What better way to start the school year than with my excellent friend, Laura Shovan, and her glorious debut novel-in-verse, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, coming out April 12, 2016! Here’s the link to pre-order.
Laura’s journey to publication began back in 2008, when she first crossed paths with her dream agent, Stephen Barbara. She just didn’t know he would represent her – until five years later. Laura explains here:
I met Stephen at a local SCBWI conference in 2008. We sat down to lunch with author/editor Aimee Friedman and local author Lois Szymanski. I was impressed with how knowledgeable and what a fan of books Stephen was. When the topic of novels in verse came up, it turned out Stephen and I were both fans of Spoon River Anthology. Four years later, I wrote a letter telling him about my MG verse novel, loosely based on Spoon River. I asked if he remembered our conversation. We emailed back and for for about a year and a half before The Call.
Over the years, I heard from several agents who passed because they weren’t interested in verse novels, or felt unsure about the number of voices in TLFG. Because Stephen is a fan of Spoon River, I knew he would get what I was trying to do. My book wasn’t quite ready when he first read the full in 2012. The next 18 months were about staying in touch, making revisions, and being politely persistent. I sent him several emails that said, “I think you’re the right person to represent this book.” Stephen and I are both glad that I didn’t give up. He is a wonderful literary agent and we work well together.
The next turning point in Laura’s journey was one we shared: a little thing called Pitch Wars. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? If you’re an aspiring children’s book writer, do yourself a favor and check out: http://www.brenda-drake.com/pitch-madness. It may change your life; it sure changed Laura’s and mine.
Laura and I entered Pitch Wars together and – as “luck” (read: years of hard work) would have it, we were both selected to be mentored. Afterwards, with a shiny, polished version of her novel-in-verse, Laura was finally ready for Stephen – and he was ready for her.
When I began writing the book, I’d been visiting elementary school classrooms as a poet-in-residence for several years. Everywhere I went, each individual class had its own sense of community. The children had certain fixed views of each other. They knew specific facts and traits about one another: who was athletic, who was funny or fashionable, who had little siblings. But writing and sharing their poems often changed those fixed views. A child’s classmates might know her parents are Asian, but when she writes a food poem, we all learn that her family has a beautiful New Year’s Eve tradition of gathering together to make dumplings. Poems provide these little windows into the lives and minds of young writers. I think that’s why Spoon River Anthology was such an inspiration. Edgar Lee Master’s book gave me a model for writing about how people interact with and influence one another. The community of THE LAST FIFTH GRADE is one of children. Unlike Spoon River, the characters have a common goal: saving their school.
What kind of revisions were you asked to do, and what was the reasoning behind them?
My editor, Wendy Lamb, suggested adding depth to the Save Our School storyline. I had been reading about food deserts in Baltimore and some of its suburbs, so I added a few poems where Ms. Hill’s class writes about the pros and cons of tearing down their school and adding a supermarket to the neighborhood.
I think there were 20 characters in the manuscript when it sold. We pared that down to 18, which meant merging four characters into two. Wendy is an amazing editor. Originally, the manuscript had six focal characters, who spent more time on-stage than anyone else. One of the most important things she guided me toward was more balance between the characters, so that each one has an impact on the story of the class.
What was the hardest thing you had to change?
The hardest change happened about a year before my manuscript sold. Agent Stephen Barbara read the full and had questions for me about the book, but our conversation fizzled out. I took a break for several months, then went back to look at notes from my CPs. They all said the same thing: They loved the book, but it lacked a strong narrative arc.
During the summer of 2014, I did a complete rewrite. For a few years, I’d been asking myself,”What if the school were being razed?” I’d always tabled the question, because it would mean pulling the whole book apart. But ultimately, that was what made the book work.
Are any of the characters based on people you know, or knew?
In early drafts, I had two characters based on my children. Both merged with other characters over time. A portion of Mark Fernandez’s story arc is based on a grade school classmate whose mother died. Even though we never hear from Ms. Hill directly, she is loosely based on two friends of mine who are both educators and poets.
