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Korematsu teacher celebrates her first book

Maya Greenberg and William Knudsen, fourth-graders at Korematsu Elementary School, look ready for Christmas in their elf hats in class on Tuesday. Their teacher, Nikki Smith, sped up the calendar a bit to celebrate the release of her first book, "The Little Christmas Elf." Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

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From page A1 | September 14, 2011 |

Back when she was an aspiring but unpublished children’s author, Nikki Smith never read any of her manuscripts to her students at Korematsu Elementary School in Davis.

More often, she would test them out on her own two children, and kept her two worlds — writing and teaching — separate.

But a couple of years ago, when she was teaching her fourth-graders the narrative form of writing, she decided to take a chance and use her own work as an example.

” ‘The Little Christmas Elf’ was the first manuscript I ever shared with my class,” she said. “I was so nervous. But when I was done, they all clapped. And this one little girl raised her hand and said, ‘I could see it in my head like a movie.’

“That made me say, ‘This is the one,’ ” Smith recalled.

On Tuesday, Smith got to share that same story with a new class of fourth-graders at Korematsu. But instead of a manuscript, it was a real, fully illustrated book — a Little Golden Book, in fact, released just this week and now available in stores and online.

Smith’s class celebrated the occasion with a “book birthday party,” complete with elf hats, cookie decorating and a signed copy of the book for each student to take home.

It was a long time coming.

Smith has been writing for as long as she can remember, everything from short stories to poetry, picture books to young adult fiction. She’s also been teaching for nearly two decades.

A graduate of UC Davis, Smith earned her teaching credential from Sacramento State University and taught in her hometown of Oakland for several years, as well as in Elk Grove. She currently teaches fourth grade at Korematsu, where she also filled in as principal during Mary Ponce’s maternity leave last year.

In fact, it was during that period that she got the call from Little Golden Books that they wanted to publish “The Little Christmas Elf.”

“That was a crazy time,” she recalled, “but very exciting.”

The fact that her first book was a Christmas book was almost a lark. The year was 2007 and Smith was participating in an online critique group formed through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Members of the group had collectively decided to write Christmas stories.

“I didn’t think it was my typical type of story,” Smith said, “and I kept putting it off and procrastinating.”

“You know how sometimes people tell you to do something and you don’t want to?” Smith asked her students on Tuesday. “Well that’s what happened.”

In fact, it wasn’t until she was right on top of her deadline that she sat down “and this whole story just poured out,” she said.

“I started with this character — a little elf at a big table — and then, since she was so little, it would be her first year in Santa’s workshop,” Smith explained.

The end result is a lesson on perseverance, a story of a little elf named Nina who was struggling to finish her first toy.

Smith ended up submitting the story to a publisher the following May, and 13 months later, after she’d almost given up on ever hearing back, she got the call from Little Golden Books. A little over a year after that, she celebrated the release of her first book in her classroom at Korematsu.

Smith still writes whenever she can and is working on both picture books and young adult fiction right now. When she has time, anyway.

“I steal time to write,” she said. “I do most of my drafting at night… and do a lot of revising on weekends and holidays.”

“I’m in teaching for the long haul,” she added. “I love it. But I feel like I’m getting better at writing and wish I had a little more time. That’s the hardest part. Sometimes I’ll think, ‘If I had five quiet hours, I could crank out 50 pages.’ ”

Smith will read and sign copies of “The Little Christmas Elf” during the Davis Christmas Tree Lighting Festival on Thursday, Dec. 1, from 4 to 5 p.m. at The Avid Reader, 617 Second St.

She’ll also be at the ScholarShare Children’s Book Festival at Fairytale Town in Sacramento on Saturday, Sept. 24, from 11 to 11:30 a.m.

— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at aternus@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8051.

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