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Kentucky by Heart: Author and storyteller Ben Woodard ‘lets himself go’ in his books for children


By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Ben Woodard developed good literary skills and a strong work ethic early in his young days growing up in Lexington, where he told neighborhood kids stories. Those attributes pretty much set a firm foundation for the success he has today as a successful children’s author and storyteller, with ten published books, many others in process, and occasionally is a speaker at elementary schools. He also acts as a writing mentor through the Carnegie Literacy Center, in Lexington. His wife, Lynda, has been a bookstore manager and supports his work in a big way.

Ben Woodard (Photo provided)

By his own admission, he was raised by women during World War II when his father joined America’s military forces. His mother and others did plenty to foster Ben’s reading interest and love of stories.

“I was born before he left,” said Ben. “He saw me once, and not again until I was two years old.” But when his father caught up with his son’s life after the war, he demanded that Ben be toughened up after the strong feminine influence. “He told me ‘you will go to college but I’m not paying for it.” Ben did go to college, graduating from the University of Kentucky. It took him ten years to finish, including a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy. In truth, the elder Woodard didn’t pay for his son’s education, and it took a string of part-time jobs for Ben to make it happen.

He worked with Lexington coroner Chester Hager, helping pick up dead bodies around town while living at Hager’s White Hall funeral building and coroner’s office. He also worked at a Top Value stamp store, along with “dozens of other little jobs all the way through college,” he said with a grin.

Before he began his later-life career as a published author, he used his college-trained skills as an engineer and marketing manager at places like Sylvania and Square D, but after realizing he had little liking for the widget-making corporate world, he sought a job of a more altruistic nature. In the late 1980s, he quit and went to work for Habitat for Humanity, in Lexington. “I became the first executive director in Lexington,” Ben said. “It was kind of a religious thing for me. I was raised in the Catholic Church, but by the time I got to college, I was an atheist,” also explaining that he had returned to the Church afterward, and sought a way to live out his faith through his work. “With Habitat, I would see some progress (in people I helped). People receiving the help to build their houses would be working aside us.”

Under his leadership, Habitat embarked upon a pioneer project—building fifteen houses in a one-week period. “Millard Fuller (founder of Habitat) came, too, and he took the idea all across the country. It hadn’t been done before.”

He later worked in eastern Kentucky with both Habitat and later for the World Vision organization. All told, his experiences in the working world enriched his preparation for writing children’s literature. That, and his quality time with his grandchildren.

With the prodding of those special grandkids in the early 2000s, Ben’s gifted talents surfaced. “I found I could make up stories right off the top of my head,” he said. One of the stories was about the dire consequences of overeating donuts, one that came to mind after he and a grandchild visited a donut shop after going to church together. The humorous account later turned into one of his most popular books, A Problem with Donuts, for ages four to eight.

Encouraged by the positive feedback from the Woodard brood, Ben volunteered as a storyteller at Lexington’s Booker T. Washington Elementary School. Again, he used his innate ability to tell an impromptu story. He did that monthly for about a year, and he started his presentations in this manner. “I’m going to tell you a story,” he explained to the students, “and you’re going to tell me what the story is about. I loved doing it.”

That’s the gist of how Ben Woodard reinvented himself as a communicator to the young through his compelling books. Some of the books are simply fun, but others are dramatic and may have an edginess, “with some morals in it, too,” he emphasized. In the third installment of the Shakertown Adventure Series, set around Harrodsburg in the 1920s, he brings the scourge of racism front and center. The novel is called The Staircase of Fire, a teen and young adult read. Though Ben grew up much later than the book setting, he noted that he saw examples of racism all-around him in his youth.

Karent Leet, who authored Civil War, Lexington, Kentucky with her son, Joshua, called Staircase “a powerful, exciting, meaningful book that tackles lasting issues for us all.”

Other books by Ben are: The Boy Who Flew with Eagles; Whispers of Trees; A Stairway to Danger; Steps into Darkness; Bubbles: Big Stink in Frog Pond; A Problem with Donuts; Tales for Kids; Stories from Ekron Elementary; and Mystery, Myth, and Mayhem: Short Stories for Mid-Grade Kids. He is a hit at venues like the Kentucky Book Fair or the occasional library or school presentations.

Marcia Thornton Jones, perhaps the most prolific children’s author in Kentucky, called Ben “a natural storyteller whose stories appear to kids of all ages. His characters and plots particularly resonate with boys looking for mysteries and adventures.”

Another respected children’s author, Evelyn Christensen, chimed in. “I’ve known Ben for more than ten years and have had the privilege of watching him grow and mature as an author,” she said. “He’s worked hard at his writing, attending conferences and workshops, participating in critique groups, and spending countless hours writing and rewriting.” She also mentioned that he has a “willingness to help other writers. . .(and) also loves kids. He loves not only to write for them, but also loves interacting with them. I can tell, when I watch Ben talking with kids about his books is that one of his goals in life is to help kids, especially boys, get excited about reading.”

As an author myself, I anxiously asked Ben about how his personal writing process. “I carry a Dictaphone,” he said, “and use it when I’m outdoors and hiking and a thought hits me. I learned to do that when I was working at Square D.”

He also sees the need to, simply, write a lot. “They say you’re not going to get good (as a writer) until you write a million words,” he said, prefacing his support for the “NaNOWriMo” method, which means writing a novel in a month’s time. “To do so, you have to let yourself go and write, and it doesn’t have to be good (during the process).”

To “let yourself go” with stories has worked out pretty well for Ben Woodard, and also for the thousands of readers who enjoy his work.

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steve-flairty

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)


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