Student promotes literacy and education by writing about Native American art

Political Science junior, Annica Benning, sits at her desk in her home with her book in hand. Benning wrote a book on Native American art and culture based on her personal research. (Photo by Perla Farias) Political science junior Annica Benning sits at her desk in her home with her book in hand. Benning wrote a book on Native American art and culture based on her personal research. (Photo by Perla Farias)

Political science junior Annica Benning is working to increase education and literacy in schools by distributing her book, titled "Arizona: Nations and Art," to fourth graders across Arizona.

Benning, a student at Barrett, the Honors College, said she hopes to reach students who might drop out of school by inspiring them with a love of reading and learning.

"We have a lot of students in high school who are reading at a fifth-grade level, and because of that, we have a lot of students who are dropping out," Benning said. "Those students are the ones that come from low-income homes and go to schools with no books or schools with no libraries. I thought if we could catch them early on and inspire a love of reading, education and literacy, we could help end that process or at least push it back."

Benning began writing the book when she was 13 and worked on it for two years.

She said she was initially interested in Native American culture and art but was unable to find age-appropriate information on Arizona's Native American tribes.

"I remember I was driving to the Salt River Reservation and I was asking my dad, 'Do Native Americans live in tepees or do they live in houses?'" Benning said. "There were just so many misconceptions that I had and I wanted to educate myself on."

She had originally intended to donate her book to the Governor's Books for Kids program, which Janet Napolitano sponsored in order to give a book to every Arizona fourth grader.

Benning said she had the manuscript completed in time to enter it into the program, but it was discontinued when Napolitano left her position as governor.

"I was sort of stuck," Benning said. "I had already written the book and wanted to give it away. My intentions were never to do it for profit. I really had to scramble."

It was then that Benning and her mother, Adi Benning, decided to found Walnut Canyon Press, a nonprofit organization that would aid her in sharing her book with Arizona's fourth graders.

"It was just such a good lesson on civics for me ... because it really taught me that if you see a gap in your community, or you want to start a program you can do that by yourself," Benning said.

Walnut Canyon Press has received sponsorship from McDonalds, Wells Fargo, Peabody Energy and the Lovena Ohl Foundation — which works to aid Native American art and artists — to publish and distribute Benning's book to not only fourth grade students, but public libraries and U.S. embassies.

William Faust, president of the Lovena Ohl Foundation, has known Benning for five years and said he has really come to see her vision for the book.

"Annica has impressed me, of course," Faust said, "She is a smart young woman who has grown into a smart, soon to graduate college student."

Benning is currently working to create a series of books for kindergarten through 12th-grade students, which would cover a variety of topics from several authors.

She and Elizabeth Huntsman, daughter of the former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, are also working on writing a book geared to eighth graders about Jon Huntsman. The book will talk about civics and the roles of various elected and appointed officials.

Finance and marketing senior Jonathan Nauert, a close friend of Benning's, said she is driven by her passion for people and works to change the lives of children and those she serves.

"She is really passionate about people," Nauert said. "She really loves America and she wants to bring people together and lighten their lives."

Adi Benning, Benning's mom and co-founder of Walnut Canyon Press, said Benning's involvement has changed her family and her friends, not just herself.

"She had no idea how the world would change by doing what she meant to be a small project," Adi Benning said. "Consequently, our lives have changed. When someone steps out and really commits their heart and soul to making a difference, those people around them are brought into the frame."

Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @shelbygslade

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