Which character is most like you were in 5th grade? (YOU HAVE TO ANSWER THIS QUESTION, AS IT’S MY FAVORITE.)
That is so difficult, Naomi! I was pretty nerdy and a huge book worm in fifth grade. I was obsessed with The Muppet Show and Wind in the Willows. Let’s say I was a combination of the quieter girls, especially Sydney and Rachel, and Edgar.
When you wrote the poems as each character, did you think more about content or style? In other words, did you deliberately choose a limerick for Katie, and an acrostic for Norah? Or could you just have easily given the limerick to Sydney and an acrostic to Newt?
The first draft of this book included 30 poems. Each poem represented one child in a large fifth grade class. There was no real plot. The poems were character driven. It took me several revisions to find a story that worked well.
All that time, I was refining the characters—adding poems, looking at the cadence of their voices, working on their individual story arcs. Some of the characters do gravitate to form poems because of their personalities. Katie has a great sense of humor, so a limerick was a natural choice for her. Most of Newt’s poems are formal because he likes rules. A Newt acrostic is a great idea, Naomi! I’ll have to get started on bonus materials.
What was the biggest challenge in writing this book? What was your favorite part of the process?
One of the biggest challenges was changing how I saw the novel. Spoon River Anthology was my initial inspiration. That book is a collection of persona poems, with over 200 characters telling the story of their small town.
When someone suggested that my collection of poems should be a full length novel, I almost couldn’t believe it. It was really hard for me let go of the one poem per character concept. The summer that I lengthened The Last Fifth Grade from collection to novel, I was writing three or more new poems per day over several weeks. (Can you tell I do my best writing in the summer?) It was exhilarating, but definitely challenging.
Did you ever consider writing a poem (or 4) for Ms. Hill?
Yes, there were a few drafts where Ms. Hill had an opening poem explaining the year-long poetry project. (Insider secret: The opening poem of Spoon River Anthology is titled “The Hill.” It sets up the idea and setting of the book.) I am crazy in love with Sharon Creech’s verse novel LOVE THAT DOG. Miss Stretchberry is a huge presence in that book, but we only see her through Jack’s poems. Let’s say Sharon Creech gave me the confidence to create an off-stage, influential teacher.
You introduce readers to many types of poetry. Do you yourself have a favorite type to write? Which do you find the most difficult?
I don’t have a favorite. Choosing free verse or a traditional form is often dictated by the poem’s content. Some poems need the structure of a form. For instance, in the poem “At the Movies” Shoshanna complains about how controlling her best friend Hannah is. I chose a sonnet for that poem because it is a tightly controlled form. The form mirrors the way Shoshanna is feeling, like she always has to follow Hannah’s rules.
When I write with children, we compare writing in a poetic form to doing a drill if they play a sport, or practicing scales if they play an instrument. Formal poems help you learn rhyme, rhythm, and structure. And sometimes you get a good poem out of the exercise.
What is it you love most about writing poetry/being a poet?
Whether I’m working with kids or at an event with other writers, what I love most is being part of the literary community. There are all kinds of poets, but most are keen observers of nature and of human nature. I’m so grateful when schools invite me to visit. Engaging in creative writing with children is a blessing because it values what they bring to their writing: their experiences, their likes and dislikes, their personality traits, and their imaginations. It sends a message to the students that the adults want to hear what they have to say, that we want to know who they are beyond their role as student.
Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?
Read a lot of poetry. Get involved with your local literary community. Keep at it.
When did your love of poetry begin?
My father used to recite lines from Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” to us. But my first memory of a poem is reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. It’s such a strong memory that I can still picture sitting in my brother’s bedroom, with the book open on the floor.
In the poem “The Swing,” the speaker describes swinging in an English meadow, and how the view changes as he or she flies through the air. My mother is from a small town in Nottingham, so I had a deep connection with the English countryside. I think what that poem did was what many great poems do, communicate a shared experience between me and the poet. It was a Cupid’s arrow moment. Poetry has had a grip on my heart ever since.