Newbery Honor Author, New York Times Bestseller, Time Traveler
Lois Brandt was one of my first students when I was on the faculty at the now Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, about 6 or so years ago. I was so impressed by the deep passions she had for social justice and for making the world a better place (not a surprise she’s a former Peace Corps volunteer). Lois not only has a heart of gold, she has a pen of gold. And her first picture book, Maddi’s Fridge, is a testament to that writing talent. It’s an honor to host Lois today.
When you have a book coming out (Maddi’s Fridge) and a book launch to plan (6-8 pm September 4that University Bookstore, Bellevue, Washington), that’s what you are supposed to blog about. But that’s not what’s on my mind.
I’ve been thinking about a girl in one of my classes.
I normally teach creative writing to adults, but during the summer months I get to teach teens. I love adults, but teens bring a fresh wonder with them as they swoop into the classroom. I teach at a high level to challenge these young writers and my classes are intense.
A few weeks ago, a girl with both physical and intellectual disabilities came into my week-long class. The parents gave me no advanced notice. The girl, I’ll call her Ida, simply showed up.
I was a little upset. Why hadn’t her parents spoken to me? How could I teach this girl if I didn’t know her limits?
I flipped through my notes and waited for the last students to arrive. All I could do, I decided, was stick to my normal curriculum.
Ida followed right along during lectures and writing exercises on that first day. She took her turn speaking as each student discussed what they had written. When I had trouble understanding Ida, I leaned over her work and could tell from her writing what she was saying.
She apologized for her handwriting; I showed her my own illegible scribbles. We bonded.
On the second day of class, I always divide the students into groups to create characters. That night I wondered if I should change my curriculum. Would the other students be able to work with Ida if she were in their group? Should I partner with Ida to give her extra attention?
Since I really didn’t know how much of the curriculum Ida was understanding, I decided to treat her like any other student. The kids in Ida’s group surpassed my hopes, integrating Ida’s ideas and comments. She was an equal partner in the creation of that group’s impressive character.
The next day all students were required to turn in a short story draft. Ida sent me a summary of her story and some character sketches with nice detail, but she had not yet understood the idea of writing in scenes.
I decided to slow things down for Ida. We were talking about using images to convey the theme of the story. I guessed that Ida couldn’t follow the exercise, so I skipped over her when students were talking about the image in their story that represents their theme.
Ida’s hand shot up. “You forgot me,” she said. She explained that she had chosen her character’s hat. His mother had given it to him before she died. He kept it with him as a reminder always to do the right thing. Her theme: if you remember your moth
er, you will do good.
Ida nailed the exercise.
Later, as we were talking about scenes, Ida raised her hand. “I see the scenes in my head,” she said. “I want to learn to write them down. That’s why I’m here.”
All writers have scenes and characters crowding our heads. Truth be told, we’re all a little nuts. We write to get scenes out of our heads and give ourselves breathing room.
Ida’s comment pushed me past my own limited thinking. Ida was absolutely in the correct class. She was stretching and reaching towards her goal of writing stories. I was being an over-cautious idiot.
Since that class, I’ve been doing some serious self-assessment. What friends, acquaintances and family members am I holding back with my stereotypes and truncated expectations? What goals am I not reaching for in my own life?
I write for kids because these are the stories that open us up to hope. These are the stories that remind us to stretch and explore possibilities.
This past week I was working on a hunger quiz for my book launch and getting more depressed by the minute. How do you fight childhood hunger, a persistent problem that is harming the health and futures of 16 million American children?
Then I thought of Ida.
You do what Ida did. Reach for your goals and ignore limits. See how far you can stretch.
Years ago, Lois Brandt peeked into her best friend’s refrigerator and found empty shelves and one small carton of milk; the family didn’t have enough money to buy food. Maddi’s Fridge, Lois’s first picture book, is the result of that moment. When she is not working on her own projects, Lois teaches writers of all ages to tell the stories that are close to their hearts. Lois lives near Seattle, Washington, with her husband, assorted kids, two dogs, and a fluffy cat who thinks he’s a dog. You can visit Lois here.