Hollywood producer pens children’s book, morphs into statewide literacy promotion tool

South Dakota natives and Porter creators Sean Covel, illustrator Rebecca Swift, right, from Yankton, and graphic designer Laurel Antonmarchi from Armour. Courtesy photo

DEADWOOD — “Should she keep the 10 snotty handkerchiefs?”

That’s the question posed to readers of “Porter the Hoarder and the Ransacked Room,” the first in a children’s book series penned by “Napoleon Dynamite” movie producer Sean Covel, who recently added large-scale literacy promotion to his growing list of accomplishments, as his recently penned and published children’s book about a one-of-a-kind girl named Porter the Hoarder will be distributed statewide the week of Sept. 16.

Assisted by Statewide Family Engagement Center and United Way Black Hills Reads, many schools across South Dakota will distribute free books to first graders.

“I’m excited to announce that we are working with schools and organizations across the state to get Porter into the hands and homes of literally thousands of elementary school students this year,” Covel said. “Porter is more than a book. It’s a whole bunch of cool stuff that’s dedicated to getting “Bigs” to read with “Littles” at home and cause family engagement around reading.”

The first book in the series, Porter the Hoarder and the Ransacked Room, is a “look and find” picture book that has big people, referred to as “Bigs,” reading with little people, referred to as “Littles,” aged 3-10.

In each book, Bigs help Littles find Porter’s collections of strange stuff, such as chewed up bubble gum, and then help her decide what stays and what goes.

A statewide book launch befits the team that created Porter the Hoarder, as all three hail from South Dakota; Covel, from Edgemont, who also maintains a residence in Deadwood; illustrator Rebecca Swift, also a famed make-up artist, hails from Yankton; graphic artist Laurel Antonmarchi, hails from Armour.

“As South Dakotans, we are deeply proud that all of this began in our home state,” Covel said.

Covel said that while Porter’s quirks and motivations and general “Porter-ness” are all made up, the premise of the story is based on a real person.  

“Rebecca Swift has two awesome daughters, Quinn and Logan. Logan has always been a super clean kid, but one day when Logan was around 6, Rebecca opened a drawer of her nightstand to find it totally packed with candy,” Covel explained. “This was candy from Halloween, Christmas, Easter, and beyond. Some of it was getting pretty nasty.  Rebecca thought ‘my daughter is hoarding candy!’”

And the idea for Porter the Hoarder was born. 

“Rebecca drew a version of the character, and actually made one from felt just for fun. When I heard the name ‘Porter the Hoarder’ and saw the character design, everything clicked for me,” Covel said. “I could hear the quirky things Porter would say, and see her over-the-top reactions, and the idea of writing her was so exciting, I had to take a crack at it.”

When asked why he, a movie producer, would decide to launch a children’s book series, Covel said that to him, making a movie and writing a children’s book are not different things.  

“Movies are about exploring unique characters in unique worlds with unique desires and motivations. Porter the Hoarder does exactly the same thing,” Covel said. “She’s a snotty little girl who lives in a self-designed world full of her favorite treasures, like snotty handkerchiefs and lightning-fried lizards, who wants to keep getting more stuff - and absolutely does not want to clean her room. But if she does, she’ll get a gold coin worth three dump-truck loads of candy, which she uses to fill her room right back up to the top.”

The reader helps her decide what can stay and what she should throw away.

“The difference between Porter the Hoarder and any movie I’ve made, or seen for that matter, is that movies are designed to be passively watched by an audience, and Porter is designed to actively engage not just one reader, but two,” Covel said. “And have them work together toward the same goal.”

The literacy model Covel created will be introduced at school, but goes one step further, to encourage families to do just that. 

“The program will be accompanied by a package and that package will include one copy of the book for every student in the classroom, as well as a copy for the classroom and the library, as well,” Covel said. “We’re also including a digital copy of the book that can be projected on the Smart Board, so the class can read it together. Also, we’re including a copy of the Parent’s Porter Explanation Thing. This is essentially parent homework. It talks about what the book is and how the book works and encourages the parent and the child to work together. It has the no distraction box in the corner for the cell phone.” 

After reading the book together as a class in digital format, each student is sent home with their very own copy of Porter the Hoarder and given the parent homework by the teacher who explains.

“Listen, you’re the experts at reading Porter the Hoarder,” Covel said. “You need to make sure you teach your parents how to do it.”

Covel cites four issues getting in the way of families reading together: time, finding a book that kids are excited to read, knowing how to read with a child, and cost. 

By eliminating costs, with a free, fun, and easy-to-read, complimentary copy of Porter the Hoarder, Covel and his partners hope more families read with their children at home.

“I realize that Porter the Hoarder can address each of these issues,” Covel said. “Porter reads in under 10 minutes, so it fits into anyone’s schedule. The book is exciting to read because we make sure the book is exciting to read. In terms of how to read for the parents, well, we’ve passed that responsibility on to the kid. When you get those roadblocks out of the way, you find an opportunity to not only increase reading skill, but cause family engagement.”

Covel said that only after the book was created did he learn about the huge issues schools face with early grade reading proficiency and the need for creating family engagement habits around reading.  

“Kayla Klien and Jamie Toennies, from Black Hills Reads and The United Way of the Black Hills, really helped me understand the scope of the issue and the long-term ramifications of missing both,” Covel said. “It just so happened that Porter addressed those issues. Entirely by coincidence. The book is a game and the game is a book that Bigs and Littles read and play together.”

Once it became apparent how those issues could be addressed with the Porter the Hoarder series, the Porter the Hoarder Reading and Family Engagement Project took shape.

Covel said that writing the Porter books has been every bit as satisfying as making movies.

“Even more satisfying, actually,” he said. “When we do readings for kids, it’s fun to see them go crazy about all the weird stuff in Porter’s room. And it’s great to see pictures that people send us of siblings reading together, and parents and kids focused on the books while also having fun.”

Then there are stories from teachers, which he found absolutely astounding.  

“One first-grade teacher was touched because a student ran up to her and said, ‘I finally get to have a book in my house!’” he recalled. “Another talked about a student who didn’t want to take the book home and asked if he could keep it in the classroom. She let the student know that it was OK for him to take the book, that it was his to keep.  He said that he wasn’t sure what shelter he and his mom were going to stay at that night, and he wanted to keep his book safe. We’ve encountered those sorts of stories everywhere we’ve been. Talk about snot-bubble crying - wow. Those will get ya.”

After the release of the books in the Black Hills in January, creators held a book signing at BAM in Rapid City. 

“We hoped for 100 people to show up. Over 1,000 did,” Covel said. “Parents told us a consistent story of the day the book came home. Their child demanded to read it right when they walked through the door.”

In January, 2,400 books were given to first-graders in schools such as: Whitewood, Sturgis, Belle Fourche, Spearfish, Lead-Deadwood, Red Owl, Rapid City, Piedmont Valley, Wilson, Knollwood, Meadowbrook, Zion Lutheran, Douglas, Pinedale, Valley View, Canyon Lake, South Park, Robbinsdale, Hermosa, Custer, Hill City, Edgemont, Hot Springs and others.

In November, these schools, as well as others in the Black Hills will participate again.

“We are honored to be working with you and your educators toward the goal of family engagement around building reading skills at home,” Covel said. “We are excited to have worked with child psychologists and elementary school professionals to create something that’s more than a book. It’s a tool. And we are so proud to put Porter into the hands and homes of literally thousands of elementary school students this year and that couldn’t happen without you.” 

Covel and Swift will visit classrooms and host book signings during the launch week, with events coming up this fall in Faith, Rapid City, and Oglala Lakota County.

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