Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Adam's Tales for Young and Old

Last fall, writer Adam Gidwitz spoke with great humor and enthusiasm to a group of rapt Middle Schoolers at Browning. His first book, A Tale Dark and Grimm, was a top seller at our book fair, gaining devoted fans in every grade from second to eighth. We're all eager for his next book to drop! I spoke with Adam about his experiences teaching and about becoming a writer.

SM: Can you talk about your inspiration for A Tale Dark and Grimm?

AG: It started like this: I was asked if I would be a substitute librarian for a day at the school where I used to teach. Well, librarian is about the most awesome job I can imagine, because, as I understand it, you get to hang out with kids all day and tell them the best stories you know. So I was like, "YES." They told me I'd be reading to second graders. No problem, I said. They told me I could read any story I want. I was like, "Score." So I went home and went looking around my shelves for a story to read. I came across, on my shelf, a book called GRIMM'S TALES FOR YOUNG AND OLD. I was like, "Fairy tales! Those are PERFECT for little kids!" So I opened the book up and started reading a story called Faithful Johannes. In it, two kids get their heads cut off.... by their parents. I thought, "Can I read this to second graders? Will I get fired?" And then I thought, "Let's find out!" So I read it to them, making jokes as I went and trying to make things not too terrifying. And afterwards, half of them were completely traumatized, and the other half asked me to make the story into a book. But the story was already in a book. So how could I make it my own? What I eventually settled on was taking every joke I made to those second graders, every warning I gave them, and putting them, verbatim, into the story. Once that voice was established, the rest of the book blossomed from there.

SM: Although I imagined the book as being popular with 4th, 5th, and 6th graders, we had hoards of 2nd graders lining up for it. What age group were you imagining when you wrote it?

AG: Jane Yolen says that you should NOT think about what age group you're writing for as you're writing. That you should just write, and the right age group will find it. As I wrote, I pictured those second graders I had told that first story to. I literally spoke out loud to them as I wrote. But as the book went on, it became darker and more mature. I initially pegged it as an 8-12 book. Penguin, wanting to be careful, said 10 and up. But I know plenty of seven year olds who have read it and loved it. I think the miraculous thing about kids is that they get what they are ready to get. There is all sorts of messed up innuendo in the chapter A Smile as Red as Blood, for instance. But most kids below 6th grade just see it as a scary story, not a CREEPY story. Which is perfect. And some kids get it, and don't like it, and just put the book down. Kids are amazing like that. We can, I think, trust them. 

SM: After years of teaching, what made you decide to start writing? Or had you been writing all along?

AG: I never wrote as a kid. The story goes like this: 

When I was 13 years old, an author came to my school. I remember nothing about her except her answer to one question: “How do you know if you’re a writer?”

She paused, wrinkling her brow. Then said, “Writers write.”

I was floored. Of course! Writers write. Not just when their teachers tell them to, I assumed, but voluntarily. Was I, then, a writer? It seemed I was not.

You see, all through my childhood, I spent three to four hours a day immersed in that most edifying of pastimes—playing with G. I. Joes. Sometimes I would go outside and play on my seven-foot basketball hoop, narrating athletic glories that I would never in a million years achieve.

I did not write. Ever.  So I decided right then that I was not a writer and never would be. If I ever got an idea for a story, which I did sometimes, because everyone does, I would write the first few lines and then say, “Who am I kidding? I know I am not a writer.”

That belief obtained for the next ten years. After college, I was teaching second grade, and I was doing a curriculum on Ancient Egypt. I wanted to read the kids a novel that took place in Ancient Egypt (no time travel or anything like that), but I couldn't find one that would suit them. So I decided, on a whim, to try my hand at writing one myself. I was still certain I was not a writer--I was just going to tell them a story, and write it down. So I wrote one chapter, and read it to them, and the funniest thing happened. They wanted to hear what happened next. So I wrote another chapter. And another, and another. Before I knew it, the book was done. Now, none of you will ever see that book, in all likelihood. But it's how I got into writing. 

And, as I was writing it, I realized the strangest thing. When I write, I am talking to myself, telling myself a little story, just exactly as I used to do with my GI Joes, or on the basketball court. It is EXACTLY the same thing. It turns out, you see, that I was always a writer. I just never wrote anything down. 

SM: Do you have any advice for educators who want to get started in writing?

AG: Do as I did. Start telling stories to your students. If they WANT to hear more of them--actively WANT to--you're on the right track. The great thing about kids is that they make you finish. Finishing a book is the hardest thing to do. But if you're reading it to kids, you can't get too precious about it. You've just got to tell the damn story.

SM: Can we look forward to more Grimm and/or grim tales soon? 

AG: You better believe it!:

On September 27, 2012…

Two children.

One frog.

Seven mermaids.

Lots of giants.

A handful of murderers.

Three talking ravens.

And one slightly intrusive narrator.

Fairy tales are awesome again.

If you're interested in inviting Adam to your school, go ahead and email him. Tell him I sent you!

Posted by Sarah Murphy

1 comment:

  1. Adam Gidwitz visited Brearley last fall, and was a great speaker and storyteller. After, he taught a workshop and was equally good with the students teaching how to organize a story.

    Highly recommended for author visit!

    Patty Aakre
    Brearley School