Moon Shadow and the Magic of Author-Teacher-Student Collaboration by Erin Downing, Jason Lewis, and Lynn Flynn
Today’s Nerdy post is a joint essay from an author and two teachers about editorial collaboration. We wanted to share an example of how authors, teachers, and students can work together for mutual benefit. Our hope is that by writing this post, other authors and teachers might connect to create similar experiences for more student editors.
Erin Soderberg Downing, Author: Over the past fifteen years, I’ve published more than twenty-five novels. Each one of them has been challenging in some way or another, but Moon Shadow is the only book I’ve been truly tempted to throw away. After years of writing, rewriting, and revising, this story just never felt like it was going to work.
One of the questions I get most often when speaking with young (and older) writers is, what do you do when you get stuck? I have several strategies for combating “writer’s block” (that’s a subject for another post), but my favorite way to get un-stuck is to talk things out with someone. In the case of Moon Shadow, I talked things out with many someones. And after a lot of help and discussion, I finally found the right story. Even though it would have been easiest to abandon this book many years ago, I’m so glad I didn’t quit. But this book has taken me on quite a journey.
I originally wrote Moon Shadow as a young adult novel. I worked on the YA manuscript for several years, but something about the story never quite clicked. Eventually, I tossed the story aside and tried to move on to other projects. Yet the characters and the magical eclipse elements and the essence of this project refused to go away. So a few years ago, I pulled it out and tried to think about the book in a different way. After a lot of frustrating false starts, my agent and a few writer friends and I came up with the idea that I could try rewriting the novel for middle-grade readers. It suddenly seemed like such a simple, obvious idea that was a much better fit for me as a writer—why hadn’t I thought of this sooner?
So I embarked on a complete rewrite, developing a whole new story and rethinking the characters. And then there was another rewrite, and another, and…you get the idea. Many of the character elements and slivers of the original moon magic remained, but everything else about the book changed. After many bad drafts, I finally figured out the voice and heart and soon I was well on my way to a whole new book. But when I finished what was supposed to be the final, fully revised draft and sent it to my editor, I continued to worry that the book wasn’t quite there yet. Had I removed all traces of that old YA novel from the story? Did the magic make sense with this whole new plot? Did these characters feel like real seventh graders?
I knew it was time for more help, and this time I wanted a different kind of help—I wanted kid-eyes. So I turned to my friends on Twitter and asked if any teacher friends had a few 5th or 6th grade readers who might like to read a draft of my novel and weigh in as junior editors. Jason Lewis and Lynn Flynn immediately volunteered, and they both delivered a team of top-notch 5th and 6th grade readers who dove into a critical read with tremendous enthusiasm. I gave my readers a list of specific questions, and also asked for their overall feedback.
What I got back from my teacher-student reader teams was much more helpful than I could have hoped—their comments were very thorough and complemented my (pro) editor’s comments nicely. After our editorial discussions, I kept my junior readers informed through each step of the publishing process, so they could understand all the steps a book goes through—from early drafts to printed book. We all benefitted greatly from this experience, and so we wanted to share the process with others. I hope many other authors will have the opportunity to do something like this with one of their books—writing can be a lonely business filled with self-doubt and worry, but it sure helps knowing there is a team of teachers and students who have your back!
Here’s Jason and Lynn, along with two of my student editors, to share their take on this process—and explain how getting an inside look at the publishing process benefitted them:
Jason Lewis, Teacher: Joining Twitter several years ago has given my students and me so many incredible opportunities. We’ve had classroom visits, author and illustrator Skype sessions, thrown a book birthday for an author, received highly anticipated advanced copies of books, and we’ve “talked” with many authors and illustrators on social media. I am so fortunate and thankful to so many of these incredible authors and illustrators that have given my students and me these experiences. Erin is one of those incredible, rock-star authors who provided us with an incredible opportunity. Last year, she gave a couple of my students an amazing experience that I know they won’t soon forget. It started with a simple reply to a post on social media from Erin. She was working on a book and was looking for some input from some middle school-aged students. I immediately knew of a couple voracious readers who would love the challenge of reading Erin’s story-in-development and offering constructive criticism along the way.
A couple weeks passed and the story arrived. Not knowing what to expect, the three of us were excited to see a note from Erin along with the story, typed on computer paper. When I showed the manuscript to the class it really drove home to them that all authors start their stories the same way as they do in fifth grader. I remember one of my students remarking how thick the pile of paper was! The girls couldn’t wait to get started, but who was going to read the story first? After the order was determined, all three of us took turns reading Erin’s story, each filling up a small notebook full of feedback for Erin. Once we all had a chance to read the story, we met at lunch over a couple days to discuss the book and all the observations we had made. This was an amazing discussion. It was obvious from listening to the girls that they really liked the story and were invested in the process of providing Erin feedback. They had written down things they loved, questions they had, and even parts they thought were too mature for the intended audience. We organized all of our thinking and sent our thoughts to Erin. I was so proud listening to them discuss the book and compile their feedback for Erin.
