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Michigan State University

Shannon Cooper-Toma brings children to exciting destinations as co-author of the “Benson’s Adventure

The inspiration arrived swift and strong for Shannon Cooper-Toma, ’99 College of Social Science and ’00 College of Education.

Watching a large group of elementary school students from Michigan’s rural Shiawassee County marvel at Lake Michigan, Cooper-Toma noted their unrelenting enthusiasm. Some screamed in excitement. Many asked curious questions. A few of the students thought Cooper-Toma, their school principal, had brought them to the ocean.

“Many had never seen anything like this before and they were blown away,” Cooper-Toma said. 

That’s when Cooper-Toma and her colleague, kindergarten teacher Tracy Foster, looked at each other and said, “Let’s do something about this.”

That something became an ongoing string of trips with students and the three-book “Benson’s Adventures” series.

In producing the collection’s first two books, “Benson’s Adventures in Michigan” and “Benson’s Seasonal Adventures in Michigan,” Cooper-Toma and Foster covered some 13,000 miles across Michigan with different student groups, traveling to more than 40 locations to help students see beyond their immediate surroundings and bring learning to life. There was dog sledding at Nature’s Kennel in McMillan, a ride on Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry, a hike up the Silver Lake Sand Dunes and a visit to the DNR Outdoor Adventure Center in Detroit.

Book Cover Benson's Adventures in Michigan
Benson’s Seasonal Adventures in Michigan was written by co-authors
Tracy Foster and MSU alum Shannon Cooper-Toma

In the books, Benson, a colorful animated turtle, showcases these notable Michigan locales through postcards, fun facts and kid-friendly challenges. Occasionally, Benson even runs into a celebrity like MSU men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo.

“As Benson writes back to family and friends on postcards, kids learn that they can be the authors of their own adventures,” said Cooper-Toma, who has spent the last two decades in elementary education as both a classroom teacher and building principal.

For the third Benson’s book, “Benson’s Adventures in the U.S.A.,” Cooper-Toma and Foster traveled beyond Michigan’s borders. Powered by book sales and other external partnerships cultivated through the Benson’s Literacy Foundation, the co-authors led students to destinations such as Kennedy Space Center, Hollywood, downtown Chicago and national parks. 

“The best part is watching the children’s eyes light up when they see a skyscraper for the first time or encounter a NASA space shuttle,” Cooper-Toma said. “To see their little fires burning is something I will always treasure.” 

Beyond hoping to ignite an excitement for travel and learning, the Benson’s series also aims to help children discover the world of opportunities before them and to “DREAM BIG.” In fact, becoming a published author in 2016 with the first Benson’s book satisfied Cooper-Toma’s own daring aspiration from childhood.

“I always dreamed of being an author, but it seemed out of reach,” said Cooper-Toma, who, along with Foster, was honored by the Michigan legislature March 2 for contributions to children’s literature and celebrating Michigan. “To have my own dream come to fruition and show kids that you can have wild dreams that come true is a critical message for students to hear.”

While Cooper-Toma stops short of divulging Benson’s next adventure, she remains excited to “inspire children throughout the world.” 

“I’ll just say I’m excited about where the series is going,” she said through a grin.

Contributing Writer(s): Daniel P. Smith