I spent four days in Mount Vernon, WA, last week, speaking to students at a Young Authors Conference; three talks a day, a hundred second- through sixth-graders plus their adult group leaders per talk. This allowed me to gather almost one thousand tiny writing samples, one thousand opening sentences of personal narratives.
I was curious to discover what this collection of stickyback strips might say about these writers and their lives. After much shuffling, the majority seemed to fall into the following groups: family stories, 133, (includes moving, 14, and new siblings, 15); pet stories, 97; weather, 89; vacation stories, 76, (15 mention Disneyland and four begin, “Are we there yet?”); sports stories, 65, (includes 11 about swimming); friends stories, 64, (18 about new friends); injury stories, 55; action/adventure/scary stories, 53; stories seemingly related to stories I told in my presentation, 33, (yes, I love how sticky stories are); country life stories, (hiking, fishing, riding horses and three-wheeled vehicles), 16; Young Authors event stories, 11; birthdays, 4.
Before we brainstormed, I talked about how we connect to our readers through the emotion of a story. I encouraged kids to write about a memory that held strong emotion and they responded with an emotional rainbow: sad stories about lost or dying pets, or, saddest of all, a dad in jail; the thrill of a trip to Disneyland, making a new friend, getting a new sibling, sailing down a ski slope.
There were openers that tugged at my heart, like: “One summer day, my dad left for Afghanistan because he was in the Navy.” Or, in a very cramped printing, “The path I’ve gone through is unbearable. But the path only makes me stronger.” I always admire a writer who can put his truth on the page, but I hate that kids have such hard stuff to deal with.
On a lighter note, despite drizzling rain all week, more than 15 percent of these Northwest kids included the sun or a warm day in their opening sentence.
Here are some of my favorites, with attribution when available.
- It all started with the Batman pajamas.
- Having bloody noses is not the best way to spend a whole summer.
- There was a time, there was a time where everything was perfect in my life.
- “You get the shovel, I have the rake,” said Chuck. “We will meet in the woods.” – Ethan
- “Molly! Look!” I whipped my head around and saw five dorsal fins poking out of the water.
- Chris liked birds. He liked robins, ducks, swans and bluejays.
- It was cold but I still took hold of the K.G.M.I. banner for St. Paddy’s Day. – Maddie
- Over the gleaming river, it seemed that nothing would ever happen that could be bad.
- Me and Grandma was sitting still in a boat fishing. – Tessa
- Rose was lying on the trampoline staring at the blue sky when she heard some giggles. – Lilly
- The rain pounded down on the backs of the weary travelers.
- My name is Larry and I am a tornado watcher. – Keaton
- The happiest day of my life was when I knew about dinosaurs. The first dino I knew about was triceratops.
- My dad drove up to a house and two people walked out wearing Groucho Marx glasses. I didn’t know they would become my two favorite relatives.
- “No! I don’t want to take a bath,” I yelled.
- “What was the last thing you said to Grandma?” asked Mom.
- “Dad, Dad. No not that. I told you to play a music video, not home videos. You are the most embarrassing dad in the history of embarrassing dads.” – Carsin
- The bell sounded. Everyone ran. I lined up. I saw the smoke flying off the top of the school.
- I looked about the room. I hadn’t seen so many boxes since Christmas.
- “You are going to have a brother,” Da said. “But I want a kitten,” Kyra cried.
- I cannot believe my hamster teddy – a grey dwarf hamster with a white stripe down his back – died.
- How can I get out of this cage thought Chewy?
- I was looking at the thousands of sad-seeming cats at the shelter, when I saw an almost familiar looking, smokey-grey cat. – Gilly
- Really, only Alexa was going through the Young Authors conference since Juliya had been snoring most of the time. – Alexa
I want to end this post with a shout out to Marie Weltz who has worked on this conference for each of its 20 years. She celebrated her 80th birthday Thursday. Think of all the young writers who have been inspired by her efforts. The conference is sponsored by the NW Educational Service District and Skagit Valley College. The kids come from 40 elementary schools, including public and parochial, private and home schools. Each attended a workshop with an author and a workshop with an illustrator and my presentation. They also had an hour where they met with students from other schools and shared the manuscripts they’d brought along. Though Marie is stepping down this year as head, her legacy will live on.
Meanwhile, when I need an idea for a new beginning, I know where to look.