Monday, June 30, 2014

Chapter Books!

Today is the first day of the second week of classes here at Hollins. Last week was an unusually structured week, as my class that meets Mondays and Wednesdays 9-12 met instead on Wednesday and Friday, as Monday was devoted to all kinds of orientations: student, faculty, information technology, library, welcome reception. In the course of that first day, I got my new Hollins ID and lost it within the hour. I worried that if I dashed off to replace it right away (which I did), that would ensure it would show up ten minutes later, but it never has shown up, so I'm glad I scurried off to take care of it immediately. Later in the week I lost my office keys (subsequently found beneath the couch cushions in my now-much-cozier garret) and my reading glasses (feared to have been left behind in the laundry room but subsequently located in the outside compartment of my purse).

So my entry into the enchanted world of Hollins was not without its complications.

But also not without its rich rewards. I wrote FOUR (!) chapters of a work-in-progress with a looming deadline. I reconnected twice with my extremely dear friend Rachel, who worked with me decades ago at the University of Maryland (for evidence of how dear she is to me: there were twelve people at my wedding, and she was one of them). I attended two fascinating panels by alums on "Life After Hollins," both of which impressed upon me how well our graduates do in both creative and scholarly work after departing from us. I read three books. I walked for an hour and three-quarters at 6:15 every single morning except for Sunday, with two other fast-paced authors. I attended a welcome potluck at the beautiful Victorian home of our director Amanda, every square inch of it radiating creative joy and whimsy.

The heart of the week, however, was teaching the first two classes in my chapter book course, where I fell in love with my seven wonderful students. Kids often call any book a "chapter book" if it has chapters, including within this designation everything from easy-reader texts like Frog and Toad to lengthy middle-grade novels like The Secret Garden. In my class we're using this terminology in its more restricted sense from the world of publishing: chapter books are books for transitional readers aged roughly 7-9 (grades two to four), books that fall precisely in between the 1000-word text of easy readers and the 25,000+ words of middle-grade novels, books that have their own distinctive pace and structure. Think Junie B. Jones, Clementine, Alvin Ho, Amber Brown.  My own chapter books include 7 x 9 = Trouble, How Oliver Olson Changed the World, Mason Dixon: Pet Disasters, and most recently Kelsey Green. Reading Queen and Annika Riz, Math Whiz. Mine range in length from 10,000-15,000 words, though Knopf wanted me to make my Mason Dixon books considerably longer, at 25,000 words.

For my course, I decided to try something quite ridiculously demanding. I want my students not only to read and analyze exemplar texts, as well as read a heap of other recent samples of the form, but to write an entire chapter book manuscript of their own, from idea to first chapter to conclusion (plus plenty of revision, of course), all in six weeks. It just seemed to me that chapter books are all about structure: finding the right size-and-shape of story to fit in that precise format, with its distinctively peppy pacing. I didn't think students could see what it was like to write one until they had written all of (at least a rough draft) one.

On Friday we brainstormed ideas in class, many drawn from our own third grade memories. Their assignment: come on Monday with a detailed one-page synopsis of your proposed book. I had second thoughts Friday night. Several students had met with me at length one-on-one that afternoon, and I left thinking: They can't do this. It's too much. Right now, they ain't got nothin'! And the plan for the book is due in 48 hours!

The synopses trickled in over email yesterday afternoon and late into the night. I read them early this morning.

They're good, all of them.

Some are more promising than others, some are farther along than others, but they are all chapter-books-in-embryo, ready to be written. We discussed/critiqued them in class today, and their authors proved to be insightful and supportive critics of others' work as well. Then we spent the rest of the class studying the requirements for a successful first chapter. First chapters: due Wednesday!

So, it's sort of crazy, but it's sort of wonderful, too. The class seems excited that I have to write a chapter book of my own during this same time frame, and they asked if I'd bring in my chapters to share as well. I don't want to draw class attention away from their manuscripts, but I'm willing to let them take a few peeks at mine and offer their thoughts. After all, we're all in this together, committed to spending the next six weeks (well, five now), living, breathing, eating, sleeping, reading, and writing my favorite form of writing-for-children: chapter books!

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