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For the love of learning
Retired Roseville teacher publishes fifth book
They say that the first rule of writing is to write what you know. Barbara Grengs takes that rule to heart.
Grengs, a retired teacher, channels her 47 years in the classroom into her “Toby Martin Series” for middle-school students.
The books follow seventh grader Toby Martin and her best friend Freddy Galvin as they track down pet snatchers, hunt for hidden treasure and recover stolen State Fair signs.
Grengs got the idea for the series from reading the newspaper. “I was reading in the Parade section about a woman pet detective and I thought, ‘I bet a kid could do that.’”
She published her first book “Toby Martin: Pet Detective” in 2009 and has since published four more books. Her latest book, “Toby Martin: State Fair Security,” was released on Dec. 10.
Writing what she knows
Grengs began teaching in 1966. She taught in Hastings and St. Cloud before transferring to the Roseville School District in 1969. During her 44 years with the school district, she taught language arts to students in grades seven through 12. By the time she retired in 2013, she had taught at every secondary school in Roseville except Fairview Junior High.
“There were very few days that I didn’t look forward to going to school,” she said.
Much of her inspiration for the Toby Martin Series comes from her teaching experience.
“Most of what occurs in these books, school-based stuff, has happened to me in my career,” Grengs said.
Notable occurrences include a gender-bending prank Toby pulls on her teacher on the first day of school that a student once pulled on Grengs, as well as a threatening poem Toby finds that bears a strong resemblance to a “burn book” Grengs once encountered.
Forty-seven years in the classroom gives Grengs plenty of material for her books. But to capture the voice of her seventh-grade protagonists, one year stands out.
“I had a seventh grade class with 22 boys,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘Just relax, Barb. This is all research,’” she joked.
A labor of love
Aside from stories from the classroom, Grengs crafts her books with details from her life. Memories like Christmas mornings with her daughter and the names of her parents fill the pages of her books.
She writes her own memories into the books for her grandson, to whom the books are dedicated.
“I did the books for my grandson. I wanted to leave a legacy for him. I wanted him to have something that his grandmother made that he could hold on to,” she said.
She even gave him a small speaking role in the latest book.
Memories are not the only personal touch in Grengs’ books. Her friend, Judith Bergerson, created the front covers for all the Toby Martin Series. For the back cover and opening pages of her books, Grengs chose to feature reviews from her young readers. A number of Roseville readers who wrote reviews for her latest book even accompanied her to her book signing.
“For me, to see kids reading my books is the biggest thrill of all,” she said.
Sharing a lifelong passion
Part of Grengs’ inspiration for the series comes from her lifelong interest in mysteries. She remembers being fascinated by crime scene photos her father, a police officer, would bring home when she was a child. She enjoys classic mystery writers such Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though her favorite mysteries are more modern and include the Louise Penny murder mysteries and British series such as The Bletchley Circle and Sherlock.
“I love the observation, I love the thinking, the deductions and inductions, trying to figure things out and the mistakes you can make in your thinking,” she noted.
Grengs began sharing her interest in crime fiction with her students long before she started the Toby Martin Series.
In the 1990s, she created, developed and taught a course at Roseville Area High School called “Mysteries in Real Life and Fiction.” In addition to studying crime fiction, students created fake crime scenes for one another to solve, listened to lectures from law enforcement personnel and visited the morgue.
“It was edgy for the time period,” Grengs says.
The Toby Martin Series is appropriately less edgy for its middle-school audience. Still, Grengs does not hesitate to confront modern issues. Bullying, racism, homophobia and gender issues are some of the topics addressed in the books.
“There’s always lessons in the books about tolerance and honesty,” Grengs said.
A teacher’s work is never done
Grengs taught English for most of her life, so it’s only fitting that she uses the Toby Martin Series to teach.
“Each of the books teaches something in English,” she said.
The lessons come through Toby’s interactions with her teacher, Mrs. Trattles, who coaches Toby on everything from grammar usage and mechanics to how to write a short story. The books also feature vocabulary words at the end of each chapter.
“Every chapter has something in it that you can learn from,” Grengs says.
Grengs often used the books as an introduction on the first day of classes. She is considering developing a teachers’ guide for the books.
Grengs retired from teaching in 2013, but, as the Toby Martin Series shows, she’s not done teaching yet.
The Toby Martin books are available in e-book and paperback formats. They can be purchased online through Amazon, Barnes & Noble or through the publisher’s website www.writewordsinc.com.