A Word to Children's Writers: Spend Time at Schools

Upon reflection, I can point to one practical activity that’s been absolutely critical to my work as a children’s author: I spend time in classrooms. Not as a visiting author, but as an observer. I sit in the back, out of the spotlight, and watch. Guest column by James Preller, who has published a wide variety of books, including three in the past year. Each one included multiple scenes in a school setting: Bystander, set in a middle school; Justin Fisher Declares War!, fifth-grade classroom; and A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, a picture book.
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I published my first children’s book in 1986, back when I was negative-seven years old. So from time to time, perfect strangers will assume that I know my way around the block. They ask for directions, “Do you have any advice for writers?” It’s a question that’s always stumped me. I don’t feel like Moses coming down from the mountaintop, tablets in hand—and most of the things I have to say are obvious and have already been said. To wit: Reading helps, and writing is also essential. (It is amazing to me, by the way, how many people want to be authors before they become writers.)

Upon reflection, I can point to one practical activity that’s been absolutely critical to my work as a children’s author: I spend time in classrooms. Not as a visiting author, but as an observer. I sit in the back, out of the spotlight, and watch.

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Guest column by James Preller, who has published
a wide variety of books, including three
in the past year.
Each one included multiple scenes in a school
setting:
Bystander, set in a middle school;

Justin Fisher Declares War!, fifth-grade classroom;

and A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, a picture
book. He is also the author of

the “Jigsaw Jones” mystery series (ages 6-9), with
40 titles in print. He can be found at jamespreller.com.

CONTACT A LOCAL SCHOOL

Explain yourself, try to find a teacher who would be willing to allow you into the classroom. You might find some resistance, but I’ve discovered that in every school there’s going to be a teacher who loves books, and writers, and believes in an open classroom. Most folks are very happy to share their world if you approach them in the right way.

Even if your book is not set within five miles of a classroom, it’s a world worth knowing—because that’s where kids live, six hours a day, five days a week, ten months of the year.

WATCH "CHILDREN IN THE WILD"

In the best arrangements, I’ve found teachers who have let me come and go as I pleased. Maybe I won’t show up for three weeks, maybe I’ll come and stay for half an hour, or half a day. I am always respectful that I am in their domain, and aim for invisibility. In short order, the students forget that I am present—and busily get on with the business of being completely themselves. Children in the wild. Which is exactly what I’m after.

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Both Bystander and A Pirate's Guide to
First Grade got starred reviews in
Publishers Weekly.

SEE WHAT HAPPENS OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM

Speaking of that, I’ve also learned that children are more themselves outside of the classroom. It’s beneficial to spend time in the cafeteria, the school bus, or outside during recess. I’ve set many, many scenes out on the playground. For me, I usually begin with a blank notebook—figuratively and literally. I’m not looking for anything particular, beyond what’s real for these kids. That’s what writing for children comes down to, I think. You have to know their world.

In recent years, I’ve hung out a bit in fifth-grade classrooms. I noticed the way one girl—frowning and alone—set herself apart during P.E. There was a red circle on the floor and the teacher asked the kids to sit inside it. Everyone did except for this one girl, who sat down outside it, the tip of her foot just touching the line. I’ve seen the way a teacher’s eyes rolled in her head when, in the middle of a lesson, a boy stood up to sharpen his pencils: Whirrrr, whirrr, whirrrr. I’ve learned how kids are disciplined during recess, where in one school they were forced to stand by “the wall.” The punishment: watching everyone else run and play.

PUT THE PIECES TOGETHER

Mostly, it’s been a accumulation of details, little truths, seeds. And what happens for me—what always happens—is that I begin to see the possibilities for story. I get inspired. And my blank notebook fills with words.

I wish you good luck. I am not often described as an optimist—that sound you just heard was my wife, laughing—but I truly believe that good work will find a way. The world needs more good books, needs writers. We’re waiting for you with open arms. So come on, make it happen.

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