Allison's Book Bag

A Pen By Any Other Name….

Posted on: October 20, 2015

“What have I learned so far about being an author?” This was the question that children’s book author, Andrew Clements, addressed at the 2015 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. Clements won annual book awards by the vote of American school children in about twenty different states for his debut novel, Frindle. In June of this year, Frindle was named the Phoenix Award winner as the best book that didn’t win a major award when it was published. What follows are the highlights of Clements’ presentation. The rest of the week, I’ll post brief reviews of six of his novels, including Findle. Save the date: October 21-23!

“What I think I have learned so far. Since we don’t have fifteen years, I’ll tell you about one thing…. I’ve learned how to suspend my disbelief.”

The above statement is how Andrew Clements opened his presentation. He then proceeded to talk about how a reader knows within ten minutes whether to go with a story and forget about everything else. The idea is drawn from the phrase, “willful suspension of belief” a term coined in 1817 by the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative.

A year ago, Clements was struggling to write a book entitled, The Loser’s Belief, which will be published soon. It has given him trouble longer than most of his other books. The idea is good or so others have told him. He himself also holds confidence in his belief in it, because he’s gotten other books published. Still, he has sat writing the first chapter, over and over. He can see the shape, but can’t get into “the darn thing”. Sometimes he’ll write 15,000 to 30,000 to get the first chapter right. His first chapters are normally only about 500 words. In rewriting and rewriting, Clements realized that he was trying to suspend his own disbelief about the first chapter. “If I can’t suspend my own disbelief, no one else will suspend theirs.”

There have been other times Clements has needed to suspend disbelief. For example, that of being a fourth-grade teacher in a self-contained room. Nothing had prepared him for that first moment of his being a teacher. On the first day, he couldn’t believe that there he was, having to be a teacher not a student. His first few weeks were disastrous. There were eighteen boys and not enough girls. He was given all the hard-case boys, despite two veteran teachers being next door. When asked by colleagues how it was going, in his head he thought, “I don’t know.” To others, he would simply state, “I’m making progress.”

Clements eventually learned that he didn’t need to create all his own teaching stuff; there were already resources available. He also learned management was about being in control of oneself. He even had a whistle. If behavior was getting crazy, he reached for his whistle, and everyone put their fingers in their ears. He learned to love the kids and childhood.

Living through your own does not acquaint you with childhood; being an adult around kids does.

In talking about the above statement, Clements explained that kids don’t go to school to get ready to life; they’re already living a huge part of their life in the classroom. Teachers try to keep up with them, and the curriculum, but what teachers are doing is being part of their world. Eight years in self-contained, three years in English, and seven more in English, all of these experiences has trained Clements to be the writer he is.

Why does Clements keep writing about kids? Obviously, he enjoys it. But the main reason, he contends, is that the most important thing happening on any given day is school. You know that everything is okay when kids are in school.

After sharing about his teaching experiences, Clements returns to talk more directly about “suspension of belief”. The concept can be restated in the positive as “acquisition of faith”. Coleridge says this condition constitutes poetic faith. Think of the Psalms. Think of the second last chapter of Charlotte’s Web. In the books you love, you’ll find the moment an author leads you beyond the suspension of belief to the acquisition of faith. Faith is something all teachers know about it. So do parents. Clements notes how his own teaching and writing life became a matter of acquisition of faith. If we trust that students can love reading, then students will begin to believe too. If parents will instill the value of reading, a teacher’s job is largely done.

Clements calls childhood a constant. When he starts to look for ideas, he reflects on his past experiences. He doesn’t watch modern shows or hangout in current schools. To him, as long as he remembers his own childhood of the 1950’s, his own children’s life of the 1970’s, and his own teaching life, everyone seems to believe he has his pulse on today’s school. Clements doesn’t believe he does, but notes that when he walk into a modern school, he sees the same things that he did in the past. Childhood is still childhood. Yes, there is 20th century technology, standardized tests, and other changes. However, schools don’t shape childhood, even if more and more they seem to be trying to shape children.

To end his presentation, Clements shares his personal writing process:

  • a lot of thinking to come up with an idea
  • a lot of thinking to come up with a narrative
  • a lot of thinking to make it become real
  • the submitted draft is a tightly-wound element
  • his editor has no investment in it and will tell me about the book’s flaws
  • at first he will emotionally rebel; his logical mind normally agrees
  • eventually he sees his novel as a long, loose ribbon of words, then he can snip and trim as needed

Keeping his audience in mind, Clements also offers concluding advice to teachers. If you look at the students, he says, you’ll know what you need to do. Childhood hasn’t changed. Children still need love, instruction, and guidance. When he thinks back on teachers from his youth, he doesn’t remember instruction; their kindness is what mattered. Teachers are being stretched to act more and more as parents. In the midst of everything, Clements encourages, remember to care for the kids. That’s what they will carry forward.

After his presentation, Clements accepted questions. From these, I learned about more of his background as an author. For example, his timeline of books began in 1985 with picture books. Frindle itself started out as a picture book called Nick’s New Word. His editor told him to change it into a chapter book. Clements replied that he wasn’t a chapter book author and proceeded to send his picture book to other editors. After five told him the exact same thing, he asked himself, “Is it possible? Could it be that I am the idiot here?” He turned his picture book into a chapter book and received a contract for two more books. After those were published, his life changed! He received a contract to let him stop doing everything else.

How did his most famous novel, Frindle, come about? In 1989, Clements was a visiting author at a school. The first two presentations worked. Then in a small hot room of over 100 young kids who had just returned from recess, his third presentation proved a struggle. Clements had his Websters unabridged dictionary. He dropped it on the floor. All the students sucked in their breath and fell silent. Clements said I’m standing on thousands of words. One student asked where do words come from. Clements replied that the truth is that people make up words and that if we all called a pen a frindle the dictionary folks would notice and put frindle it in the dictionary. (According to Clements, if 15 million people are using a word, it’ll get put it in the dictionary.) Years later, while wondering what to write, Clements decided to turn the above into a story.

In his final few moments of this presentation, Clements told how on June 5, 2015, his career arrived. Less than six months before, a deranged young man had methodically killed teachers and students at an elementary school. Within two weeks, the school was transplanted. There were police everywhere. Teachers put aside their own trauma and soldiered on. As everyone worked to show that goodness is normal and evil it not, a new motto was picked: We choose love. They wanted to show that good can drive out the bad. When the school needed a book without hate, guns, death, one would unify the school, the book chosen was Frindle. When Clements visited, he was asked not to make sudden noise or movement. An air of kindness pervaded. State standards was not on anyone’s mind. His wife and him agreed that their time there was among the best they had ever spent.

I am grateful that my every effort to sustain childhood has been appreciated. It’s an honor for me to be in the business of literacy and childhood.

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Almost a year after I announced that it was time to take a step back from this blog, Allison's Book Bag is still here. I'm slowly working back up to weekly reviews again. Each week, there will be one under any of these categories: Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, religious books, or diversity books. Some will come in the form of single reviews and others in the form of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

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