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Children's Christmas book had its Staten Island genesis in an assignment by teacher Frank McCourt


Frank Donnelly

Staten Island Advance - Staten Island, NY


STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. --  A 30-year-old homework assignment could become the next classic in children's Christmas literature.

Anthony DeStefano, formerly of Castleton Corners, wrote "Little Star" in 1980, when he was a 15-year-old student in a creative writing class at Stuyvesant High School -- a class taught by Frank McCourt, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Even with two adult best sellers under his belt, it has taken DeStefano three decades to get his heartwarming book published. But he said it has been worth the wait.

"Little Star" tells the story of a tiny star that burns itself out providing light and warmth to the Baby Jesus on the night of the Nativity.

"I think it's the best thing I've ever done, even though it's a children's book," said DeStefano, 45, who sits on the board of directors of the New Dorp-based Priests for Life, the Catholic Church's largest pro-life ministry. "I really do believe there needs to be a movement to put Christ back in Christmas."

DeStefano, who now resides on Long Island, lived in Castleton Corners when he penned "Little Star."

The story was written for a novel assignment that McCourt, who later penned the acclaimed memoir "Angela's Ashes," gave his charges: Write a children's book.

Last year, DeStefano parlayed that success into a two-children's-book deal with WaterBrook Press.

Although he wrote 'Little Star' in high school, it took Anthony DeStefano nearly 30 years to get it published.

One title, "This Little Prayer of Mine," was published earlier this year. "Little Star," with illustrations by Mark Elliott, is out in time for the holidays.

In a YouTube video, crooner, one-time heartthrob and Christian activist Pat Boone proclaims that the book is destined to became a classic. Boone, now a grandfather, reads the story to a group of enthralled children.

DeStefano said his only regret is that McCourt didn't live to see "Little Star" published.

"He joked that he had to get 13-and-a-half percent royalties," said DeStefano.

But his old teacher's dictum to write clearly and in plain English guides his work to this day.

"You can load your stories with as much meaning as you want, but there's no need to make them obscure," he said.

DeStefano took away something else from McCourt those many years ago: An "A" for his story.

The task raised a few eyebrows; however, there was a method to the teacher's madness, DeStefano said. McCourt wanted his students to write simply and to the point, shunning fancy adjectives and bloated adverbs and reining in their tendency to overwrite.

McCourt, who died last year at age 78, began his teaching career at McKee High School in St. George before moving on to Stuyvesant.

Christmas cartoons were DeStefano's inspiration for the book.

He liked "A Charlie Brown Christmas" best -- the Charles M. Schulz chestnut in which the Peanuts gang searches for the true meaning of the season.

"I thought it would be nice to have a Christmas story that had all of the elements of those more secular cartoons, but at the same time, focused on the birth of Christ," said DeStefano yesterday in a telephone interview. "My goal was to try to encapsulate the whole Gospel message in a single Christmas story."

"Little Star" won a number of awards and the esteemed actress Helen Hayes read it during an Easter Seals event in Manhattan in 1981.

DeStefano tried for years to get it published.

While a number of publishers liked the story, they resisted it, deeming the ending too sad, DeStefano said.

But the author refused to budge.

"I didn't want to change it because I thought it was very Christ-like," he said of Little Star's sacrifice. "That would have taken away the message."

DeStefano's luck changed about seven years ago.

He succeeded in publishing two non-fiction adult books that became best sellers: "A Travel Guide to Heaven" and "Ten Prayers God Always Says Yes To."


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