By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Feb 23, 2016 at 9:04 AM

If the idea of a book written by third grade students conjures images of a cute little stapled set of photocopied sheets, "Explore MKE: Your Neighborhood, Our City," will rock your world.

Written by Adam Carr and illustrated by Anu Murthy, the book – a project of SHARP Literacy, which works, in its own words, "to provide elementary school students with an imaginative learning experience that builds confidence, self-esteem, and a greater awareness of the world" – was researched by and created with 123 students from five Milwaukee schools.

The book uses the story of two third-graders who become friends despite their differing backgrounds. Fact and details about Milwaukee – including landmarks, government, business and more – are interwoven into the book, which was professionally printed. Hopefully, the book will lead to greater understanding and appreciation of diversity, says SHARP President and CEO Lynda Kohler.

"In the story, we see Milwaukee through the eyes of two children who view it quite differently. Through these dissimilar perspectives, the story teaches students about Milwaukee’s diverse population, helps them gain a greater appreciation for cultural differences, and encourages an atmosphere of open-mindedness and acceptance."

We talked with Carr to find out how the book came to be and what the process was like for him and for his collaborators.

OnMilwaukee: How did the idea come about?

Adam Carr: In the summer of 2014, I spent a lot of time on Mitchell Street as part of my public art collaboration with Sonja Thomsen, "Listening to Mitchell." As we engaged and conversed with a huge variety of people on Mitchell Street, I found myself more and more impressed by how attentive, curious, and open children were. When they walked the street, they weren’t just getting from point A to point B – they could see all the amazing depth and texture in between, not to mention that they almost always saw our artworks that were scattered throughout the seven blocks of the thoroughfare. So, as that project was winding down, I knew I wanted to find a project with young people.

As kismet would have it, at the same time, SHARP was looking for an author to refresh their last book about Milwaukee, which they published in 2006. SHARP produces and publishes their own literacy materials, often tying their books to a topic that’s relevant in Milwaukee. The timing couldn’t have been better – they’d just wrapped a collaboration with MSOE Professor Michael Carrier to create an urban agriculture book named "There Grows The Neighborhood" and looking for an author that could bring an interesting spin to "Milwaukee."

During our first conversation, before they even finished describing the project, I knew I was in. In my professional and personal life, I’ve worked hard to embrace a panorama and kaleidoscope of our city and its many facets, and I thought this project would be a great one to continue with curious young Milwaukee minds.

How did the book come together?

Once we decided to officially collaborate, we immediately began planning what SHARP calls their Young Authors Workshop. The structure of the project was up to me, as long as it brought students into the research process. My goal from the outset was to challenge students to author their own version of Milwaukee and for each student participating in the project to create something that only they could have created.

We ended up selecting five of their collaborating schools for the project – BEAM Academy, Forest Home, Hmong American Peace Academy, Kluge, and St. Anthony’s. We were very intentional about including a mix of geographies, cultures and school types. Plus, I had some personal ties to the schools – I went to summer school in the building where BEAM is located, Forest Home and St. Anthony’s were both schools near Mitchell Street, and HAPA is in the old Morse Middle School building. In fact, the classroom I worked with was in the same room as my sixth grade homeroom, which was a thrill.

With the students, I gave them visual-heavy presentation, featuring photographs I’ve taken over the past few years – I have a mountain of them from Milwaukier-Than-Thou (project) – as well as photographs I was taking concurrently to the project. In particular, the students joined me on explorations of community starting close and telescoping out. So, our progression went – home, block, neighborhood, city. For each topic, they got an assignment that they took home to complete, and then shared what they found in the next session.

For each school’s block and neighborhood presentation, I tailored all the material to the school. So, I wandered around on the block around the school, taking photos and hunting down interesting details. For the neighborhood presentation, I researched and shared information about each school’s neighborhood. The response from the students was thrilling – seeing the neighborhoods and communities they recognized presented as something of significance, the students were often jumping out of their seats to say, "I know what that is!" or "I recognize that!"

At the end of the Young Authors Workshop, I wanted to get all the students together to share what they discovered about their own communities with each other, and also have a big celebration. It felt a little unfair that I had the pleasure and privilege of visiting all their classrooms, but they weren’t getting to engage with each other. So, with a lot of help from SHARP and their classroom teachers, we managed to get all the students together for the 2016 All-City Young Authors Summit at the U.S. Bank Center. The students were greeted by Mayor Barrett, Judge Derek Mosley, Megan McGee from Ex Fabula, and a police lieutenant (whose name slips my mind right now). Then, they were mixed up in small groups, where they read a prepared assignment to each other about their own home/block/neighborhood/city. Also, we went up to the top of the building in two big shifts, which was probably one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.

What do you think about the finished project?

I didn’t start writing the book until the Young Authors Workshop was totally completed. While the students’ work isn’t directly in the book, the experiences we had together throughout the YAW shaped every facet to my approach to producing the book. I tried to translate some of their insights, honesty and spirit of their curiosity into the text.

The two main characters are a perfect example of this.

Jayden and Anya reflect two prominent types of voices that I found in each school. There were some students who relished the opportunity to explore and learn about Milwaukee. For others, their experience of the city was harsh, and Milwaukee didn’t feel like an exciting, fun place. It took awhile for me to figure out how to ask the right questions, but eventually, we were able to connect and students shared some of the more difficult parts of their experience of the city. Those were some of the hardest, most poignant, most important moments of the project.

When I got to writing, I was determined not to sugar coat the city, but also not to focus solely on the challenges. I was hoping to take a more "asset based" approach to the whole project, but not at the expense of honesty. In truth, that duality drives the dialogue in my head on a daily basis, and it was also interesting to find those perspectives in five classrooms in Milwaukee schools. In the book’s narratives, and also its informational sections, I was hoping to capture that spirit without having to declare a winner between those two, often opposing voices.

Also, I love the way the book looks. I worked closely with the illustrator, a young artist and designer named Anu Murthy who is from the Milwaukee area but recently relocated to the Bay Area. I’m a big fan of hers and I love the way Milwaukee looks through her hand and eye.

I also was fortunate to work with Laci Coppins, who came on as SHARP’s VP of education midway through the project. She was basically my editor, and she was a huge contributor to the book.

Also, while I don’t consider myself a photographer, it was cool to see my photos in the book. I never imagined the Milwaukier-Than-Thou project would lead to published photos, but there they are.

What you hope it has and will achieve for the students and readers?

Milwaukee is a city with a rich history that is also constantly reinventing itself. These two things are not at odds, but sometimes we seem to posture like they are.

Ultimately, I’d hope that students and readers can learn what I learned from the students I worked with throughout the YAW – how to let go of our more childish tendencies while embracing a childlike curiosity.

Purchase "Explore MKE: Your Neighborhood, Our City" from Sharp Literacy or Amazon for $19.99 for hardcover or $14.99 for paperback.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.