Branford children's author wants fun novel to inspire kids to help save the salt marshes

BRANFORD — Former fifth grade teacher Kimberly Behre Kenna loves almost nothing better than to explore the salt marshes on the shoreline.

The new author wants to share her passion with kids in the middle grades through her adventurous 12-year-old alter ego in her first book, “Artemis Sparke and the Sound Seekers Brigade.”

Readers will meet Artemis, who doesn’t let her stutter get in the way of her mission — to save the salt marsh, which is threatened by encroaching development and careless humans.

Artemis is most comfortable around the birds, plants and mollusks, many of whom she has named, and who communicate with her in their unique ways.

Even fireflies are her friends. On a bike ride, “a flare of yellow-green light” catches her eye as the top of a bush glows “like a birthday cake with a billion candles,” Behre Kenna writes.

The author will introduce readers to this special world that Artemis inhabits at the Blackstone Memorial Library at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4.

At the event, participants may create “inspiration flags” similar to Tibetan prayer flags, and write or draw “ecological messages” with paint markers.

Behre Kenna, who grew up in Madison and has lived in Branford for 25 years, drew from her experiences and sense of wonder exploring the local marshes for the book.

“Artemis sort of came to me on a hike in the salt marsh,” Kenna recalled. “I started to think what if the salt marsh didn’t exist and it’s a place I love, a place many people love.

“She came to me with a speech impediment, a halting sort of voice. As a child I definitely struggled with voice myself,” she explained.

“I had trouble speaking up and sometimes didn’t speak at all,” she said, noting that she shared this with her class. “The kids I taught never would believe me when I said that but it’s true.”

Behre Kenna hoped some kids would relate to Artemis because of her trouble with speech.

“It made perfect sense,” she said. “Kids that age are all struggling with some aspect of voice…wanting to fit in, wanting to be heard and not feeling heard.”

And salt marshes are a “place for solace and adventure” for Behre Kenna, who grew up on the shoreline.

“So the beach and the shoreline and the salt marshes were always there for me,” she said.

This is Behre Kenna’s first book in a four-book “Brave Girls” series; she is already working on her second, “Jett Jamison and the Secret Storm” to publish Aug. 3.

The books in the Brave Girl collection, “all have to do with girls. Girls are the main character and they all have to do it with finding their voice.”

While the message is important, this novel is written with humor and wisdom, with a little magic sprinkled in.

Artemis is alarmed after seeing signs that her beloved salt marsh is in decline. She sees the expansion of an old waterfront hotel as an immediate threat to her sanctuary.

But there’s trouble. Artemis lives in the venerable inn with her mom, who works there as a housekeeper and wants her daughter to keep quiet. And, it’s not easy to convince her mother, as she is dating the cranky hotel owner, who has big plans for the old place.

The ghosts of long-dead environmental activists mysteriously appear to Artemis and offer crumbs of wisdom on how to get people on her side. She must even win over her reluctant best friend, who’d rather go on summer adventures riding his bike.

These visitations happen not only in the magical marsh, but as she explores forgotten old rooms and hallways in the oldest parts of the hotel.

It wasn’t just Behre Kenna’s own experiences in the salt marsh that gave her the idea for the book, but her students. She taught at New Haven’s Foote School and consulted at St, Martin De Porres Academy in New Haven in addition to teaching in East Haven.

She taught a Long Island Sound ecology unit to her fifth graders.

“I would take my students over here right in Branford to the Stony Creek salt marsh area and there were trails all around it,” she recalled. “So we would hang out there and use binoculars observe and write things in journals and count numbers of creatures.”

“It was really quite an interesting experience for me to see these just very hesitant, very quiet kids all of a sudden just come alive when they had binoculars. They were just astounded by what they saw,” she said.

“It was the other way too with the outgoing kids — brought to silence and awe by what they were seeing. So I was really moved by all that,” she added.

“When we got back to the classroom we talked about the problems the shoreline faces,” she said.

Behre Kenna left the classroom and went back to school for writing. She wanted to reach budding environmental activists.

As she was writing her first book, she realized that “You can’t be heavy handed with this subject of environmentalism or any subject with kids where you want to put a message across — you hope to heck it gets across.”

But her experience in the classroom working with kids and “having been wonderfully surprised by their potential and passion” spurred her on.

“I just knew if I put it out there in a way that was level and not heavy handed they would get it. I trust my audience and I’m very adverse to teaching down or writing down to children,” she said.

The writer got the idea to introduce famous environmentalists to her students, such as Rachel Carson and Roger Tory Peterson in the unit called, “Resurrecting Ghosts.”

“We would see how we thought the strategies they used back when might influence how we could work with problems today,” she explained.

“It was a great way to get across legacy and responsibility to future generations and the power of the single voice and the greater power of combined voices,” she said.

She hopes other teachers will use her series to talk about the environment.

“You can find the right book you can engage kids that way and they’ll learn something while they’re at it. To spur on discussion about subjects like environmentalism.”

She is also hopeful about the event at the Blackstone Library.

The inspiration flags will become part of a “community display” and through that, she hopes to make students aware of “artivism instead of activism.”

And this touches on what she aims to teach her fifth graders.

“One of the things I was stressing to my class in fifth grade,” she said, “You don’t have to be a scientist to be an environmental activist.

“There are people like Ansel Adams,” a photographer whose stunning black-and-white images of the American West are considered iconic.

“Through those photos he brought attention to nature and that’s integral to getting people to want to preserve and conserve,” she said.

And is Behre Kenna an activist?

“I would call myself an activist in that way…I will speak up for what I believe in.”

Kimberly Behre Kenna will share insights on her new book, “Artemis Sparke and the Sound Seekers Brigade” at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4, at Blackstone Library, 758 Main St. Also included will be hands-on activities and swag bags with fun and interesting take-ways. To pre-order the book, go to . Part of the proceeds goes to