“Some of the little ones will understand this, but the big ones will get a bit of a chuckle,” he said. “It’s called My Home is a Hole, and I always say if you went home and said that, (your family) might be a little offended, but of course when it’s a gopher, that happens to be the truth.”
The story is told from the perspective of Gilly Gopher, hence the “by Gilly Gopher” in the title. Phalen then retells it through illustrations.
However, as opposed to reading passages from his book, Phalen approaches presentations by distilling the content into illustrations and poetry, a format that he says has been effective.
“Pretty much every child that I have worked with has responded to art — a form of art therapy, I guess you could say,” he said. “No matter how difficult life was, they would find some expression in some form of art.”
Phalen constructed the poetry version of his book so that kindergarten and Grade 1 students could understand and decode its contents.
Born and raised on a farm near Shaunavon, Sask., Phalen moved to Prince Albert in 1980 to teach. He has found that students respond to material that is relevant to them.
“Since I was raised on the Prairies, I started thinking about writing about the animals on the Prairies, in this case, the most lowly animal — which is the gopher,” he said.
Like humans, the gophers have addresses in Phalen’s stories. They have constructed underground routes to get from place to place, similar to the infrastructure that exists in real life.
“The underground tunnels are close so that they can follow them to their own home safely,” he said, pointing to one of the illustrations.
The routes are tested when a hunter tries to catch them as they pop out of the ground.
As well, Phalen incorporates various literary elements into his books. In particular, he places emphasis on the names of his characters, including Gassy Gopher, Wesley Weasel and Harold Hawk.
“There’s also a lot of other literary forms — similes, metaphors and so forth — even in the book that’s meant for seven- and eight-year-olds,” he said.
Phalen’s readings are also interactive, with him asking questions of the audience as they try to understand the text. He gave each of the children in attendance a poetry version of his book following the reading.
“The book is in black and white, so it becomes a colouring book,” he said. “They can also take rolls of tape and put their owns words (over the text or pictures).”
Phalen also modifies stuffed toys to represent the characters in his books and circulates them for the children to see.
The first book of the Gilly series is Gilly’s Dangerous World. Phalen’s next instalment, Gilly Versus the Elements, is ready to go to print.