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Middle-school teacher self-publishes 'Today I Choose Happy,' her first in a children's book series

by Bob Robinson | September 4, 2022 at 12:00 a.m.
During a recent back-to-school block party in Van Buren, Fort Smith seventh-grade science teacher Patti Farris hugs two youngsters who are showing off crafts made during her book reading. is devoting her semi-retirement to encouraging children to make conscious decisions through a series of books she is self-publishing. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Cheryl Scott)

"Today I Choose Happy!" is a new children's book written by self-proclaimed "zany, life-outside-the-box" author Patti Farris of Mountainburg. This is Book No. 1 in a series of stories told through the voices of colorfully illustrated animal characters.

As in real life, none of the characters is perfect, and some days can be quite rotten. But as she puts it, "smiling by choice makes the bad soon forgotten." In Book No. 1, Farris follows the daily activities of a pig named Petunia Pickle. Petunia and her forest friends educate readers about an amazing superpower that can turn what could have been a very bad day into "The Best Day Ever!": the superpower of "choice."

Petunia Pickle is one happy pig. Patti Farris is one happy storyteller. They share the same high energy, positive thinking and can-do determination to make the most out of each and every day.

A middle-school science teacher and mother of six children, Farris has spent several years planning and writing her complete series of children's books. Each story shares a common theme of "Today I Choose." Book No. 1 is 48 pages long; she includes a companion curriculum to help bring the messages to life.

After retiring from 28 years as a full-time teacher in Fort Smith Public Schools and becoming a substitute at the beginning of 2020, she began to think about moving forward with publication of the initial book. And then COVID's arrival caused the teacher in her to kick in.

Believing the world was broken, and that children would be deeply affected by the fallout, she decided to speed up her plan and self-publish Book No. 1. What better time to help children benefit from "Today I Choose Happy!" Farris began making the circuit of schools, libraries and bookstores, sharing the story with young audiences.

PETUNIA PICKLE

At such readings, she enters a room filled with children, beaming a friendly, welcoming smile and with her arms filled with interesting props to engage inquisitive minds with her message. Promptly, she gathers her new young friends around a table or squats in a circle on the floor. As an ice breaker to get everyone involved, she begins with a game.

Then comes the introduction of Petunia Pickle, a star in her own mind. This leads into the story of the perky character's fun-filled day of activities. Petunia and her friends will sing out of tune and dance to a beat that is snappy, because for each day they choose to be happy.

Throughout the reading, Farris pauses to interact with the children. She asks their opinions about a particular statement Petunia Pickle makes or whether any of them enjoy the same activities as Petunia.

When introducing the cast of Petunia's friends, she asks the group which of the characters share their own interests or personalities. The children's contributions make for a joyful and thoughtful storytime.

At the conclusion of the reading, Farris sends the children on a treasure hunt. Can they find a particular item within the story? Those who find it are rewarded with a treat.

As a final activity, she instructs the children in crafting a toy to take home. This will serve as reinforcement to remind them of just how amazing each and every one of them is, she says.

Farris is in her element when working with the kids she calls "young humans" of any shape or size. Petunia Pickle could be funneling Farris herself when saying:

"I have friends that are skinny, spotted and tall.

Friends that are furry, winged and colorful – I love them all!"

An appendix at the end of the book provides tools for parents, grandparents, teachers -- all adults -- to use when reading Petunia Pickle's story to children. Farris lists questions to ask about the story and suggests items children might seek during the treasure hunt.

A LIFETIME IN THE MAKING

Experiences in her childhood prepared Farris for writing books to educate young humans about keys to happiness.

Growing up in a home with an alcoholic father, she discovered a magical portal to escape to a happy place: her imagination. She learned she could create fantasy worlds, complete with whimsical friends and at fascinating locations. An imaginary circus was her favorite getaway. Here she could act out acrobatic performances and walk among exotic animals.

Her imaginary worlds helped to insulate her from the brokenness of her home. These early mental forays stimulated what became a highly developed creativity.

When she entered elementary school, Farris was diagnosed with visual perception issues that caused her difficulties computing and gauging distances, at times making her awkward and uncoordinated. Being different from others can be a real challenge for anyone, especially for a child, but she says those experiences and how she learned to deal with them proved helpful when she began writing for children with issues of their own. The life lessons she had to learn prepared her to help others manage unexpected challenges.

To overcome her visual impediment, she was instructed to practice walking on a balance beam, and her father built one. Through self-discipline and hard work, she mastered her physical awkwardness and went on to excel in athletics. She attained an elite level of athleticism, earning a scholarship in gymnastics at Texas A&M.

Her childhood, she says, taught her the importance of taking ownership of a problem and not allowing it to control you.

After college, Farris learned other lessons while raising her children and through nearly three decades of teaching middle school science. And she began funneling her creative imagination onto paper. Her earlier mental exploits transitioned into the written word. Often she would incorporate her life's lessons into the stories, so the messages she hoped to convey would be memorable.

Another major influence was meeting and marrying Tommy Farris.

"It was like Super Girl meeting Jungle Boy," Farris laughs.

Tommy is the yin to her yang, and both are highly outdoorsy people. Their days are filled with hiking, biking, kayaking and other activities. And both are determined to confront life's obstacles as challenges.

CONSCIOUS CHOICE

This mix of life experiences coupled with her science background inform her understanding of how life does, or does not, work. Her book series seeks to educate young readers about the many choices they confront each day, and the value of making decisions consciously, knowing that how they respond provides a road map for their lives. Making the right choices will lead them to their desired destinations.

Farris understands how emotions can override the brain's capacity for making helpful decisions, resulting in an instinctive "fight or flight" reaction. However, she says, with training and discipline a person can override instincts embedded in the brain since the caveman era. We can learn to direct the brain to use the frontal lobe where complex, conscious decisions are made.

She hopes that reading and listening to her stories will help kids understand the power of conscious decision making so they'll work at it; with practice it can become second nature for children.

Inspired by life's influences, her imaginative students, loyal friends and family, Farris has developed a uniquely energizing writing style that creates a humorous, yet sensitive, approach for dealing with setbacks. She hopes that young readers will find the carefree adventures of the characters a fun read, while the subtle messages integrated within the tales inspire inner strength and a sense of self-worth, helping them cope with an often chaotic world.

"Today I Choose Happy!" is available for $12 plus $4 shipping and handling; to order a copy or book a reading, email Farris at [email protected] or send a message through Facebook at "Patti Farris Books."

Bob Robinson is the author of "Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail,""Bicycling Guide to Route 66" and "Bicycling Guide to the Lake Michigan Trail."

photo "Today I Choose to Be Happy" is self-published Book No. 1 in a series by Fort Smith seventh-grade science teacher Patti Farris. Farris is devoting her semi-retirement to encouraging children to make conscious decisions. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette)
photo A rat snake on her property in Fort Smith caught the eye of Fort Smith seventh-grade science teacher Patti Farris, who appreciates the role snakes play in the environment. Farris is devoting her semi-retirement to encouraging children to make conscious decisions through a series of books she is self-publishing. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Tommy Farris)
photo Mountainburg Elementary School kids show the craft they made during a reading by Patti Farris (center). The Fort Smith seventh-grade science teacher is devoting her semi-retirement to encouraging children to make conscious decisions through a series of books she is self-publishing. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Cheryl Scott)

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