Dora McLellan sits amid a group of toddlers, being besieged by hugs. McLellan, 80, has just finished reading a book to the children. But it’s not just any book. It’s “Stevie Star,” a book McLellan herself wrote more than 50 years ago.
“It’s just such a gift to see her able to do what she loves doing again,” said Terri Greener, McLellan’s daughter. “And that’s just being with kids and teaching.”
The reading was organized by the staff from the Commons on Marice, the senior living facility where McLellan lives. The Commons specializes in bringing together seniors and children. It is part of a nonprofit that also runs the Intergenerational Learning Center, the preschool where McLellan read her book.
“The kids are at our place on a regular basis doing reading groups, singing groups, crafting groups,” said Kezia Wicklander, the director of marketing for the Commons. “We have so many retired teachers and homemakers that really enjoyed staying home. Their interactions together, just to watch them, are priceless.”
McLellan, who was born and raised in Ohio, has been a teacher in one way or another her whole life. As a young woman, she taught students from first grade all the way up through high school. Although she stopped working to raise her own children, she was a constant volunteer in the classroom, Greener said. Once McLellan’s children were grown and out of the house, she went right back to it, teaching computer classes at Inver Hills Community College.
As a teacher, McLellan was devoted to bringing fun and kindness to her class.
A principal at a school where she taught had a strict policy against parties of any kind, McLellan said. But that didn’t stop her. She would enlist her students’ help, asking them to bring in cookies for their classmates so they could hold tiny, confidential celebrations during breaks.
One time, Greener said, McLellan went into class in a bathing suit after she lost a bet with her students. The principal caught her, of course — having an illicit party, clad in a swimsuit.
These days McLellan is retired, but she still sees education as her calling. “Sometimes I would just feel so bad because I couldn’t be a teacher anymore,” she said. “It was a joy to teach.”
McLellan moved into the Commons last year, and when Greener mentioned that her mother had written a children’s book, community social worker Mollie Lund immediately suggested a reading and book signing with the students over at the Intergenerational Learning Center.
“The whole thing is about providing dignity to people as they get older,” Greener said. “I’m really, really grateful.”
This isn’t the first time McLellan has read her book, “Stevie Star … The Star That Was Afraid to Shine,” for a group of students. She wrote a version by hand as a teaching student, at the suggestion of a friend who admired McLellan’s sense of humor, and used it in her classroom for years.
“Stevie Star” tells the story of a young star who everyone believes is destined for greatness. But he is too afraid to shine. Then one day, he spots a boy who is wandering alone, lost in the dark. When he sees how much the boy needs him, Stevie overcomes his fear and shines brightly to light the boy’s way home.
For McLellan, the message of bravery and kindness in the story is essential.
“I’ve always felt that if you’re kind to people, they will be kind to you,” she said. “That’s always how I try to live my life.”
As a young author, McLellan made a huge copy of the book by hand and brought it in to read to her students. Over the years, McLellan has read the big, handmade book to hundreds of children. First she read it to her students, then her children and then her grandchildren.
“Growing up it was just kind of an example,” Greener said. “You’d run into hard things as a kid, and she’d teach through ‘Stevie Star.’ ”
For nearly 50 years, McLellan relied on her handmade copy of “Stevie Star.” But in 2010, her son Drew McLellan decided it was time to have it made professionally. He sent the original off to a self-publisher, and that Christmas he presented his mother with a professionally printed paperback. Her friends and neighbors threw her a book party, and once again McLellan read “Stevie Star” to children from around her community.
McLellan has always loved reading and writing. As a girl, she would sit around her house thinking up stories and writing them out on a small chalkboard. But “Stevie Star” is the only book she’s finished and shared, McLellan said, because it was her best story idea.
For young writers, McLellan has a few words of advice: “If you really enjoy it, go for it. If you can use your imagination you’ve got it made. And learn to spell right.”
Dylan Peers McCoy is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.