FOURTH GRADE FOREVER
(or Why I Love Visiting Schools)
by Carol Weston
Once upon a time, long long ago, my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Gemunder, asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. We went around the room. "A policeman," said Timmy Latin. "An actress," said Pamela Kirk. "A football player," said Billy Hammer, on whom I had quite the crush. When it was my turn, I said, "A fourth grade teacher."
Everyone laughed, and I'm sure I turned pink. But I wasn't apple-polishing. I was telling the truth. Mrs. Gemunder had my dream job.
Although I became a writer, I admire teachers now more than ever, and in my Knopf series of kids' novels about a fourth grader and her globetrotting New York family, I made the mom character a teacher--an art teacher. In my imagination, I still spend lots of time in school.
I try to do this in real life too. Some schools call me. Equally often, I call librarians and principals hoping they will schedule an Author Visit. Secret: While I do my best to inspire students, they fire me up too. There's nothing more important than getting kids excited about reading and learning, and nothing more energizing than the curiosity and joy of children.
After all, a writer's life is quiet. Occasionally too quiet. It's a welcome change to look out at an auditorium of nine- or ten-year-olds and hear a singsong "Good Morning Mrs. Weston!" Unlike teachers, I don't think I have it in me to be cheerful and cogent (let alone fully-dressed) first thing every weekday morning. But I'm a good pinch-hitter.
Here's what I do at schools. I encourage kids to keep journals and tell them never to throw them out. I wave my first diary (age 8) and read these mistake-riddled sentences: "At school we learnd to write z and y in scripted. So now I've learnd every letter in scripted exept the letters bcefhklpqrst." I share a few pages of my current work, whether published or in progress. I show messy first drafts and explain that a huge part of writing is rewriting (this elicits approving nods from teachers). I pass around my books in Chinese (this gets a communal "oooooo" from kids). If the group is largely Hispanic, I tell them, en espa˝ol, how lucky they are to be growing up bilingual. I also show book covers that never made it and read a sample of my advice column in Girls' Life magazine. I even read rejection letters.
My favorite (though I did not feel this way at the time) arrived in 1999. "While we liked the tone," an editor wrote about my first children's novel, "we found the title a little too special for our market." I pause and look out at the crowd. "How many of you think it's good to be special?" Nervous laughter. I raise my hand high, they raise theirs, then I bellow the obvious: "It's good to be special!" To play fair, I always add that if kids want to become writers (or actors or musicians or anything), they will meet rejection along the way and will have to keep both improving their work and knocking on doors. (Writing is a good life, but a hard way to make a living--though some writers make a killing!) I do tell kids that a great editor is like a great teacher--writers learn a lot from them.
The best part of every school visit? The Q and A. Students ask how I stay brave after rejection letters (not easy), how long it takes to write a book (depends--figuring them out can take a while), what I'm scared of (bees and driving), who helps me (family, friends, editors), if I have special pens (no, but I have special coffee mugs), if I have pets (a kitty cat), if I have kids (two daughters), if they read my work (over and over, bless them!), if I dedicate books to them (sometimes), and invariably, why the girl on the cover of my novels has such a giant head.
I explain that I'm in charge of the book's insides--Marci Roth is in charge of its jacket--and I don't really know why Melanie has such a giant head. I also tell them of the bookstore owner who said a girl was looking for a particular book but didnÝt know its title or author. The girl did however know that on its bright yellow cover was a kid with a giant head. The bookseller immediately handed her The Diary of Melanie Martin.
In the just-published fourth novel, Melanie in Manhattan, there's a scene in which my plucky diarist, now 11, is boogie boarding at Jones Beach. Suddenly, omg!!!, she bumps into Principal Gemunder--in a bikini! (Yes, I "promoted" my former teacher.) Melanie, utterly traumatized, jumps up so she won't accidentally find out if the principal's belly button is an inny or outie. There's only so much info a kid can take!
Will I read that passage aloud at a school? Doubt it. Even though I love kids and teachers, I'm still a little afraid of principals--though I'm way too old to get a detention.
School visits are not for everybody. But for many of us authors and artists, they are a win-win. They are also fun--for school children and for inner children. In fact, I've come to realize why my inner child is so happy during Author Visits. For better and worse, she never made it to middle school; she loves fourth grade!
Carol Weston's books for kids, preteen, teens, include Melanie in Manhattan, Girltalk and For Girls Only. More at carolweston.com.