As a Young Inklings and Hillview Author Author teacher, I have hosted thirty-one class parties over the last three years. I’ve heard nearly three hundred kids – Kindergarten through age fourteen – read their original stories out loud to an audience.
Each student created something unique, from her own imagination. This story – brand new to the world but very close to her heart – she shared with others, some of whom she did not know.
I usually ask the teenagers to list their fears the week before the reading. This takes a lot of paper. Fears about reading original work aloud include: “people won’t understand you, tripping up reading, being judged, being misunderstood, tripping up and other variations on what others may think.”
We discuss each of the fears. Unfortunately, these are rational fears. I never promise kids that these things will not happen. They might.
We can’t control what others think. We make mistakes.
I don’t tell students this, but I’ve seen worse things happen: accidents, tears or uncontrolled giggles. It’s scary to face your greatest fears while everyone is watching you.
So, why do it?
Well, the kids in my elementary classes will tell you its because they get a cookie afterward. At each party every kid gets a cookie. They know this from day one. Each student reads the story she has written aloud to an audience of other students and, if elementary kids, also parents – usually about 15 – 30 people. We talk a lot about this cookie for the nine weeks leading up to the party.
When we have writer’s block because we can’t come up with the exactly perfect thing to write, we talk about the cookie, and how many weeks it is until cookies. This might be a good time to go ahead write anything: it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be ready for when we have cookies together.
When we start to get scared about reading the story we have written out loud, we talk about how there will be cookies afterwards. No one will be thinking about us and whether our pants are zipped up, they will be thinking about when we have cookies together.
To be clear: these cookies are from Safeway.
Even though it’s all about the cookies, it’s not about the cookies at all.
It’s about the other part of the sentence: We will all have the cookies together.
It’s about faith. We need to know that all our effort, all our work will be valued by those around us. We need to know we matter. We need to be acknowledged. We will not be alone in the moment of our greatest vulnerability.
Promising friends and families cookies for that support seems like the least we can do. And, certainly, when kids are this courageous, they must know they we will be there for them at the end. When they face their fears – and they are substantial: rejection, judgment, and failure – we will be there.
And, we want to know everything will be OK on the other side.
The cookie is just our excuse.
And that’s just fine with me. These kids are brave enough as it is.
What is a soul? How much can people change? How can a person’s family be oblivious to his complete transformation?
These are questions Hillview seventh graders asked recently while reading Gene Luen Yang’s Printz-winning graphic novel American Born Chinese.
The novel was based on Yang’s experience growing up in the Bay Area. Tuesday, he spoke with the students about his novel. Once they heard about the origins of the three story lines in the book, their questions transformed.
They got personal.
Especially when they discovered that the character Jin Wang had a childhood similar to Yang’s. Did you grow up in the Bay Area? Did that really happen to you? Did someone really say that to you? Did you do something like that?
Yang’s honest answers helped these seventh graders understand how good fiction is created: from real experiences. Yang also shared the origins of the other complex story lines in American Born Chinese.
Yang shared the many iterations of the popular character The Monkey King. As a boy, he heard stories about The Monkey King practically nightly. Yang’s own Monkey King is shoeless; a difference based on his own childhood conversations with his mother – and important to the book.
The third story line – that of Chin Kee – raised the most questions as the students read the book. This character also originally caused the book’s exclusion from some bookstores. However, once Yang wrote an essay describing the origins of Chin Kee – and people had time to read through American Born Chinese – the novel came to be embraced. Chin Kee is an amalgamation of the stereotypes with which Yang was surrounded. As Yang told the seventh graders, “If you don’t accept your heritage, you end up becoming a stereotype.”
At the end of his presentation – and at the close of school – Yang was surrounded for more gracious Q & A and autograph signing. It didn’t hurt that his most recent books were Avatar.
The program, Author Author, was funded by a Jeanie Ritchie Grant from the Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation and sponsored by Hillview librarian Tracy Piombo. Kristin Aker Howell works for the Society of Young Inklings.