Of Hamilton and Hoof stock: Why I Wrote a Middle Grade Novel as a Play by Erica Perl
(to the tune of Alexander Hamilton, from the Broadway musical, Hamilton)
How does a hairy, homely, world’s largest rodent and a pest,
who most of South America detests,
Be found today – hooray! – in a novel that’s a play?
And the kids want to read this way?
What’s this book, man?
This book’s The Capybara Conspiracy.
And it’s a play with parts for everyone.
Just you wait… just you wait….
Yes, there’s a reason I wrote my new middle grade novel as a play. You see, a little over two years ago, I was struggling with a book project. Okay, fine, I was totally stuck. I knew I wanted to write it from the vantage points of two boys and two girls who were drawn together by one extremely bad decision: kidnapping their school mascot, a capybara. So I experimented with shifting perspective. I tried third person. But no matter what I did, it didn’t feel right. Feeling frustrated and demoralized, I went out for a run. To fully distract myself, I turned on a podcast… which ended up changing everything.
The podcast was This American Life, episode 528: The Radio Drama episode. Act One was entitled Twenty-One Chump Street and in it Lin-Manuel Miranda turned a piece of reporting the radio show originally broadcast in 2012 into a 14-minute Broadway mini-musical, starring Broadway actors. Honestly, this segment took my breath away, and not just because I was running. When I got home, I watched the video of the show’s live performance, mesmerized. It was a $5 download: a bargain in the pre-Hamilton era, and even more so now.
All of a sudden, I was transported back to my own childhood, and I was flooded with memories of all the plays that had an impact on me. And not just plays that I saw, but books like Winnie the Pooh and Frog and Toad Are Friends, both of which went on to be dramatized because, duh, they read like plays in the best possible way! And scripts like Carl Reiner’s Boy Meets Girl in Free to Be You and Me, plus the inherently dramatic narratives of comics and graphic novels. And poems, too (like the Shel Silverstein poem, Ladies First!, also in Free to Be You and Me)! My inner theater kid made her dramatic entrance, brandishing a pen.
As I shifted from prose to dialog, I could almost hear the schluuuuurp of my novel coming unstuck. I hadn’t written a play in years, but I felt giddy about setting my characters free in this way. I was excited by the idea of kids reading scenes aloud, projecting themselves inside the narrative, and getting inspired to create their own works of theater. I included staging directions and a bibliography of other theatrical works for this age group. And I dedicated The Capybara Conspiracy to Lin-Manuel Miranda as a way of expressing my appreciation for the inspiration.
I can’t tell you what Lin-Manuel thinks of my tribute (it’s okay – I hear he’s kind of a busy guy). But if I ever get to meet him, I will tell him that the coolest part was what came next. I reached out to Tasara Redekopp, the school librarian at Alice Deal Middle School in Washington, DC, and we formed a Capybara Club to see if a bunch of middle school kids might enjoy using the play to study acting, staging, writing and playwriting. We planned to meet weekly for six weeks, but just this week the kids talked us into extending the club. That’s because now that the kids have learned what goes into reading and writing plays, they’re writing their own.
Erica S. Perl, Tasara Redekopp, and student members of the Capybara Club presented their work on October 16, 2016 at the School Library Journal Leadership Summit. Their slides can be found here.