Last summer I had the honor of being accepted into the National Writing Project – in the world of education this is big. How big: it is where Kelly Gallagher started his publishing career. When I interviewed for the program, I discussed how students aren’t reading longer books – how they hold books and parade them in front of people, how they skim through the book, how some read every third chapter, but they don’t read the entire book. For some students, they don’t even do that because the size of the book intimidates them, and as a result, they never pick the book up from the shelf. If we want to build readers, we need to publish shorter books. At that interview I was told if accepted, my personal writing project would be to write that shorter YA novel. Hence the character of Pearl came alive. Before the end of the school year I talked to my students and garnered ideas from them. I also overheard a conversation between two of my eighth grade students who wandered back into my classroom after they finished their end of the year standardized test. The boy openly said in front of me that he is breaking up with his seventh grade girlfriend because she is pressuring him into having sex and he is not ready. I felt proud of him for his decision. I also asked permission to paraphrase their conversation in my writing project. They happily agreed.
I want to backtrack to when I was in sixth grade and read one of my to this day favorite books: Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die. Years ago, I ordered that book for my classroom. I reread it, but as an adult thought I wouldn’t think it was as good. I was wrong, I still cried, I still felt all the emotions, and still thought, “Wow, what a great book.” A Summer to Die has a word count of 33,916. Every student who has read that book in my classroom wants to reread it, has cried, and wanted nothing more than to talk to me about it. That is a sign of a good book. Lowry’s later book, The Giver, also a fantastic read, has 43,139 words. These are the word lengths more authors need to achieve to create readers out of students who would never otherwise read. Yet, it is more than that, teenagers are just that – they are teenagers. As such, no matter how much they act like or want to be an adult, they are not. Their minds are not fully developed to have the attention span to read and comprehend completely the longer novels. It isn’t about wanting instant gratification, but about normal development.
Of course, I also know adults who have told me they don’t read because they don’t have time to invest in such a long story – some of those adults are probably struggling readers and some really may just have time constraints as busy parents while maintaining a full time job.
This past spring I may have been blackballed in the publishing industry. I had a fight with an agent/editor- I won’t give her name or the house name. I met her at a conference after I paid extra to pitch my story idea. As soon as I sat down she asked me where I graduated and my word count. She immediately began to dismiss me. She never read a word I wrote or listened to my pitch. She explained that YA novels have to be 100,000 word count or longer to be published and that nothing shorter would ever be considered by any agent. I explained my reason for it being shorter, I even mentioned how Sharon Draper has a couple of shorter YA novels that are very successful. She had no idea who Sharon Draper is. I didn’t know how to respond to that. Tears of a Tiger is 25,523 words and the next book in Draper’s Hazelwood trilogy, Forged by Fire, is 33,164 words. I have not had one student who has not liked those books. I have had students reread them over and over again. These are students who will never pick up a longer book.
Yet, I get the misconception of editors and agents thinking longer is the way to go. They are thinking of that sweet spot of book length and cost of production, something I understand as a former high school yearbook advisor. They are also thinking of themselves and how reading, I am assuming, was something they loved and enjoyed as a child. They most likely were not struggling readers or passive readers, instead they were the ones who read every single word and felt emerged in the story and didn’t care if it was 20,000 words or 400,000 words.
That was also me. Around the same time I read A Summer to Die, I read The Stand by Stephen King, a book of 465,974 words. I read every single word. When I finished the book, I reread parts of it. I was eleven, I am now forty-eight and can still close my eyes and visualize scenes from that book. I also refused to watch the movie version because I didn’t want it to interfere with the visuals my mind created while I read the book.
The publishing industry needs to send agents and editors to schools and have them talk to adolescent readers, not just the advanced readers, but the reluctant and struggling readers. I feel that we need to publish not just diverse books, but shorter lengths to help build the reading muscles of the reluctant reader to help create lifelong readers. By only publishing 100,000 + word counts for MG and YA readers, the publishing industry is inadvertently dumbing down America by stopping kids from reading lengths they are not ready to handle.
