Writers are used to doing presentations or writer’s workshops at various schools.  Usually it’s a one-to-one experience. Let me tell you, as one of our three-year-old nieces says: more is better!

In November, 2009, four authors—Robie Harris, Elizabeth Levy, Fatima Shaik and Susan Kuklin—went to The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School of Science and Technology in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, to do a series of writer’s workshop with some of the students. The plan was: make a book!

This trip was part of a program set up by Fatima and PEN’s Children/Young Adult Committee after Hurricane Katrina. The committee adopted the school, sent them a children’s library, and arranged author’s visits (Read more about the St. Joseph’s Library relocation here). Our plan was extravagant, to say the least. We four would visit the school together, each taking a class from different grades, to produce a student-authored hard cover book.  

One of the most exciting things to come out of this writing project was working together—a lot. It began with several face-to-face meetings, always over food, where we came up with a theme and title of the book—Story Is Us! 

Once we had that, individual themes came easily for each chapter we wanted to do with our kids. These themes reflected each of our writing genres, as well as the appropriate age level of each classroom. Picking up on the title of the book, Fatima, who writes YA novels, chose the theme and title, The Journey Is Me!, for her six, seventh, and eight grade honor students. Liz, who writes mysteries, chose The Mystery Is Me! for her fourth graders. Susan, who writes the first person dialogue to go with photographs for her books about dance, chose The Dance Is Me! for her third graders. And Robie, who writes picture books about early childhood, choose I Am Me! for her first graders. We each came up with a plan:

Robie says: My goal for the first graders, after two full days of working with them in small groups, was to have each child complete their work and experience the pride that comes with writing and illustrating a story—be it one or six lines long—to be part of their class picture book—I Am Me! My biggest concern was how to structure the children’s work-time, so that they would have ample time to work on and complete their stories within time we spent together. The first morning, the children met with me in small groups and then wrote their first drafts, full of misspellings and crossed-out words, which as I told them was “exactly what my first drafts looked like—a mess!” That afternoon, they illustrated their work. The next morning, they “cleaned up” their first drafts, wrote their final drafts, making any changes they wanted to make. That afternoon, they read their work out loud to themselves and decided whether or not they wanted to make any more last changes. Some did. Others didn’t. And all completed their work! We ended the day with Mr. Nick taking author/illustrator photos. Then off we went to the book party to celebrate the children’s completion of their book, along with the other three classes who were part of Story Is Us!

Susan says: My plan was to make a photo essay about dance with my third grade class. When I arrived, the students had already been put into four groups of four or five, and had chosen the dance that best represented them and their community:  the Second Line, the Macerana, the Jerk, and the Hokey Pokey. We talked about what journalistic elements needed to be included in the written part of their essays. I photographed each group while the others clapped and sang for their dancing friends. When it was time to put the words to the images, the students got busy choosing just the right words to express their feelings. They went through many drafts.

There were quite a few eureka moments, such as learning that they could use inconsistent adjectives to express their feelings: happy, embarrassed, proud, silly.  We worked hard! We laughed a lot.

Liz says: When I met the fourth graders and Mr. Recasner, we all talked about how much we loved stories and mysteries. Not just books, but daydreaming when things get tough or we can’t sleep. As writers, we are in control. We can make our story turn out the way we want it to, which we can’t always do in real life. We watched the video of President Obama’s recent visit to the MLK School.

Then we played “what if?” What if President Obama came back to the MLK School disguised as Mr. Recasner? (After all they are both good looking.) What would the clues be? I don’t think either the children or I realized how long and hard we were working. The two days flew by, and we would never have gotten it down if Mr. Recasner’s students were not so much better on the “Smart Board” and on the computer than I am. But we did get it done—including revising it with more vivid language and making sure that the whole story knit together. Then back in New York, our gang of four—Susan, Fatima, Robie and I, went about pulling the four books together. Somehow we got it done too! And it truly is the story of US.

Fatima says: Before beginning the project with the MLK Honor Students, their teacher Burnell Stallworth and I discussed the goals for our project—to reflect on the student’s current literature, on their lives and to offer them an approach to writing. We brainstormed some of the questions the students and I could consider and the ways literature puts a character with a conflict into a specific time and place. We also wanted students to think about their future. I decided to challenge them by placing their character in New Orleans a decade from now. The students broke into groups that represented the story’s beginning, middle and end. Each group used worksheets to develop characters and plot. They shared their ideas and handed me their papers and the end of the day. I edited it into a cohesive whole with suggestions on parts that needed to be rethought and re-edited—which we did on day two. The students wrote to make the character’s actions consistent with the plot and smooth out her movement from place to place. Then we took pictures and wrote authors’ bios—of their lives in the future. These first steps to publication began their journeys as writers.

We ended our school visit in full New Orleans style with a giant book party in the gym. There was food and music to celebrate Story Is Us! 

When we returned home with our students’ materials we realized that work had just begun. Each chapter had its own unique, authentic, individual voice. Words and images unmistakably reflected the children’s different ages and stages as well as the author’s genre. Somehow we had to put this all together. We spent hours and hours thinking about just how to do that. We sent endless emails back and forth. How could we marry our four diverse styles?

Van Gogh and Cezanne liked to paint together. Although they saw the same vista, their own vision and talent led to totally different canvases. Little did we know how hard it was going to be to put our four chapters together. We didn’t cut off our ears, but we came close. But we did it! We are so proud of Story is Us!, and so proud of our wonderful authors from the Martin Luther King, Jr., Charter School of Science and Technology.