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Visitor 'from the Black Lagoon' entertains Cayuga Heights pupils

You have to have a dream and you have to work very hard to make it come true.

That advice from Mike Thaler, author of the Black Lagoon children's book series, was the serious message in a rollicking morning assembly last week for third- through fifth-graders eager to join in the fun at Cayuga Heights Elementary School in Depew. And it was repeated at an afternoon assembly for students in kindergarten through the second grade, after poster-drawing and writing workshops.

Thaler and his wife, Patty, were greeted by an original song sung by third-graders.

"Singing treble, singing bass

And remembering to keep pitch

Singing in front of everyone

Kinda makes me itch!"

The eight-stanza song, penned by Cayuga Heights music teacher Kelly McCulloch, who accompanied the children on guitar, might have even pleased fictional music teacher Rhoda LaNote, one of the crazy cast of characters that inhabit Thaler's school-themed Black Lagoon series. Student scuttlebutt about these characters -- LaNote is rumored to stretch vocal chords with tweezers -- turns out in the end, of course, to be fiction.

In keeping with the day's spirit, cafeteria workers were dressed as pirates, perhaps reflecting "Walking the Plank to the Baptism Tank," from another series of Thaler's more than 200 books: Tales From the Back Pew.

After a quick quiz on some characters, Thaler -- clad in a bright yellow T-shirt, billed cap and athletic shoes -- offered to do a portrait of "the cutest kid in the room," which nearly all the kids claimed to be.

Fourth-grader Colin Coburn sat still, his back to the poster-sized paper, as Thaler sketched a caricature with big ears and feet, eliciting laughs and squeals from the audience.

Then the tables were turned as Thaler selected a student to draw him. Third-grader Khan Fzander Buhion drew a cartoonish sketch that captured the whimsy of Thaler's spirit.

Thaler, nicknamed "America's Riddle King," moved on to a riddle-writing lesson with his wife sketching illustrations. Using "pig" for the topic, he listed several words related to pig, such as ham, sty and snout.

"Now here's the secret step," said Thaler, striking through the first letter of ham. "Now what do you have? 'Am.' So you look in the dictionary for words starting with 'am,' like ambulance, amnesia and ammunition."

"Now you put the "h" back on the front of each of those words, and you create a question that gives the facts of the answer to the riddle. How do you get a pig to the hospital?"

"By 'hambulance!' " the students shouted as Thaler encouraged them to make up questions that used the other words in their answers.

His forthcoming book, "The Meatloaf Monster from the Black Lagoon," got a dramatized reading, with teachers and principal Michelle Kudla providing sound effects and fourth-grader Dylan Quigley delivering a big burp for the ending.

"Each of you can create a riddle book, give it a title and take it to your school library, and then you're an author," he said.

The interactive fun over, Thaler offered a message as he shared the story of "a girl your age who wanted to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics." In 2002, 16-year-old Sarah Hughes won the gold in figure skating.

"Every one of you should have a beautiful dream tucked away in your heart. Each one of you is special with a special gift," said Thaler. The three keys to achieving those dreams, he said, are: Believe in yourself, work hard, and don't give up.

"How many of you have dreams?" he asked before selecting two to share theirs. Fourth-grader Kailah Kraus wants to win the Olympic gold medal in swimming, and Jacob Freed wants to be an NHL superstar.

Tonya Bulas, the Cayuga Heights librarian who organized the daylong program, said Thaler's presentation "about ways of using imagination and being creative" is "fun and inspiring for the children."

The program was funded by the school's Parent Teacher Organization and Scholastic Book Fairs.

The Thalers, who live in Oregon, are winding up a two-week tour of schools in several states. Their last stop is a program Friday at Lakeshore Central's J.T. Waugh Elementary School in Angola.