The advanced readers will read anything, any length, any genre, any level – we won’t lose advanced readers by publishing shorter YA novels. Those advanced readers are also usually the busy ones, the ones taking honor courses, the ones working part time jobs, the ones involved in tons of extra-curricular, and they need shorter YA novels to escape into another world without the time constraints of a longer book. Keep in mind though that reading the entire full length novel of more than 60 , 100, or even 450 thousand words doesn’t necessarily mean that the adolescent or middle school student can comprehend the story.
I want my book, “The Chocolatier’s Daughter” to be that book. One that enters the world of teenagers, a school sports star who falls from grace, and has to navigate a new world while figuring out who to trust.
I’m not finished and I want to visit this new world my main character, Pearl, has to navigate. I teach in a state that is 49th in teacher salary while living in a Washington D.C. cost of living. I don’t have the funds to travel there on my own. On the last morning of the 32nd annual Children’s Literature Conference this summer, I saw a notification for a grant from the International Literacy Association. The requirement, besides being a member, is that the intended literacy project has to be outside the USA. Perfect, I could do an evaluation, transcription, and awareness project in the country I want to send Pearl to in “The Chocolatier’s Daughter.” The catch, the grant had to be snail mailed and post marked that very same day. Every time I received a grant, I wrote and then revised numerous times. That writing process helped me receive over $20,000 for my classrooms over the years. That writing process also helped me be accepted into The National Writing Project, and it awarded me a Japan Fulbright and Honeywell Educator Space Academy spot. Without the time to revise, I’m not confident I will receive the ILA grant, but it won’t stop me from hoping.
Why do I want it, because if I am going to write about a place, I would like to experience it. This concept brings me back to that conversation between my two former eight grade students and that spring conference. I also paid to have a section of my Pearl story critiqued. I sent the pages in advance and then met with the editor. Her first comment to me was that I need to take an adolescent development course because I obviously don’t know anything about teenagers. She explained that her college required publishing students to take that course and it helped her so much with editing and her own writing. She then explained that ninth grade students would never have this conversation and that it is a conversation, instead, that twenty somethings would have. She was referring to the conversation that I paraphrased from those eighth graders. I never used the word sex in my paraphrase, instead I inferred.
I did wonder how she could be so naive to the struggles of adolescents. I also wondered how she would have handled that school day, my third year of full time teaching, when one of my students wrapped her arms around me and cried on my shoulders. She was a senior girl who just discovered her boyfriend was doing cocaine and hiring prostitutes. I wondered about this editor, what would that moment have done to her? I didn’t tell her, I didn’t ask her, instead I thanked her for her advise and walked away.
Now as a teacher consultant for the National Writing Project, I received notification about the New Orleans Writing Marathon. How could I refuse? I drove to save money on a plane ticket and spent that time listening to the unabridged version of Moby Dick via my audible app and my car stereo. Moby Dick, as was told to be by one of the other NOWM attendees was the Discovery Channel of the time. I have to agree. However, I would never teach the unabridged version, I would only teach one of the abridged versions floating around in the publishing world.
Some of the pieces I wrote at the conference are on the New Orleans tab above. I explored the city by walking around and even taking some paid tours. I stopped at a street vendor fortune teller and had my palm read, I treated myself to a good haircut at Diversions Salon, and even bought a local jazz record and David Gilmour record at a vinyl shop. I am feeling a bit guilty about the last one, because after he rang up the price of the albums and told me the amount, I handed my debit card to him, and I got a discount I didn’t deserve. He started the transaction, looked at my card, looked at me, then voided the sale, re-rang it up, and informed me I get a fifty percent discount. It was because my bank is with USAA, but I’m not the military in my family – I think he assumed I was.
The fortune teller told me I am extremely funny, but only a few people know that. I disagree because I have had a lot of students over the past two decades and they all know my silly side. She also said I struggle financially because money just isn’t coming in (ain’t that the truth), but that I will be very wealthy. Since I don’t plan on leaving teaching, and I don’t have a rich relative who will leave me money in a will, maybe that means I will have an agent see potential in my writing. Or maybe it just means she makes that statement to all her clients.
Below are just a couple photos from New Orleans and more from a walk along the C&O. These are untouched photos.