Students in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at VCFA are asked to turn in an annotated bibliography each month. Mostly trade books for young readers, with a sprinkling of craft books and books not specifically intended for children. I ask my students to use that bibliography as an opportunity to read closely and thoughtfully and generously. I tell them to read books they might not otherwise have selected for themselves. To read several books published before the year they were born (thank you, Sarah Ellis). To read books published in countries other than their own. And when they read, I ask them to look for what makes a book work for them, or fail to do so. I tell them they must get beneath the surface of the text and try to examine its working parts. Which also means understanding their own reactions to a book–why do they like or dislike it? What part of that is the book’s doing and what part the reader’s background and feelings and experience?
My students sometime worry that this kind of close reading is going to ruin the magic of it for them. Secretly they worry that tinkering with their writing is also going to somehow kill its beating heart. Megan Abbott speaks of just this in her reflection on a youthful epiphany on reading Macbeth. Perhaps craft and magic are not two separate things, after all.
Photo courtesy of VCFA
And now, VCFA has launched this incredible new venture. Focusing on bringing diverse young readers and writers to the table, the initiative introduces diverse young minds to the magic of craft and the universe of reading and writing. This has not happened overnight. It’s taken hard work and persistence and collaboration between the college and our amazing graduates. It’s taken an enduring belief in the confluence of craft and magic.
One of the great delights of writing for the young is that they will sometimes write back to you. I was in Boston recently, thanks to the Wondermore Foundation. About a month after my visit, I received a large manila envelope filled with typed stories.
Teacher Lynn Barker at the Haggerty School in Cambridge had used my picture book, Chachaji’s Cup as a “mentor text,” she wrote. She’d read it with her class, stopping at a critical turning point of the story. She’d then asked her students to write their own endings.
I was enchanted. I understand completely the notion of the mentor text. I had many in my childhood, by writers who seemed as if they were writing every book just for me. I often closed them halfway and wrote my own endings, then went back to see if I’d gotten it “right.”
But here’s the thing. A lifetime has taught me that there may be no such thing as “right.” Story offers pathways. Each one you take is choice, for a particular reason, the product of your mind at that moment. The students’ stories were examples of all those many possible pathways my story could have taken.
Some of the young writers’ endings paralleled the one I’d chosen in my book. Others diverged wildly. Some went into the realm of fantasy. The old uncle died and returned as a ghost. There was tragedy and comedy and there was VOICE. In spades. Every single child had read the book with intensity and vision. Each writer had captured the drama of that single turning point and sent his or her own version soaring outward from there.
A footnote: The story of Chachaji’s Cup did diverge from the printed book, in quite another way, when it was turned into a musical production many years after its original publication. As for the talented young man who played the lead in that stage version–now there’s another story altogether. Raja Burrows–he had an exquisite voice and he brought my character to life. I still have demo audio files with a couple of songs from the musical.