Nurturing Young Novelists
Success with Stony Point Elementary School's Writing Program
By Tammar Stein
Christopher Paolini was 15 years old when he began writing "Eragon," a tale about a teenaged boy, a dragon, and an evil king they must face in battle. By the time Paolini was 19, "Eragon" was a New York Times bestseller and was optioned as a major motion picture. Fox Entertainment called it the next Star Wars Trilogy. At Stony Point Elementary there are classrooms of youngsters getting an early start on their own books.
While the vast majority of writers do not find such success in the publishing world so early in their careers, most agree that they began scribbling down stories and plays from a young age, entertaining their family and friends and learning from their mistakes.
My writing career began when I was 13. I would write plays and then corral neighborhood kids to act out the roles. We'd give a performance after two weeks of rehearsal and by the time I was fourteen, we made the local paper. The pleasure that I got from those early writing experiences inspired me to take a creative writing class in college. I was nineteen years old when I wrote a short story about Maya, a homesick Israeli solider at an American college. After I showed it to my mother, she not only shared it with her friends, but she also kept asking me about Maya. Her interest led me to keep exploring the character. How did Maya end up in the States? Why was she so skittish and lonely? I kept writing to answer those questions. Each answer posed two or three new questions about Maya. Five years later it became my first novel.
Paolini's parents not only encouraged him to read books and write his story, they believed in his writing to such an extent that they self-published his manuscript and arranged for him to visit 130 libraries, schools, and bookstores where he could promote his book. It was at one of those events that author Carl Hiaasen's stepson read the novel and urged his stepfather to show it to his editor at Knopf. The rest, as they write, is history.
You don't have to go to such dramatic lengths to support your budding novelist. Instead, if you sense an interest, encourage it by giving your child creative writing projects.
Many schools are catching on. At Stony Point Elementary School, creative writing has trickled into every part of the curriculum.
"We'd concentrated on reading for so long," says Literacy Specialist Donna DeGroat. "But we realized we needed to nail down writing."
The modest red-brick school, nestled in the rolling hills and farmland of Albemarle County, seems an unlikely center for curriculum pioneering, but its intense focus on writing and subsequent success in state Standards of Learning testing has drawn the notice of educators throughout the school division.
"We started concentrating on writing about 12 years ago, thinking that if children were skilled at writing then they would be skilled at learning and vice versa," DeGroat says.
The results have paid off.
"You don't hear a child say, 'I can't write' in this building," DeGroat says. "Last year we had a 97% pass rate and a 55% advance pass rate" for the SOL fifth-grade writing test.
"I can tell when children get to fifth grade if they've been with the program from the beginning," says fifth-grade Stony Point Elementary teacher Mindy Burke. "They have confidence in their thoughts, opinions, and ideas."
Students might arrive at their classroom to find a wooden treasure chest sitting on their teacher's desk or a sparkly "jewel" from a craft store on their table. They are then asked to write about the chest or the jewel.
"I ask questions like, 'How would you write about this?' 'How do you make it your own?' It's about writing what you know," says Burke.
Even though all the students write about the same objects, the resulting stories vary wildly. "Some children will launch into story-telling, others will describe the jewel in a poetic way. We let them explore, we let them own their writing," DeGroat says.
"We are committed to students finding and exploring their passions. Our primary concern is with helping children finding their voice... the rest follows," she adds.
Entering Janice May"s first grade class, visitors find a room full of children busily writing about a topic of their choice. They proudly share and read out loud when asked about them. Entries vary from a story about a pooping cat to a Discovery Channel-like discussion of clown fish. Most are accompanied by illustrations.
Each class at Stony Point Elementary produces a class book which is bound and displayed in the library. There are non-fiction books on China and Egypt, a cookbook made for children by children, historical fiction, and even a re-telling of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. At school auctions, parents often buy these class books for more than $100.
"Parents can get into fierce competition with each other for these books. And the children love to come to the library and look at the class books," Donna Degroat says. "Students who have been at the school since kindergarten can look at their books from past years."
If your child's school doesn't focus on creative writing to this extent, don't despair. There's a lot parents can do to encourage writing. Many children, especially younger school-age kids, need parameters for their imagination to shine. Often, giving them a dramatic first line will start them on a story-telling journey. Lines such as: "Lydia had been having a very bad day. She didn't think it could get any worse, but then the teacher announced..." Or: "It was a perfectly ordinary day. Very ordinary, unless, that is, you noticed that..." You can invent lines or scenarios to appeal specifically to your child; older siblings can get involved and make up these story starters, too. Presenting an intriguing object and asking questions is another good way to get those creative juices flowing.
At PBSKids.org there is a special section called "Stop and Go" where characters such as Arthur or Maya begin a story with a question and let the children finish it. Those with writer's block may choose to have another character help them out by providing three descriptive choices. Using familiar literary characters helps kids feel comfortable with their subject and able to imagine how they would react in certain situations.
For older children who are inventing characters, encourage them to write their characters' histories. Knowing about a hero's or a villain's siblings, favorite colors, hated foods, and childhood memories can enrich a story even if the details never make it into the plot. It's about getting to know their creation, imagining their full lives, and seeing their characters as people with complicated lives. Remind your young author of the value of editing and re-writes. Accepting constructive criticism is a difficult but important skill to develop. There is hardly a single novel in print that was published as a first draft.
Discuss with your child what makes a good story. Ask them to give an example of a bad story. Often you can learn more from "bad writing" than you can from prize-winning fiction because you can see mistakes and how they affect the narrative. Are the characters not believable? Does the ending feel fake? Ask your child what they would have done differently or have them rewrite the chapter or ending as they would have liked it. Teaching your child to look at individual elements of a story is a valuable critical thinking tool.
At Stony Point Elementary, each school year begins with sample writings of actual students who have since graduated. There are no names on the manuscripts, but seeing real examples of exceptional, high, middle, and low levels of writing helps students understand what makes a good story and what doesn't.
Reading examples also assists students with the mechanics of writing. "Before they start writing, I ask the students, 'What do we need to remember in our writing?'" says Mindy Burke. The answer, the students at Stony Point call out, is COPS: Capitalization, Organization, Punctuation, and Spelling. Without COPS, others will not be able to read their work, and their storyline will get lost. "Seeing actual student papers helps them understand what they need to do."
Encourage your child to read. Great writers are prolific readers. "We teach our kids to read as if they are writers and to write as if they are readers," DeGroat says. "To be a good writer you need to be a good observer." Few people experience such early and dramatic success as Christopher Paolini, but encouraging your child to write from a young age will nurture creativity and discipline which will help them throughout their lives.
Tammar graduated from CHS and UVa. She is the author of "Light Years", an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. Her second novel, "High Dive", is due out next year.