November 27

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The Write Stuff: How to Turn Kids Who Aren’t Readers Into Writers by Katherine Marsh

It was a rainy September morning when I arrived at the small K-12 public school in rural Michigan. This visit was the culmination of a week-long author tour for my latest middle grade novel, Nowhere Boy, which had taken me to ten schools in three states. To say I was exhausted was an understatement; I was functioning by dint of coffee and the knowledge that I would be speaking to only a few small, English classes.

But any hope of finishing out my tour on auto-pilot evaporated when the English teacher whose classes I would be speaking to debriefed me on her students. “These are kids who don’t have books at home.” As she spoke, a picture emerged: Standardized test scores were below average. The school had a significant Native American population. Nearly half the students, I later learned, were eligible for free lunch. The teacher had assigned them to write a story and hoped I could talk to them about writing. The eighth grade filed in and slumped in their seats. One of the boys looked like Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High—except with facial hair.  

“Who wants to be a writer?” I asked.

None of them raised their hands.

I wondered if I could connect with them. But then I remembered who had first inspired me to be a writer.

My grandmother Natalia never finished primary school. Born in Ukraine, she never learned English very well either. As an immigrant, she cleaned houses then started a bar with my grandfather. In 1979, shortly before I turned five, my parents and I moved into her house in Yonkers, New York. She had a large TV in her room; the only books I ever saw there were the large-print Harlequins she took out of the local library. But she was a master storyteller. I spent many afternoons lying on her bed, enthralled by family lore and her tales of death, coincidence, superstition, tragedy, comedy, gore, love, and loss.  

“Does anyone have someone in their family who tells great stories?” I asked.

This time every hand went up. They spoke about grandmothers, uncles, even a little sister who “is always making up stories.” And that’s when I realized: the key to enabling all kids to imagine themselves as writers is to demystify what writers do. Even kids who don’t have books in their homes, who see the written word as intimidating, have people in their lives who tell stories. In many cases, like my own grandmother, these people are not educated or even readers themselves. But they use the same, age-old techniques of storytellers everywhere: They make you wonder what happens next. They create drama and conflict. They use gripping details.

I asked the kids if they liked movies, TV shows. They particularly liked horror shows. “Why?” I asked.

“Because you don’t know who’s going to die and how,” a girl explained.

“Suspense,” I said.

Stories don’t just belong to kids who’ve grown up with books. Kids from all backgrounds can find the elements of story around them: in TV shows, movies, video games (which are essentially quests). We just need to teach them to look for stories in more basic forms and in more familiar places. This includes their own lives. Their own conflicts and struggles can be reframed as material, the act of writing as a kind of alchemy that allows them to turn their most painful experiences into stories.

The writing, of course, is the hard part, especially for kids who aren’t readers. But just as we need to demystify stories, we need to demystify the writing process. Books are not always helpful in that regard. They give the illusion of emerging whole and fully formed. This is why I—and many other writers—show kids our rough drafts. The most important writing lesson is the one I myself have to stubbornly relearn every time I write a book: Even “good” writers start off as “bad” ones. Writing is what happens between the first draft and the last.

The same is true of teaching. Good teachers, like the one who told me who her students truly were so I could meet them where they were at, aren’t discouraged by raw material. The magic comes via process. At some point during that hour, I realized with a start that they were engaged, even Jeff Spicoli, who was raising his hand to contribute. My exhaustion had vanished; I simply felt grateful to be in a roomful of kids as they realized the value of the stories around them, including their own.

 

Katherine Marsh is the Edgar Award-winning author of The Night Tourist; The Twilight Prisoner; Jepp, Who Defied the Stars; The Doors by the Staircase and most recently, Nowhere Boy. Katherine grew up in New York and now lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and two children. If you would like to learn more about hosting Katherine for a school visit, please visit her website: https://katherinemarsh.com/events-visits/