Writers are often asked where they get ideas. I was thinking about this the other day and I realized my house is too quiet. For me, ideas come when I’m surrounded by sounds and images and snatches of overheard conversation. Since my daughter trekked two states north for college, there is an eerie silence here and the cat and I don’t talk much. I think the fat lump is depressed. Or she hates me for sending away her favorite person.
So I went to lunch. At River Middle School. As an upper middle grade and young adult novelist, this was just what I needed. Not television or playlists or movies or even books. I needed real kids. Kids that gallop and goof off and chatter incessantly. Kids that express opinions and sometimes make more sense than adults I know.
It was loud. Very, very loud. River School is a charter of about 300 students; 6th, 7th, and 8th graders full of energy, eating and laughing and apparently, making body parts out of packing tape for art class. Someone’s leg was propped on a bench; another student wrapping furiously. How she was going to get that tape off the model’s leg was beyond my comprehension.
I sat down, notebook in hand, and clicked on my tape recorder. A see-through tape-head lolled in the middle of the round lunch table. It was a little disconcerting but cool, in an artsy way. Looked like Bill Clinton. (My apologies to the artist) I let the students know that I was visiting for story ideas and had so many questions we’d never finish in one lunch period. A crowd gathered. Short, tall, pink-haired and pierced, sweatshirted, brand-named, not brand-named, peanut butter and jelly smelling, elbows digging, grabbing, bouncing, shoes-untied, knees-jiggling, giggling, kids.
I scanned for teachers, instantly regressing to my twelve-year-old brain. The coast was clear so I asked the first question, possibly the most important question.
“What’s the dumbest thing a teacher has ever done?”
Heh, heh. Now we all know that laughing at our mistakes is the best cure, right? I heard the story of a teacher who got “sidetracked” and forgot to give a test and another where the teacher fell asleep in class and woke up to marker drawings on his face, which, according to the storyteller, were there the remainder of the day.
Conner, a lovely, soft-spoken girl with the coolest glasses, said, “Once, a teacher did not know there was water on the floor and she slipped, tripping through a bunch of cords. All the TVs and computers smashed to the floor. She wasn’t hurt, though.” (Whew!) Max told the story of a teacher who asked students to literally count the words they had read during silent reading time. Since he’d read 80 pages, he found it hilarious that he could just do the math—word count per page times 80. Which he did. Without a calculator. “It would have taken me about an hour to count all the words,” said Max, “more time than it took me to read them.”
Andrew mentioned that when giving instructions, “quite often” teachers “make no sense.” So they give instructions again. And again. Sometimes they still make no sense. (I totally get this one) Jameson’s story was about two fire drills, two days in a row. “The first day was a real drill and the second day when the bell went off everybody thought it was because we didn’t do a good job on the first drill. But it was because we were in science burning magnesium, which smokes up, you know?” Conner added, “The best part about that was our P.E. group didn’t have to run.”
When I asked students who they most admire, though, it was teachers, hands down. Parents and grandparents tied for second place, with musicians third. Not necessarily indie electro hip rock. Yo-Yo Ma, for example, was mentioned as was Charlie Parker. Band Directors, of course, were cited, with forgiveness for the song “Pomp and Circumstance.” Ben, a spirited 7th grader, tucked away the sillies, morphed into deep-thinker mode, and said, “One person I admire is Galileo Galeili. Not only because of his contributions to science and how he stuck to his principles even when placed under house arrest, but that he remained positive through all the bad stuff that happened to him.” Galileo: influencing middle school kids since 1632.
Science aside, stupid-humor is alive and well in middle school today. It’s still hilarious if ketchup squirts up someone’s nose. There is the “occasional” inappropriate joke, said 8th-grader Alec, his blue eyes serious but the corners of his mouth twitching to stifle a smile. Tripping and falling, a towel slipping in the locker room, spilling food, stubbing a toe and otherwise random embarrassing mishaps always bring guffaws. According to one student, protocol is, “First we laugh, and then we show other people and they laugh, and then after everyone in the school is done laughing, one or two people might help the person.” Sounds like real life to me.
Using the wrong word in a sentence cracks them up, which reminded me that words count at this age. And words can be hurtful. Each student had experienced betrayal; secrets told, rumors spread, rejection, lies. I heard the screech of a tape gun as yet another strip was applied to the see-through tape-head’s mouth and I couldn’t help but recognize the symbolism. Middle school kids are transparent but stifled, too, partly limited by society’s perceptions of their capabilities. Yet they are resilient. They bounce back from friendships gone astray to make new connections. They trust. They try. It was refreshing to sit with them, laughing, listening, and learning. If we remove the tape, they have much to say. I asked the question, “What’s your biggest worry?” Answers were so varied and thoughtful and even profound, that I will spend an entire blog post on that single question some other time.
As children’s authors, we need to write real, whatever our style or genre. That means believable characters, settings that resonate, plots that strike home. Maggie, bouncy, with straight bangs and a direct gaze, told me that she reads Ellen Hopkins’ young adult books because they are “full of truth” and said that she would recommend them to kids who feel that they are mature enough to take on tough topics. She eloquently stated, “These books gave me an idea of what could happen, impacting the way I am and showing me, okay, this is what I don’t have to do with my life.”
Alec cited Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series as “stories that relate to how we are with characters that interact the way we do.” A good story rocks with middle school kids. These are savvy readers, many of them reading beyond the state-assigned level. Ben, for example, is currently reading Grapes of Wrath because he likes Steinbeck’s writing style. Max reads most genres, especially graphic novels (and wishes there were more), sci-fi, and fantasy. He said, pointing to a Dean Koontz novel, “I don’t believe that any book is beyond my reading level.” Sci-Fi is big with both boys and girls. Ghosts are huge. Girls want paranormal romance with male characters who are not vampires. Reading for fun should be, well, fun.
This age group also accepts books with a global focus where the storyline reveals an unexplored issue, dilemma, abuse or trauma in an unusual or foreign setting. One student reminded me that “kids are more plugged into the world and people around them than adults think we are.” Kathy, the school librarian, was passionate about two titles rich in contemporary realism and social issues: Boys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth and The Breadwinner Trilogy by Deborah Ellis. I would add Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins to that list.
The bell shrieked, students scattered, snatching body parts from benches, slinging backpacks over shoulders, aiming trash toward cans. I scooped my notebook and recorder into my bag, resisting the temptation to line up, fold into a desk, sharpen a pencil, pat the classroom bunny. I drove home in such silence. The fat lump of a cat stared at me when I came through the door as if to say, “How was lunch?”
Lunch was good. I’ll be visiting River Middle School again. I need sounds and images and snatches of conversation. Real kids. By staying in touch, I will keep my writing real and the next time someone asks me where I get ideas, I will say from you, my friends. From you.
Diana Greenwood and the fat lump of a cat live in Napa Valley, California. Her debut novel, INSIGHT, Zonderkidz (Harper Collins), will release in the fall of 2011.