, the health teacher's tyranny is exposed. A chocolate lover herself, the health teacher is caught by the principal just as she's about to devour Chocolatina's ear.

"Parents and teachers are always telling children what to do," Kraft says. But he wants children to have fun. "I want to present characters in weird situations that kids can laugh about." Through writing these picture books, Kraft says, he also frees himself from being told what to do.

Kraft grew up in Longmeadow, Mass., a town next to Springfield, where Dr. Seuss lived. He earned a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Massachusetts - Amherst and later enrolled in a graduate fiction writing program at Emerson College. "People in my fiction workshops didn't know what to do with my imagination and sense of humor. They seemed to have preconceived notions of what fiction should be," Kraft says. "In picture books, I can let my imagination go; I can be as out-there as I need to be, and it's acceptable." He is finding that children certainly respond to that.

It is through the publication of his book that Kraft has really gotten to know children. His previous experience was limited to witnessing their tantrums in public places, which terrified him. Chocolatina has been on the shelves since April of 1998, and Kraft has read at elementary schools, libraries, and bookstores such as Waterstone's and Barnes and Noble. Spending time with children, he says, has made him aware of how creatively uninhibited they are -- they write stories and draw almost instinctually.

Because he is an adult engaged in the same activity and has "a real book that he made," the children admire him. "One of the teachers told me that her class regards me as highly as they do the president," says Kraft, who is in his mid-20s. He is heartened, he says, by their interest and wonder.

The first class he visited sat quietly and still as he read. This surprised him, but he was even more surprised when the teacher told him that he had been reading to children with attention deficit disorder, and that all of them were on the verge of being sent to special schools. "I figured if I could be with them, I could be with any group of kids," he says.

Kraft would like to be a teacher also, but of adults. He dropped out of the fiction program at Emerson, and while providing technical computer support for CAS during the day, he is also pursuing a master's degree from Vermont College. "I believe Vermont offers the only master's in writing for children in the country," Kraft says. "It isn't viewed as a ser