Bonnie Lady Lee stood behind a table adorned with numerous stuffed animals and colorful children's books, reading to a crowd of roughly two dozen children and parents from Jiménez Elementary School.
Seated on benches in front of her table, families grew more and more transfixed with every rhyme and turn of page. For 10 minutes Thursday night, Lee transported her listeners out of Santa Maria and into the forests of mainland China, where Little Gift, a young panda, learned how to make popcorn.
"Ready for another?" she asked the crowd after reaching the end of her story. Though few spoke up, many sat wide-eyed and eager to hear what came next.
For the last nine years, Lee, a former Tesla Motors patent agent, has traveled the state and U.S. as a children's author and illustrator. Now a Nipomo resident, Lee was one of more than 400 children, parents and community volunteers gathered in the gym as part of the school's Family Literacy Night.
Featuring crafts, games, numerous book giveaways and multiple reading stations, Jiménez Principal Richard Ruiz said the event, planned in conjunction with the national Read Across America awareness program, provided parents and students with a positive, community-oriented activity.
"The purpose of tonight's event is not just to promote literacy but to cultivate a school culture and community for our parents," he said. "We're all about literacy. We want kids not only to learn how to read but we also want them to enjoy to read and find the love of reading."
Lee, who regularly reads to children and families, said she was not just there to read but to teach children life lessons and about the world around them.
"All the books are educational stories that teach a valuable life lesson without hitting you over the head with them," Lee explained. Geared toward toddlers to children as old as 7, her books and illustrations teach the values of friendship ("Oliver the Octopus"), trying new foods when you're a picky eater ("The Down Under Salad Bowl") and the values of self-importance and not giving up on yourself ("Go Go Sadie").
In addition to reinforcing lessons, Lee's books feature a wide variety of exotic and endangered animals as a way to stress the importance of conservation.
"They're good champions to educate children about where they're from and what their diet is," she said. "If you don't get to see them at the zoo, you may not get to see them in the wild."
Patricia Velasco said she and her daughter, Natalia, 9, enjoyed Thursday night's event.
"You had a good mix of authors and teachers reading stories to the students," she said. "Events like this are important in promoting literacy and reading to children. They model it to students and encourage them to keep reading."