WORTHINGTON — In a matter of months, a local college instructor may be able to add "award-winning author" to his resume.
Daniel Bernstrom is an English instructor at the Worthington campus of Minnesota West Community & Technical College, usually teaching classes like Composition I and II, Introduction to Film and Developmental Writing. He loves working with the diverse student body and getting to know his students.
As a side hobby, he writes children's books, and his latest was named a finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards earlier this week.
"Big Papa and the Time Machine" came out last February. It tells the story of a young boy and his grandfather who travel back in time to observe significant events in the grandfather's life.
This book is different from Bernstrom's others because it pays homage to his own "papa."
Bernstrom wasn't able to meet his biological grandfather until he was an adult, and once the two connected, they were fast friends. Bernstrom recalled spending many hours driving around Chicago with his newfound family member, listening to his papa tell stories about his life.
Later, Bernstrom called him and asked to hear some of the stories again, this time writing them down. These tales became the foundation for "Big Papa and the Time Machine." The events in the book papa's life are the same stories Bernstrom heard from his real-life papa, but they are shared through a fictional lens.
Bernstrom describes his book as "very much an American story" in which the grandfather has worked hard to make a better life for his descendants, and the future generations build on that heritage.
"Big Papa and the Time Machine" is also unique because the characters speak to each other in African-American vernacular English, a rare feature in a children's book.
The reason for this choice is that Bernstrom's papa spoke that way.
"I wanted to preserve his way of speaking," Bernstrom said.
He's aware that using Black vernacular in his book might seem strange given what he does for a living.
"If I could gift you opportunity, it's the English language," Bernstrom tells his students, emphasizing that knowing standard American English opens up doors for everyone who lives in this country.
However, many Black Americans speak in vernacular while they're at home with their families. Non-standard dialects are "beautiful little treasures" and should be celebrated, Bernstrom said.
Writing in vernacular was a difficult task because he wanted to get it right, but he also wanted readers to be able to say the words without stumbling.
In the year since "Big Papa and the Time Machine" came out, Bernstrom said he's gotten many questions from white readers about whether or not they should pronounce the words as written. He tells them yes.
"Wouldn't it be fun if your Black students told you you're saying it wrong?" he asks teachers. "If you feel uncomfortable, then it's your opportunity to learn."
Throughout the story, Papa concludes each vignette by telling his grandson, "That's called bein' brave." While Bernstrom's grandfather didn't use those exact words, the stories reveal his lifelong bravery, the author said.
His papa lived through many hardships, but he did the hard things anyway, Bernstrom shared.
Bernstrom reflected on the timing of his book's publishing date — right before the COVID-19 pandemic, which introduced a new world of uncertainty, and shortly before the death of George Floyd. He could never have planned for such a coincidence, but Bernstrom hopes his book has been and will be a source of strength in scary times.
"How do you address the fear in the unknown? It's through love, taking time and storytelling," he said.
The book shows that standing up for oneself and taking emotional risks even when it's scary can make all the difference in a person's life.
"That's what Papa wanted me know," Bernstrom said. "People will judge you, and they'll watch you more closely.
"He wanted me to be kind and brave."
His own personal life has brought his grandfather's story full circle, Bernstrom said. During the Civil Rights era, his papa couldn't join a labor union and wasn't eligible for health insurance, just because of the color of his skin. Papa was the first in Bernstrom's ancestry to do a lot of things.
Now, Bernstrom has many more freedoms than his grandfather did, but he's still the first in some ways. In his professional career, he's always been the only Black person at his place of employment. If he wins a Minnesota Book Award, Bernstrom will be among the first African-Americans to do so.
The father of four shared that his own children love "Big Papa and the Time Machine" not just because it highlights their cultural heritage, but because it tells their own family stories. They particularly love the note at the back of the book where Bernstrom tells readers about his papa. There's a picture of the two of them, and Bernstrom's kids love to look at their great-grandfather's wide grin and know that he's theirs.
Bernstrom will find out in April if he was selected as the category winner for the Minnesota Book Awards. Three other children's books were also named as finalists, and Bernstrom knows two of the other authors. No matter who wins, he's happy to be a finalist and will be happy for the author that is chosen.