Some (mostly) True Scenes from My Reading & Writing Life by Paul Acampora
“That’s my mother’s favorite book!” A small, sixth-grade girl in a brown and green Fighting Wood Ducks soccer jersey retrieved the paperback that had just tumbled out of my backpack. It was an advance copy of my novel, I Kill the Mockingbird. I’d been doing last last-minute revisions and repairs on it in between autumn writing workshops and classroom visits at a local middle school. The girl pointed to my name on the cover. “You wrote this! I can’t wait to tell my Mom!”
I took the book, and I couldn’t help noticing the girl’s hair. She had it pulled into a long, high ponytail like a lemon-blonde fountain perched on top of her head. I will use that hair on a character one day. “I wrote I Kill the Mockingbird,” I explained. “I bet your Mom’s favorite is To Kill a Mockingbird. That’s a different novel. It’s by a writer named Harper Lee. Her book is sort of a classic.”
My Fighting Wood Duck friend considered this. “Well,” she finally said, “your title is way better.” The opinion was offered without irony or sarcasm. “Also,” she added, “your cover is awesome. You’re a really good artist.”
“I can barely draw a stick figure. I just make the words.”
“Maybe you can take an art lesson?” the girl suggested. “Our art teacher is really good. The art room is in B wing. I bet she wouldn’t mind if you came to class sometimes.”
I shook my head. “That wouldn’t help.”
This Wood Duck was trying hard to say something nice to me, but I was thwarting her efforts. I really should just shut up in situations like these.
“I bet you make really good words,” she offered.
“I don’t even make those. They’re all in the dictionary. I just rearrange them until they look like a story.”
Really, I should just shut up.
She sighed. “You know what? Even if your book stinks, I bet you tried your best.”
Finally, something we could agree on. “Thanks.”
“I’m going to read it next summer.”
I held up my book. “This one?”
She shook her head. “No. The other one.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird.”
She nodded. “It’s on our summer reading list.”
I had to laugh. My novel follows three book-loving friends who, among other things, attempt to sabotage their summer reading list. Specifically, they embark on a plan of “literary terrorism” in order to thrust Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird into the public spotlight. Capers ensue. Chaos happens. They hope the attention will inspire more people than ever to read the classic. I was trying to write a teen/tween screwball comedy with a couple strong, quick-witted female leads (think 8th grade versions of Katherine Hepburn and Claudette Colbert), a long-suffering good man (think 14-year old Carey Grant if he was an African American, Dickens-loving, baseball-playing, honor student), a Connecticut setting (think, um, Connecticut), and lots and lots of books. In many ways, the novel is my love letter to books.
My Fighting Wood Duck pal would fit right in.
“My mom says I’m going to love that Lee Harper book.”
“Harper Lee,” I told her. “Lee Harper does picture books. He’s awesome, too.”
“Can I tell you something?” She didn’t wait for me to reply. “I’d rather read The Baby-sitters Club.”
“By Ann Martin?”
Her eyes went wide. “Do you know her?”
I shook my head. “No, but she wrote one of my very favorite books of all time. It’s called A Corner of the Universe. And if you like the Babysitter Club, you should check out Ann Martin’s Main Street books. Those are fantastic. She’s got a book called Belle Teal which is great too, and you know what? A Corner of the Universe and Belle Teal would be excellent books to read before To Kill a Mockingbird. Have you read those? Also, I think Ann Martin’s dog and my dog are cousins. They look exactly alike.”
The girl was staring at me now with her mouth dropped open.
“Sorry,” I said. “I get carried away when I talk about books.”
“You know Ann Martin’s dog?”
“Just from pictures.”
She pointed at my novel. “Shouldn’t To Kill a Mockingbird be your favorite book?”
“I have a lot of favorites.”
“Me too! I like Claudia and the Friendship Feud, Claudia Makes Up Her Mind, Claudia and the Recipe for Danger, Claudia Queen of the Seventh Grade, and especially Claudia and the Bad Joke.”
“You like Claudia?”
“They’re all Baby-sitters Club books.”
“My Mom just has the one book. Isn’t that sad? But she loves that book so much she wanted to name our dogs Scout and Attic. I could live with Scout, but Attic? A dog named Attic? Who writes a book about an attic?”
I was about to mention V.C. Andrews, but then I thought better of it. “It’s Atticus.”
“Is that Latin?” Again, she plowed forward before I could answer. “But tell me… what’s going to happen if I read To Kill a Mockingbird and I hate it?”
“You’ll still have The Baby-sitters Club.”
“But my Mom….”
“I’ll bet two Ann Martins, one Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and a Bridge to Terabithia that To Kill a Mockingbird was not your mom’s favorite book when she was in sixth grade.”
The Fighting Wood Duck grinned. “You’re probably right. She’s always telling me stories that aren’t one hundred percent true.”
“Adults do that.”
“We want to see if you’re listening.”
“Sometimes we just want to make you laugh.”
The Wood Duck’s smile grew even wider. “You know what?” she said. “That’s good enough for me.”
Paul Acampora is a avid reader, an enthusiastic dad, and a ferocious fan of being human. Paul lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania, with his wife and two kids. Paul is a frequent contributor to the Scholastic Storyworks magazine. I Kill the Mockingbird is his third novel for young readers. You can find him online at http://www.paulacampora.com/ and on Twitter as @.