A Star is Born: Oak Knoll Senior Authors Children’s Tale

Katie Nguyen ’23 has gone well beyond the remit of her senior capstone project to author and illustrate a heartwarming morality tale for young readers that many agree has promising commercial potential. Her bespoke children’s story, entitled The Starfish Wish, is a captivating tale that follows a young girl named June who goes on a quest to find a mythical wish-granting starfish hidden in a distant cove that she hopes might heal her mother from a seemingly incurable ailment.

“For my capstone project, I chose to write and illustrate a children’s book because I love stories and wanted to do a project that incorporated my love for drawing and creative writing,” said Nguyen. “I was inspired by the stories that I enjoyed when I was younger. Some of my favorite movies are from a Japanese animation studio called Studio Ghibli. The films usually center around a young protagonist navigating through a magical world. I was most inspired by Ponyo and Spirited Away. I have fond memories of watching Studio Ghibli movies with my family, and I wanted to give my children’s book the same sense of warmth I felt from these films.”

One of the challenges Nguyen faced throughout this process was the in-depth research required in writing an engaging children’s book — specifically a picture book. “It has been difficult finding the balance between how I want to tell my story versus what kind of writing younger readers would understand,” she said. “I am still working on that. It has also been a bit tedious rewriting my story so many times, but all the editing has definitely improved and polished my story.”

Nguyen began her authoring project long before the official capstone month of May, when Oak Knoll seniors end their official high school program and embark on passion projects culminating in community presentations prior to graduation. As a result, she had completed several drafts of her story when American Library Association Schneider Family Book Award Winner Wendy Mass visited for our Lower School’s 20th Annual Author Day in March. Nguyen had the opportunity to share her progress and trade notes with Mass, who is the author of over 30 stories and graphic novels, including her first award-winning book, A Mango Shaped Space.

“Meeting with Ms. Mass was a wonderful opportunity to talk to a professional author about my project,” Nguyen said. “She gave me helpful tips on crafting a successful children’s book, such as knowing the rules for your targeted age group and writing to a certain age-based reading level. She discussed the role marketing, public appearances, and book signings eventually play in the process and suggested the importance of testing my story with young focus groups during the refinement phase.”

On Wednesday, May 24, Nguyen had the opportunity to do just that when she introduced Oak Knoll second graders to her latest draft — along with prototypes of her illustrations — in a trial reading in the Lower School library. The children listened intently and enthusiastically and offered their approval and feedback when Nguyen paused periodically to solicit their reactions. Following the test reading, Lower School Librarian Betty Castello, who organized the focus group, complimented Nguyen on her wonderfully crafted story and confirmed that grades 2 and 3 would be the perfect core readership for her beautifully written fable.

Although the process has been challenging so far, Nguyen is excited to move forward on this project as she finalizes her writing and continues to experiment with different styles of illustration. “I am so grateful for all the help and support I have received throughout this process, especially from my Upper School Art Teacher Mr. Cardell, who has spent many hours helping me, and I’m grateful to everyone else at Oak Knoll who offered to read my story and give feedback,” she concluded.

“As capstone mentor to Katie, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that she wanted to write and illustrate her own children’s story,” said Cardell. “Not knowing what to expect when handed the first draft, I was amazed at the sophistication of Katie’s writing and completely captivated by the story itself. Although it is a simple tale for children, The Starfish Wish is about unconditional love, faith, courage, and the power of redemption as revealed through the determination of a little girl and her belief in miracles.”

Nguyen will go on to attend Notre Dame in Indiana where she plans to major in Visual Communication Design and hopes to combine her love of storytelling with technology by specializing in user interface and user experience design.