This story was updated at 3 p.m. on March 13.
A ninth-grade English writing assignment has become a published work for two Thomas Jefferson High School students who are seeing some success after five years of editing, revising and illustrating.
Nicholas P. Kousen, who graduated in 2012, and Jefferson senior Acacia Dai teamed to write and illustrate “Halebopp: A Rabbit’s Tale,” a children’s book based on the real-life story of Kousen’s childhood pet Halebopp.
The book is now available on Amazon.com for purchase, with the Kindle or e-reader version priced at $4.99.
“It’s been a very long process,” said Kousen, the story’s author. “My freshman year of high school when I was in Ms. [Jennifer] Seavey’s class she gave us an assignment of writing a personal narrative… I started writing it and it wasn’t supposed to be a children’s book. It was actually told from my point of view. We realized this could be an important story to tell because it deals with important themes like animal abuse and bullying.”
Small with brown fur, Halebopp’s story begins with him tethered by a leash to a pole in someone’s backyard. As part of a pair of rabbits living in the same home, Halebopp and his brother alternated overnight, weeklong stays in the backyard because they fought when inside the house together. Halebopp becomes a victim of a neighborhood boy’s abuse, having to have surgery to repair injury. This, Kousen writes, is when his seventh-grade science teacher, Ms. Stacie Kreitman, brings Halebopp to her classroom.
“I was a seventh-grader at Kilmer Middle School. I was in Ms. Kreitman’s science class and she had a lot of animals around the classroom — fish, hamsters, hermit crabs and a rabbit. She introduced us to them,” said Kousen, who is now in his freshman year at the College of William and Mary. “I went to the back [of the room] and saw Halebopp and thought he was really cute. I asked my mom if I could take him home.”
Kreitman had told students they could take animals home over weekends and school breaks so that the animals did not sit in the classroom alone during those times.
Kousen said his mother was reluctant to allow Halebopp to visit. The family had never had pets because Kousen’s father and little sister were allergic to dog and cat fur.
“She told me it would be for just one weekend,” Kousen said of his mother’s OK to bring Halebopp home the first time. By winter holiday, the rabbit was a beloved and regular weekend guest at the Kousen house. He was also a particular favorite of Kousen’s mother.
“My mother really got attached to him. In fact, she would pack my lunch with carrots because she knew that I would see him at school and I could give him the carrots,” Kousen said. After winter break, the Kousens adopted Halebopp. He is now estimated to be more than ten years old and still lives happily in Dunn Loring.
The first telling of Halebopp’s story needed some revision, Jefferson English teacher Jennifer Seavey said.
“Nick decided to write a personal narrative about his relationship with his beloved bunny rabbit Halebopp. When I read it I thought it sounded like a typical ‘my pet’ story,” Seavey said. She suggested Kousen rewrite the story from Halebopp’s point of view rather than from his own. Seavey also suggested he read Richard Adams’ “Watership Down,” the story of a colony of rabbits living in south-central England whose habitat is destroyed. They must find a new home and establish new customs.
“Nick was very interesting because he wasn’t your typical humanities-oriented type,” Seavey said. “He was more likely to be found in the systems lab working with computers than pursuing a writing project.”
With a heavy focus on science, technology, engineering and math at Jefferson, the region’s governor’s school for STEM, it is unusual for students to have time for creative arts, Seavey said. She added that Kousen’s story resonated with her and because of this she introduced him to fellow student Acacia Dai, the book’s illustrator.
“There are about 16 illustrations in the book and it took me about two years,” Dai said. “I looked at a bunch of children’s books and looked at the layout and format and how one page is kind of text and one is the picture…”
Dai said Seavey helped steer the book partners toward deadlines and enlisted the help of fellow teacher Bettie Stegall to aid the students in getting their book published.
“We would work on it once a week during lunch time and they’d bring their lunches in and work on it,” Stegall said, adding that lunch periods at Jefferson are 45 minutes long and the pair visited for about two years. Now retired, Stegall — a creative writing teacher who also oversaw the school’s yearbook publishing — helped about 50 students self-publish books during her more than 20 years at the school. She said most of these books were poetry or a collection of essays and stories. Kousen and Dai’s book on Halebopp was the first with illustrations.
Setting a goal to be published, Stegall said of her students, “was a way to get them to really own their work and make it the best that they can do.”
The book is dedicated to Kreitman, with special thanks to Stegall and Seavey.
“My friends have been really excited about this,” Dai said. “I’ve been giving [copies of the book] out as gifts to teachers… The story is kind of about learning to trust again. I think that’s what makes it very likeable. This rabbit had a very bad experience with people but began to trust again.”
The book was published on Feb. 7, said Dai and became available on Amazon Kindle Feb. 15.
“I’m most excited [the book] has gotten to this stage,” Kousen said. “It’s amazing how far it’s come in five years… I certainly hope it gets more publicity.” Kousen said he would love to be walking through a bookstore one day and see his book on a shelf.
“I certainly hope this boosts awareness [of animal abuse and bullying],” he said, adding that with the Easter holiday around the corner, the book could serve as a reminder that bunnies are not cute gifts to be awarded on holidays; they are animals that need care and love.