Authors talk imagination, self-expression at school visit

Local fifth and sixth graders recently got a lesson in how to turn creative ideas into concrete accomplishments when the authors of 2 popular sci-fi/fantasy series, Lisa McMann and Margaret Peterson Haddix, visited Vista Elementary School.

Vista librarian Cindy Dewey coordinated the visit with the help of Mrs. Nelson’s Toy and Bookshop, which the authors visited later that evening.

Ms. McMann, the New York Times bestselling author of 9 books, appeared as part of her promotion for Island of Silence, the second book in her The Unwanteds series Kirkus Reviews has called “The Hunger Games meets Harry Potter.”

Ms. Haddix, winner of the International Reading Association Children’s Award, was spreading the word about Caught, the latest installment of her The Missing series. The writer has published more than 30 books, including the acclaimed 7-title Shadow Children sequence.

In a show of shared resources and camaraderie, students from Oakmont Elementary School walked over to join Vista students for the presentation. The authors talk also lured CUSD Superintendent Jim Elsasser, a fan of Ms. Haddix since he and his oldest son read the Shadow Children series aloud together a couple years ago.

How do you get started on a compelling story? For both authors, it starts with “what if?”

Ms. Haddix’s Shadow Children books, for instance, were spawned by a discussion she and husband had while pondering whether to have a third child. They considered the problem of overpopulation, which got her wondering what would happen if there was a law prohibiting large families. In her resulting dystopian series, Population Police attempt to kill or imprison third, fourth and fifth children.

Likewise, The Missing series began with one image: A plane landing at an airport unexpectedly with no captain and no crew, carrying 36 babies as passengers. From there, the story has evolved from a mystery into a time-travel scenario, the latest of which finds the protagonists meeting a famous individual.

“Who do you think it is?” she asked, costuming a student volunteer in a gray moustache and mad scientist wig as a clue.

The answer, of course, is Albert Einstein. You don’t have to be a genius to write a book but, as Ms. McMann emphasized, you do have to have a good idea you are willing to explore. Hers came when her son and daughter, now 18 and 15, came home with a letter saying their school district was cutting some of its arts programs because of budget constraints.

She remembers saying to her son, who loves to draw, and her daughter, who loves to sing, “It feels like you’re being punished for being creative.”

Enter Ms. McMann’s The Unwanteds series, set in the land of Quill, where kids who show creativity suffer dire consequences.

“You’re not just punished for being creative. You’re sent to your death,” she explained dramatically.

In the resulting narrative, her protagonist and his fellow Unwanteds must fight for their lives. Luckily, they receive help from the denizens of the land of Artime, a place where creative expression is cultivated not only as a blessing but as a weapon.

Bringing her story to life was a team effort she said because her son, beginning as a young teen, helped her by drawing pictures of the characters and scenarios she envisioned. The students laughed as she shared one of his renderings, a forbidding-looking stone gargoyle wearing an incongruous bow in her hair. Ms. McMann’s daughter assisted, too, brainstorming some of the spells cast by the creative rebels schooled by the citizens of Artime. 

“My kids did so much to help me with this book,” Ms. McMann said. “You don’t have to be an adult to come up with a cool idea for a book. You don’t have to have a college degree to start writing your story.”

Oakmont 6th grader Elias Rodriguez was excited about the presentation, particularly because he has read the first book in Ms. Haddix’s The Missing series.

 “It was good, because I like mystery books,” he said.

He felt the authors’ talks were interesting, especially for anyone interested in becoming a writer. “It helps me know how they knew what to write for their books.”

Elias, who has also read the first Harry Potter book and hopes to read The Hunger Games, is typical of today’s elementary school children, who are willing to read meatier fare in order to experience the stories everyone is talking about, Ms. Dewey noted. It’s a phenomenon that has grown, ever since the wild success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

“I think they’re challenging themselves more, reading higher-level books,” she said.

And as books for children and young adults become more gripping and detail-drenched, adults are taking note, too. Ms. Dewey admits that she is quite the fan of children’s literature herself, including the work of Ms. Haddix and Ms. McMann.

“They’re huge names,” she said. “I’ve read all of their books. They’re extremely moving and fast-paced.”

—Sarah Torribio


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