March 22

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The Lost Things Club by J.S. Puller

When it came to writing THE LOST THINGS CLUB, I did a lot of the work backwards.  Many authors tell you that when they get an idea for a book, they go on to do a lot of research about the setting, events, or history before sitting down to write.  It’s logical and it’s how we teach students to approach writing; in a clear, linear fashion.  In my case though, the research came first, long before I ever imagined writing a book dealing with a school shooting.  Now, THE LOST THINGS CLUB isn’t a book about a school shooting.  Rather, it takes place in the specific context of the fallout from one, months after any kind of violence, as the characters are working through their grief and trauma.  But they’re still ordinary kids.  Hilarious kids.  Kids who argue over pizza toppings (my vote is with Michelle; pineapple forever!) and rely on Wikipedia for life’s answers.  And they create sock puppets to inhabit an imaginary world.  A world that seemingly has nothing at all to do with a school shooting, although they discover it’s deeply connected to what they’ve been through.

The very notion of a school shooting didn’t come into my world until late in life.  The worst fear I had to conquer during my days as a student was the terror that accompanied not getting cast in the school musical or getting a B-minus on my history test.  So what was the catalyst for thinking about such a horrific event?  No surprise here: Twitter.

In my work as a communications specialist at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago Consortium), one of my primary duties is monitoring news media and social media to see if anyone is using our research.  As an unfortunate side-effect of this responsibility, any time there’s a school shooting anywhere in the country, I’m inevitably the first person in the office to know about it.  And in the nine and a half years I’ve been with the UChicago Consortium, I’ve been that first person to know a lot.

It doesn’t get easier.

I can still describe, in intimate detail, the day that I learned about the Sandy Hook shootings in Newton, Connecticut.  I devoted almost the entire day to reading news and updates.  But a school shooting doesn’t end when the day is over.  The ramifications of it ripple out into the space of months or years.  Even lifetimes.  I clicked on every link I saw in those days and months that followed.  I needed to keep reading.  I needed to try to make sense out of what happened. 

Obviously, I couldn’t.  No one could.

But maybe we’re not supposed to make sense out of it.  Maybe it’s the human inclination, instead, to find hope out of it.  For me, the path to hope started years later, when I was working as a research assistant on a project examining arts education and its impact on student development, titled “Arts Education and Social-Emotional Learning Outcomes Among K-12 Students: Developing a Theory of Action.”  A teaching artist we interviewed for the project told us the story about a student with elective mutism, who was unable to speak until he participated in a simple theatre game.  Something about performing unlocked a piece of him, allowing him to talk, to find his voice.  It left his classroom teacher in shock, close to tears.

As hyperbolic as it sounds, without that interview, there would have been no book.  Something in that story awakened the hope in me that I’d been searching for.  And it led to the creation of TJ, one of the main characters of THE LOST THINGS CLUB.  Although TJ is completely fictional, his experiences are grounded in twin realities.  First, the reality that a school shooting can cause incredible harm to a child’s psyche.  And the equally powerful reality that there is a life after surviving.  There are a number of ways a child can bridge the gap between those two, but one of them is the make-believe of theatre.  For the student in the research, it was reciting lines.  For TJ, it’s a sock puppet named Sir Staples the Brave.

Armed with the research I’d already done, I started writing.  Believe it or not, the whole first draft was done in less than a week, as part of a National Novel Writing Month attempt!  The fact of the matter was that I already knew my characters.  I’d already learned what I needed to know about them; where they were starting and how they would end.  So the words just flowed, fiction and reality effortlessly braiding together in a story that I hope leaves readers feeling joyous, rather than heartbroken.  THE LOST THINGS CLUB is not a story about a school shooting.  It’s meant to be a story about hope, survival, and the power of imagination.

J. S. Puller is a playwright and author of Captain Superlative and The Lost Things Club. She is an award-winning member of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education and has done research on the social-emotional benefits of arts education with the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. J.S. lives in Chicago. She invites you to visit her at pullerwrites.wordpress.com, on Facebook @puller.writes, and on Twitter @pullerwrites.