Monday, September 26, 2016

Learning from Fictional Child Writers

          Just as it can be inspirational for young writers to have a published author visit their classroom, it can be inspirational to read about child characters who love to write and who take seriously the development of their craft.

          My most recent middle-grade novel, Write This Down, stars Autumn Granger, a seventh-grade writer who is determined to impress her scornful older brother, Hunter, by achieving her dream of publication. She is taking a middle-school journalism class from a charismatic teacher. I put various bits of writing advice into the mouth of Ms. Archer and showed how Autumn responded to them in her own writing.

          In Chapter 4, as the class begins their study of the personal essay, Ms. Archer opens with the provocative statement: “A personal essay is not about you.” Instead, “people read personal essays to learn something about themselves.” A personal essay is more than a report of what happened to somebody; it’s also about its larger significance for a more universal audience –what that incident means. She then has the class do a free-write on the topic: “The worst – or best – gift you ever received.” Autumn comes up with her own list of best and worst gifts, finding herself grabbed by one that leads into a reflection on her troubled relationship with Hunter and the bond between siblings.

          This scene could be a jumping-off point for asking students to write their own list of best and worst gifts. Autumn thinks, as she begins her brainstorming: “Bad things are always good to write about.” Ask your students:  Is this true? If so, why is it true? Might it be because the heart of a strong story is some problem or conflict? Autumn writes about a best gift instead – but one that leads her into dark early childhood memories.

          As students work on their lists of “best gifts and worst gifts,” encourage them to do more than simply think about what a disappointment it was to receive, say, an electric toothbrush (as Autumn received one year from her dentist father), or joy to get a coveted video game. What does the best or worst gift say about the relationship between giver and recipient? (When Autumn’s Aunt Liz gives her the same book three years in a row, what does this say about Aunt Liz?) Does a “worst” gift show indifference on the part of the giver? Or desire to send a not-so-subtle message about who the giver wants the recipient to be? Why might the same item be the best gift for one person but the worst gift for another? Why might what seemed to be a bad gift turn out to be a wonderful one, after all?

          Autumn learns that even a simple list of best gifts and worst gifts can lead to powerful personal reflections on the nature of families, love, heartbreak, and healing. Maybe this same exercise can lead your students there, too.

BIO: Claudia Mills is the author of over 50 books for young readers, including How Oliver Olson Changed the World (an ALA Notable Book of the Year) and The Trouble with Ants (which just received a starred review in Publishers Weekly), as well as the Franklin School Friends series of chapter books from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Claudia lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her family and her cat, Snickers. Visit

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