As September wanes, the new school year is in full swing. All of us at Read to Them hope that educators, students, and families have all had a great start back.
To celebrate new pencils, big yellow school buses, and noisy cafeterias, we are meeting at The Lamp-Post to discuss some soon-to-be classic school stories – Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord, Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan, and The Next Great Paulie Fink by Ali Benjamin.
For this month’s interview, Bruce and Sara sat down with Sarah Weeks to talk about the unique opportunities that school stories present when writing for middle grade readers, and why those 4th, 5th, and 6th grade readers are so fun to write for. Sarah also talks about the joy of collaborating with her co-writer, giving readers of Save Me a Seat a chance to live inside the experiences of two different boys in one book. Sarah also discusses the role of literature in helping kids practice empathy, and how reading aloud continues to be part of her life.
Here are some highlights:
Writing for readers on the cusp of middle school (2:16-3:21)
“I have a theory that people who write for kids have arrested development at whatever stage it is that they want to write about.”
“There is something very special about those 4th, 5th, and 6th graders where they’re right on the cusp of something new. I love them. I love writing for them.”
The importance of delivering the story with brevity, as learned from a Hemingway scholar (5:00-6:18)
“My dad was a fabulous storyteller. He knew how to deliver a punch line and he understood brevity… I grew up with this idea that, you tell a story, it’s gotta go ba-doomp, ba-doomp…bam!”
Reading aloud as a lifelong pursuit (6:33-8:13)
“I love reading aloud and being read aloud to.”
Sarah reads an excerpt to introduce Joe in Save Me a Seat (11:16-13:52)
The value of collaborating with Gita Varadarajan (14:37-20:40)
“In a word, the experience was life-changing.”
“That story came out of our very intimate conversations.”
And believe it or not: “Those two characters never speak to each other.”
Weaving the two characters’ stories together (21:19-24:23)
“A lot of it was like a puzzle.”
“I use a piece of blue grosgrain ribbon which I put on my floor and lay out the plot. So what I did was I just got two pieces of ribbon so there was Joe’s arc and then there was Ravi’s arc.”
Teachers doing creative activities whole reading Save Me a Seat together (38:27-39:36)
“All of that is part of the shared reading experience that I think can only happen if you are reading aloud in the classroom, if you are reading aloud to a group of kids so they’re all experiencing the same book at the same time.”
Writing about challenges that are unfamiliar to readers (53:33-56:47)
“I love to have a character who has a challenge that is quite visible from the outside, and then you get to see that that is really not what that person is all about.”
Adults learning from these books, too. (58:20-1:00:58)
Sarah shares an anecdote about a teacher learning that she has been saying a student’s name wrong, and the importance of trying to learn unfamiliar names.
“I don’t think you’re ever too old for a picture book, and I don’t think you are ever too old for a middle grade book either. … Read what your kids are reading.”