One of my projects this fall, extending through the winter and into next spring, has been serving as a long-distance thesis adviser for a student in the Graduate Program in Children's Literature at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. I taught in that program for a blissful summer in 2014 and will teach there again for what is sure to be another blissful summer in 2017. The student whose creative project I'm currently advising was a beloved member of the small class on "chapter book" writing that I taught at Hollins two years ago.
Amy's thesis involves writing two different picture-book biographies as well as extensively revising the charming chapter book she began in my class. I was delighted when she asked me to work with her again. Over the past few months we've devoured a huge heap of picture-book biographies and analyzed them together (via phone); I've also read through several drafts of Amy's two biographies and her 12,000-word chapter book and made suggestions for revision.
It's a joy to advise such a super-smart, super-motivated student. It's also a lot of work, not something that one takes on lightly. But I have found that whenever I do a project like this one, just out of love, I get back not only the joy of the project itself but other unexpected gifts.
This time the first gift I got was inspiration to work on a picture-book biography of my own, returning to an idea that came to me several years ago on which I had done precisely nothing. I won't share the idea yet, because it's still a bit too new for public announcement , but it had the potential to grow into something lovely - provided, of course, that I actually sat myself down to research and then write the actual book.Thanks to my entering on this picture-book biography journey with Amy, this is what I finished doing last month.
That was unexpected gift number one.
Unexpected gift number two arrived this morning. I had shared my manuscript with some writing friends for their feedback and received some encouragement, but I had the uneasy feeling that some things were just plain not working in the text as written. The friends who offered comments are terrific writers, but without experience specifically in picture-book biographies. Oh, well, maybe the text was fine as it was. But something about it still seemed off.
Amy knew I was working on a picture-book bio of my own and asked to read it. I felt shy letting her see my flawed manuscript because, frankly, her two books-in-progress are in my view considerably stronger than my own, and it seemed a sad state of affairs for the teacher to be SO much less advanced than the student. But Amy truly seemed to want a peek at what I was working on, so I made myself send it off for her comments, trembling with trepidation.
I read her critique an hour ago. It's brilliant. It's insightful. It gently locates every spot that needs more attention with fabulous thoughts for how to revise the book to its full potential. Fixing the manuscript is now going to be a piece of - scrumptiously delicious - cake.
So I got not one but TWO unexpected gifts from this labor-of-love.
I now know to expect unexpected gifts. I never know in advance the exact form they will take: that's why they are unexpected gifts. But I know they will come in one form or another, unknown blessings already on their way, for which I will be forever grateful.