Telling Stories with Imagery and Words by Melissa Dassori
The idea for my middle grade debut emerged from a lesson in my own fourth grade class. My teacher, whom I’ll call Ms. K, had a large collection of New Yorker magazine covers that she handed out as inspiration for creative writing assignments. Each cover was its own work of art—illustrated and free of text—and their subjects ranged from pastoral to provocative, with a solid dose of humor. I was a pretty big fan of school at the time with the exception of our long and laborious handwriting lessons, for which I lacked both talent and ambition. To this day, my handwriting is terrible. But Ms. K’s magazines really stuck with me. When I started to write for kids many years later, I decided to put a magical twist on the exercise. What would happen, I asked, if the stories my protagonist writes about fictional covers come true? That became the premise of J.R. Silver Writes Her World.
Next I needed a narrative arc to layer onto the magazines-come-to-life idea. I settled on themes I hoped would resonate with middle grade readers, particularly navigating changing friendships and struggling to express oneself, which can be challenging and even embarrassing, particularly at that age. The latter seemed to mesh seamlessly with the magazine assignments in which the cover art truly speaks to J.R., allowing her first to write things on paper that she can’t say out loud, and then gaining the confidence to speak her mind.
So what, then, would these inspirational magazines look like? I studied the New Yorker issues that arrive in my mailbox each week and paged through anthologies of old covers. From there I crafted fictionalized Gothamite magazines for J.R. and her classmates to write about. They touch on age-old themes like xenophobia, and new societal challenges, like addiction to our phones. They also had to be age-appropriate and fun—they show people going to the beach, riding roller coasters, and trick-or-treating, too. I was particularly lucky that my publisher embraced the visual thread in the story and found a wonderful artist, Chelen Écija, to draw interior illustrations. Chelen also brought her own humor to the project. As a former New Englander, one of my favorite images she came up with includes a Gothamite cover with a lobster waving a white flag from inside a pot.
Although I remember my New Yorker assignments fondly, I of course never conjured the magical results that J.R. can. That said, the book’s conceit requires a belief in the power of visual arts as a form of expression. I loved reading an essay last year by the art editor for The New Yorker in which she described teachers using recent covers to spark conversations about difficult subjects. Approaching a tough topic through an image can help break the ice and show us new perspectives on an issue, she explained. That happens in real life, and it happens to J.R.
J.R. Silver Writes Her World is, among other things, a celebration of creative teachers like Ms. K and the fictional Ms. Kline, who uses her own collection of Gothamite magazines to help J.R. find her voice. In the lead-up to publication, I wanted to find Ms. K to thank her. Without her New Yorker assignments, there would be no J.R. Silver. I feel so lucky to have been given an engaging school assignment at age nine that directly influenced my writing today.
Unfortunately, Ms. K was not easy to track down, but I connected with two of her colleagues who kindly located a mailing address in a new part of the country. So I picked out a card, wrote a heartfelt note, and sent it off.
Nothing came back, and I was crushed.
Months later, I spoke to a childhood friend who was unimpressed by the fact that I had given up so easily. He did his own search and came up with an email address for someone who seemed related to Ms. K. He encouraged me to send an email, but to me it felt pushy. What if the person was actually a stranger? Or what if Ms. K had received my note and chose not to respond? But my faithful friend prodded, I pondered, and eventually I wrote. Then, an email came back!
But here’s the thing. Ms. K had received my original note and remembered the New Yorker exercises (and me) fondly. She had, in fact, sent me an email, but she sent it to the wrong address—with that poorly-practiced handwriting of mine, what looked like an “n” was actually an “r.” Clearly, in addition to the inspiration I absorbed from Ms. K’s classroom, I should have paid a bit more attention to the mechanics. Alas, I learned a lot of things in school, some just took longer to sink in than others.
Melissa Dassori lives in New York City with her husband and three daughters, with whom she especially likes to enjoy books, travel, time outside and ice cream. Melissa’s middle grade debut, J.R. SILVER WRITES HER WORLD, will be published on July 19, 2022 by Christy Ottaviano Books/Little, Brown BYR. An assignment from her own fourth grade teacher inspired the story, although Melissa couldn’t conjure the same magical results that J.R. Silver can.