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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Teenage author returns to her elementary school to inspire youngsters

Mar 30, 2023 10:38AM ● By Julie Slama

Fifteen-year-old Brighton High freshman Mary Ann Jensen returned to the classroom where she first started writing her first book to talk about being an author to Butler Elementary fifth-graders as part of their career day. (Photos courtesy of Curt Jensen)

Flash back to five years ago. 

Kimberly Cope was teaching her fifth-grade class at Butler Elementary and after assignments were completed, students busied themselves with various projects around the classroom.

One girl, who loved stories, began writing in a blank book her own story about a mermaid, which she eventually finished after several months. After adding her own artwork and having her mother type the story and her dad design it and print it, she gave Cope, Principal Jeff Nalwalker, and others her story that Christmas.

Fast forward to 2023.

That same student, Mary Ann Jensen, returned to Cope’s classroom, where her sister, Caroline, is now a student. Mary Ann didn’t come empty-handed. She not only brought her book she wrote in class, “The Lost Mermaid,” but four other children’s books she has written and published.

The 15-year-old Brighton High freshman returned to her alma mater on career day to share the importance of working hard to make dreams come true as well as to show how she uses basic skills she learned in school in her writing and illustrating career.

“I’ve always loved writing, so I showed them a whole bunch of my old drafts of stories that I had written when I was really, really little,” she said. “When I was young, my mom and dad would always read books to me. Before I could read, I would look at the pictures in the books and make up stories for them and I would also draw a lot of pictures. We would staple them together, make them into little books. I have one I wrote was when I was in kindergarten at the old Butler Elementary, and it was called the ‘Kindergarten Princess Teacher.’”

After giving her teacher her stapled story, Mary Ann decided to improve it.

“I wanted to share the book with more people so I went to my parents with the fistful of money, and I said, ‘How can we publish this and make it into like a real book with a real cover and real spine?’” she said. 

After adding more details, pictures and an epilogue to her story, her mother, Elizabeth, helped Mary Ann edit it. Her sister read it.

“She’s a great critic. She is really good at telling me what she likes and what she doesn’t like, and it helps to make the story better,” Mary Ann said.

Her dad, Curt, helped with the layout and got the final draft together with his daughter and sent it off to be self-published. In late July, she received a package.

“On my 12th birthday, the real books arrived. I was beyond excited; I started to cry. It was so cool to see a real final product. That was so amazing,” she said. “Since then, I’ve sent books all over the United States and I have gotten messages from parents and saying their kids are very inspired by my books and now they’ve started writing stories of their own.”

She currently is writing the fifth book in a series called the “Sundance Springs” series and told the students that each book is written from a perspective of seven main characters.

Brighton Work-Based Learning Facilitator Eileen Kasteler organized Butler Elementary’s career day that featured speakers talking about medical and law professions to a film and TV electrician and video game designer to a yoga instructor and dog sled tour guide.

“Career day in the elementary school helps students recognize jobs they see happening all around them every day—the principal, the crossing guard, the lunch workers, even their teacher, who they may not have thought about as ‘working,’” she said. “Thinking so far into the future might seem overwhelming, but focusing on career exploration and interests even in elementary can create a more focused pathway for students as they move into middle school and high school.”

The speakers also tied their careers to subjects they learned in school. For example, Mary Ann shared how she applies skills she’s learning in school apply to being an author.

“I told them that my English class helped me to gain new vocabulary and know how to take words and put them into sentences and then paragraphs to then create a book. I told them in art classes I learn new techniques I use to draw. History is really important. In my most recent book, ‘S’mores,’ I dug deep into the Salem witch trials because one of my characters is a witch. If I didn’t know about the Salem witch trials, the book would not be as accurate. I also told them I use math to know how much I need to sell my book for. I need to know how I can cover the costs of making the book and still have a little bit of money leftover so I can put that toward my next book,” she said. “I learned typing because after I had written another story by hand—I think I filled three spiral notebooks—my mom said I needed to learn how to type; it’s a skill I’m going to use for the rest of my life not just with writing or school reports, but with everything I do.”

Mary Ann, who learned some students had checked out her autographed books in Butler Elementary’s library, plans to continue writing fiction, but she also wants to be a journalist. She is president of Brighton High’s 15-member journalism club and editor-in-chief of the school’s monthly newspaper, The Bengal Bite.

“It’s cool to write real stories about real people. I’ve also written an article (about youth council) for the Cottonwood Heights City newsletter. I think it would be so cool to both be a journalist and an author when I grow up because I love both,” she said. “It’s important for kids to see that it doesn’t matter how old you are or how young you are, you can follow your dreams. The students were enthralled with the idea that you don’t have to wait be a grown-up to start on your path. I told them you do have to learn how to have persistence. When something comes in the way that says, ‘No, you can’t do this,’ I just keep going—and that told them they can, too.”