Erin has kept us updated throughout the entire process. She emailed us last summer when there was a cover and a publishing date. She sent us a copy of the ARC that the girls were so excited to share with their friends and families. Unaware that they would be acknowledged as “junior editors” at the back of the book, their smiles lit up the room when they saw their names in the Acknowledgments. One of the best moments of this experience came when one of the girls came to visit me after rereading the story as an ARC. Reluctantly returning the book to me, she said, “I can’t believe Erin took so many of our ideas!” She then went on to list many of the changes. As I said earlier, I know this experience is one that my students won’t soon forget. I won’t forget it either. It’s one of the coolest ways that I have been able to connect my readers with authors. Watching the excitement on my students’ faces throughout this process is irreplaceable. We are highly anticipating the release of Moon Shadow.
Lynn Flynn, Teacher: After the Assistant to the Superintendent in my District, Dr. Danielle Gately, forwarded me Erin’s Twitter request, I immediately thought of three students I had the previous year. The girls and I got together during their lunch period to explore the task. Their response was overwhelming, as these students—Charlotte, Krittika, and Sophia—have made reading a part of their everyday lives. With such enthusiasm, they got to work. They planned how many pages of the manuscript they would read at a time and got together to discuss.
What made the biggest impression on them was that their student voices mattered to an author. Their thoughts and opinions counted and could have an impact on the direction of the book. We met a few times to discuss their thoughts and opinions. At the end, each of the girls sent Erin their thoughts, questions, critiques, and inquiries for the book. They were true student editors who had taken their “job” very seriously.
I had kept the Assistant to the Superintendent and the Superintendent, Dr. Elaine Kanas, apprised of our students’ work on the project. After the project was over, Dr. Kanas asked my students and I, along with Dr. Gately, to present at a Board of Education meeting sharing the process. Although the girls were nervous, they agreed. The girls presented before the Board of Education and community members. They spoke with eloquence, ease, grace, intelligence, and self-confidence. It was impressive to hear them speak from their hearts what it meant to them to do an editor’s job as a student. They shared their thought process, how important it was to them to help an author and how honored they were to be involved in this process from the beginning to end.
Every step along the way, Erin kept my students informed and involved. I will never forget them running down the hall to my classroom to share their excitement on seeing the final jacket cover for Moon Shadow. They thought it was the perfect end to a perfect project that taught them so much about their own gifts as thinkers, writers, and lifelong learners. Once again, the one thing I was reminded of during this process was, never underestimate the power of my students. Whatever challenge I place in front of them they meet and break through, creating new heights I thought might be unattainable. What a gift this project was not only for my students, but also for me, as it gave me an opportunity to work with them again on a different level—as teacher, as mentor, and as a friend.
Alexa, Student Editor: I truly enjoyed this experience! The most interesting part of this process was getting to know what it feels like to edit a book. This was interesting because I am always the one reading the book and not the one who helps edit the book. I learned so much and this experience has helped improve my writing and reading skills in a way I didn’t know was possible. This experience has also helped me appreciate books more than I had before because, even though I only gave feedback on the book, it was still a long process; I can only imagine what the process is like for authors. Lastly, this experience has given me positive thinking towards fantasy/realistic fiction books. Before I read this book, I never really liked fantasy books. After I read it, I learned that not all fantasy books include magical kingdoms and wizards, but just some diversity from the real world. I would absolutely love to do something like this again and I am grateful to have been able to have this experience!
Molly, Student Editor: This was a very fun experience and I had a lot of fun being part of it. From this project, I learned how to discuss and hold book talks, including talking about the parts we liked about the book and other parts that we thought should be fixed or removed. It was a challenge to stop every couple pages to take notes, when I am used to just reading away. Although that was a challenge, I enjoyed feeling like a real editor at 11 years old. Other things I really enjoyed were being part of the group talks and having the discussions about what parts we like and others we didn’t, debating over parts that some thought were needed while others did not. For the most part our lunch meetings contained many of those same discussions. Another benefit was being able to do it with my best friend who also loves to read. We could discuss in and out things that we loved and things that could be changed. From the discussions to just reading the book I really enjoyed this experience and hope to be able to do it again in the near future.
Erin Soderberg Downing’s new middle-grade novel MOON SHADOW is in stores today. She is also the author of both THE QUIRKS and PUPPY PIRATES series, as well as another series-in-development. She’s a proud member of the Nerdy Book Club, and is looking forward to her second visit to nErDcampMI this summer. More information about Erin’s books can be found at: www.erindowning.com and www.erinsoderberg.com or @erindowning on Twitter.
Jason Lewis (@jasontes5th) is a 5th grade teacher at Tyngsboro Elementary School in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts. Jason’s participation in the Nerdy Book Club has positively impacted the way he teaches and has introduced him to outstanding people he calls friends. When not reading, talking about books, or attending Nerdcamp in NNE, LI and MI, Jason can be found at the baseball field or basketball court with his boys or trying to tire out his one-year-old chocolate lab.
Lynn Flynn is a 5th grade teacher in the East Williston School District on Long Island, NY. She has been teaching for twenty-five years and teaches English, math, and science. She is a mother of three children and a grandmother of four grandchildren. She has attended the International Literacy Conference in both St Louis, Missouri, and Boston, Massachusetts, and has attended both EdCamp and Nerd Camp in NY.