The book

I heard their whispers, and I shouldn’t have, because they were in line in the hallway. There are Rules, you know . . . .

Mrs. Haley!”

Mrs. Haley!”

Mrs. Haley!”

I looked around. There they were, not standing neatly in line but leaning out in varying degrees, trying to get my attention.

“What-? You all sound like a bunch of Parselmouths, hissing,” I said (Parselmouths being people who can speak snake language, for those of you not intimately familiar with Harry Potter, few though you may be).

Giggles.

And more whispers:

The books came! There’s one for you!”

“It’s wrapped”—

“Stop, you’re ruining the surprise!”

—I think somebody got elbowed, just then.

I taught a series of personal narrative lessons to this third grade class. I modeled my own narrative. They drafted theirs, conferred with their teacher, revised, conferred with me, revised.  They did every bit of the work, made their own artistic choices in both writing and illustrating, asked a lot of questions. At the last I coached each child through final edits.

Then their teacher compiled it all and sent it off for publication.

This week, the books arrived.

These writers couldn’t concentrate when I came to the classroom Thursday afternoon to talk about opinion writing. They wriggled and writhed like puppies at their seats.

Because a flat package, wrapped in bright jewel-tone paper, waited on the reading table.

The tag read Mrs. Haley.

“Soooo,” I said, “this is what all the excitement is about? Am I supposed to open this now?”

—They almost burst.

YES!”

YES!!”

YES!!!”

When I picked up the package, they gathered so close around me that I felt slightly claustrophobic. I had a fleeting sense of Gru in Despicable Me, being surrounded by  a sea of adoring Minions, countless giant eyes blinking in anticipation.

“Oh, wow—it turned out so well! It’s beautiful, everybody! I am so proud of you and your writing.”

They laughed, clapped, clamored, tried to tell me more stories about their stories . . . for they are, after all, authors.

I held the book to my heart, basking in the glow.

—They do not realize that they are the gift.

Heroes

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They’re heroes. All of them.

From across the state of North Carolina, they gathered in the capital city. Fighting crowds and full parking decks, between a St. Patrick’s Day parade, a street festival with an Irish band, a pub crawl, and educators arriving for the North Carolina Reading Association conference, the children made it to the Young Authors Project celebration.

These young people, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, and some of their teachers, were previously recognized by their local reading associations for writing on the theme “Show Your Strength.” Finalists went on to be judged by a panel for the state, and yesterday the North Carolina Reading Association awarded winners a book of their published entries and a medal.

Prior to the ceremony, such figures as Batman, Wonder Woman, and the X-Men swept through the audience, greeting the children, congratulating them, posing for pictures with them.

Project Superhero, Inc. and Causeplay Carolinas team up at the NCRA Young Authors Project celebration. Photo: Twitter, @superheroorg 03/17/2018.

Note the word POWER on the photo-op backdrop . . .

I thought immediately of the power in writing.

I watched as the children were called, county by county, to receive their awards on stage, their faces glowing. I’ve read their stories, how they showed their strength by sticking with tasks they thought they couldn’t accomplish, reaching desired goals, drawing inspiration from others, overcoming bullies, conquering their greatest fears, coping with illness, the loss of pets, of family members. How they got through, even when they didn’t think they could.

It takes courage to be a writer, courage to be a child.

There they stood, heroes, all.

Celebrating each other, celebrating their stories.

Celebrating perseverance. Celebrating courage. Celebrating hope.

Celebrating life.

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Celebrating Young Authors

Show Your Strength

Raleigh-Wake Reading Council 

This afternoon, I am celebrating young writers from kindergarten through high school. Our local reading council, affiliated with the International Literacy Association, sponsors the Young Authors Project annually. Students write on a given theme and council members submit their work. A committee then scores the pieces for quality of content and structure. This competition is about encouraging young writers to work hard at the craft, to tell their stories well. The stories are published in a local book. Some stories have gone on to the state level, to be recognized and published later this month by the North Carolina Reading Association.

This year’s theme is “Show Your Strength!” The students could write about their personal experiences of perseverance, how they’ve overcome obstacles, how they found strength in a time of weakness, and who or what inspired them to rise above a particular challenge.

It’s my honor today to be the speaker at the awards ceremony.

Here’s my tribute to these courageous writers:

Thank you, members of the Young Authors Committee and the Raleigh-Wake Council for encouraging students of all ages to write. Thank you, families and teachers, for being the wind beneath the wings of these young writers; because of your support, because of your belief in these writers, many of them have now flown higher than they ever thought they could before.

And thank you, Writers, for your stories. I’ve read your work and it’s breathtaking. I stand in awe of what you’ve experienced and how you captured it on paper.  It’s an honor and a joy to celebrate your courage, your beautiful work, and your personal victories today.

So you know that I am a writer, too. I remember being six years old and sitting at the coffee table in my living room with some notebook paper and a pencil, trying to write a story, not because a teacher told me to, but just because I wanted to. Something inside me needed to get out and even at age six, all by myself, I understood that I needed to write it. I’ve been writing all my life and I’ve written a lot of different things for different reasons, but I do it mostly because I love it. Why do I love it? I think it’s because writing helps me see things in different ways, sometimes in deeper ways than I would have if I didn’t write.

Here’s an example from last summer: I noticed that seahorses had started showing up in my life. Yes, seahorses! When I ordered some books, they came with a tote bag that had a seahorse on it. A friend gave me a notebook that happened to have a seahorse on it. I took my seahorse tote bag and my seahorse notebook to a teachers’ writing workshop at the beach, where I was given a journal to decorate . . . guess what was in the decorations? Seahorses! This, Ladies and Gentlemen, is what we a call a motif, a symbol that keeps recurring, or showing up. I started wondering if there was a reason for all these seahorses suddenly appearing —what could they mean? I do what writers always do: research. I looked up seahorses and I learned a few pretty cool things: The scientific name of the seahorse is hippocampus, the same word for the part of the human brain that’s the center of emotion and memory. As a writer, this connection between the seahorse and the human brain fascinates me. I also learned that seahorses are a species recorded as the slowest swimmers in the animal kingdom. They swim so slowly that they can die of exhaustion when storms come and churn the seas, so seahorses use their tails to anchor them to long grasses and corals. They survive by being anchored.

And that’s another big thing that writing does for me; it anchors me, it helps me survive whatever comes.

Seahorses, Writers, are a symbol of perseverance, the very theme that you wrote on for our Young Authors Project. You’re here today because you persevered in writing your stories.

Your stories show your strength as writers and your strength as human beings. Stories, in the end, are gifts that we give to others. We give these pieces of ourselves away to make other people think and feel; writing is an almost magical connection between the heart and mind of the writer and the hearts and minds of readers. There’s power in it. Think about it. We can use our words, our power, to hurt others or to strengthen them. Be mindful that you always use your power for good.

It is my hope, as a teacher of writing, that you will keep writing. Today is just the beginning of what you can accomplish, and you’ve started off so strong! Good writing is hard work. Sometimes it comes so, so slowly. Don’t give up. Always remember there’s power in writing and the effort is always worth it. The more you work on your writing, the more your writing will work on you; it will give you more and more strength to share with the world, and the world needs you.

Thank you all.