Fact vs. Fiction: Portraying Middle-Grade Memories in a (Sort of) Truthful Light by Melissa Roske
When I set out to write my first middle-grade novel, Kat Greene Comes Clean, I knew Kat would be a fun-loving, cake-eating, Harriet the Spy-reading New Yorker whose mom has OCD. (I’m a fun-loving, cake-eating, Harriet the Spy-reading New Yorker whose dad has OCD.) I also knew she’d go to a fictionalized version of the ultra-progressive elementary school I attended as a child. Why? Because my alma mater, the City and Country School, in New York’s Greenwich Village, helped shape my identity as a writer—and as a person. It also provided a treasure trove of fabulous material. So fabulous, in fact, I figured the book could write itself.
Except it couldn’t.
Let me explain…
Founded by visionary educator Caroline Pratt in 1914, City and Country (“C&C”) is one of the oldest progressive schools in the country. It also has a colorful past. Jackson Pollack worked there briefly as a janitor; Pete Seeger taught music. Graduates include Eloise illustrator Hilary Knight (’40), novelist Eric Van Lustbader (’60), and my (not-so-secret) crush, actor Matthew Broderick (’76). Children call their teachers by their first names; they run the school post office, printing press, and store; and they don’t learn to read until second grade. And homework?
I’d like to say my parents sent me to C&C because they appreciated the value of a progressive-school education, but that wouldn’t be true. My parents sent me because my cousin Billy went there. And if it was good enough for Billy, it was good enough for me. So off to C&C I went.
It turns out I loved the school. Who wouldn’t? My classmates and I spent our days building imaginary cities with wooden Unit Blocks; learning ballroom dancing in PE (aka “Rhythms”); and singing Ernst Toch’s “Geographical Fugue” in music class (“Trinidad! And the big Mississippi and the town Honolulu and the lake Titicaca. The Popocatepetl is not in Canada…”). We even got to roast venison over an open fire at the C&C farm in Otis, Massachusetts. And best of all? I got to write poems and short stories whenever I wanted—even during math. Talk about a positive school experience!
Keeping this in mind, I wanted to do the school justice when I sat down to write. I also wanted to be respectful of my classmates, many with whom I’m still in touch—including my childhood best friend, China, the model for Kat’s BFF, Halle. Unfortunately, chronicling my memories proved harder than I thought. Sure, I had a wealth of material to draw from, but hewing too closely to the truth veered dangerously close to memoir, and making stuff up came off as farce. Even worse? Incidents that seemed hysterical at the time fell flatter than a pancake when I tired to write them down. The novel I thought could write itself…
Finally, I came up with a solution. I would stretch credulity to the limit, but I wouldn’t break it. Keep it real—but not too real. Yes, most American schoolchildren don’t get carried around on self-constructed “litters” during a study of ancient Egypt (see photo), but doesn’t mean the fictional Village Humanity kids couldn’t do something equally envelope-pushing, like put on a full-scale production of Harriet the Spy with reversed gender roles, or have “rap sessions” with the school psychologist. This felt fair to me and, I hoped, to the reader.
So, in my quest to keep it real(ish), I wrote down my most vivid C&C memories and sorted them into two piles: “Real” and “Too Real.” The Real pile contained basic facts, such as we didn’t get homework, tests or grades, and teachers were called by their first names. Also in the Real pile: the fact that my friend Clifton used to wear a white lab coat to class with a (real) stethoscope around his neck. In the book, Clifton has been transformed into Wilson Cheung-Levy, a wannabe physician who—you guessed it—wears a lab coat to class with a (real) stethoscope around his neck. I decided to take it a step further, though, and have Wilson carry a prescription pad in and offer medical advice to his classmates. Did I stretch credulity to the limit? Probably. Did I break it? I hope not.
The Too Real pile, unfortunately, was more of a challenge. How could I possibly write about the time one of my classmates brought in her mom’s collection of Viva magazines and didn’t get in trouble? Or how another threw a jar of red paint out the window to see if he could create “modern art”? Or when our heavily pregnant teacher was asked by one of her students to pin a scarlet letter A to her chest because she had “committed adultery”?
I couldn’t. Not everything in life needs to be shared, and memories are no exception.
When it comes down to it, mining memories for fiction can be trickier than walking a tightrope in Birkenstocks. But it can be done, as long as you’re willing to be a meticulous curator, get permission from your subjects, and—above all—keep it real.
Just not too real.
Melissa Roske is a New York-based writer of middle-grade fiction. Her debut novel, KAT GREENE COMES CLEAN, will be published by Charlesbridge on August 22. Find Melissa on her website, on Facebook, on Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.