Finding the Story: Writing Spider

I plan on writing a series of “behind-the-scenes” blog entries about my experience writing the book, Along Came Spider. My writing process, if you will. Sigh. I have to confess that the thought of it makes me want to hurl, since it borders on self-obsession and pretentiousness. I really don’t want to this be about me, per say, but that’s all I’ve got, my story. Here’s how I came to write a single book.

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A few years ago, two editors at Scholastic, Craig Walker and Shannon Penney, came to me with an idea. They wondered if I’d like to try writing for readers who were slightly older than my Jigsaw Jones audience (ages 6-9, approximately). They also hoped that I could make it a school-based story, probably for grades 4-5. I agreed to give it a shot.

But . . . what next?

I didn’t have a grasp on 4th- and 5th-grade classrooms, so that became the first order of business. I couldn’t begin writing until I could speak with author/ity on that world. While writing Jigsaw, I sat in on many, many 2/3 classes; I enjoyed it, learned from it, was inspired by those sessions of silent watching. The ideas came organically, growing from the specificity of that soil. I contacted a local fifth-grade teacher, Chris Porter at Glenmont Elementary, because I’d known her for years, admired her enthusiasm for literature and her commitment to teaching. With openness and warmth, Chris invited me into her classroom, where I was free to visit any time throughout the school year. Over a period of six months, I came and went as I wished, sitting in the back, silently observing. If something particularly cool was going on, Chris might send me a note. Like, oh, “For our Canada unit, we’re making an eight-foot long paper mache moose. It’s a mess, and it’s crazy, and we don’t really have any time to do it, but it’s so much fun! You’ve got to come and see it.”

I didn’t have a story in mind. I didn’t know what I was looking for. My goal was to sit and absorb the goings-on of a lively, creative classroom, and see what comes of it. I saw the flow of the school day, the way things worked. I filled a composition book with random notes, quick character sketches, hair-brained ideas. No story yet, but I was getting a handle on that world. I soon realized that sitting in a well-structured classroom was not nearly enough. I needed to see the students “in the wild,” meaning: recess, the lunch room, gym, on the bus. That is, all the time they were away from Chris’s watchful eye, when they had more freedom to interact, to be themselves, to mess up.

Eventually the themes in this story — which was to become Along Came Spider — began to take hold. I began deeply interested in exclusion and inclusion, in how some kids didn’t quite fit with the larger group. At the younger grades, eccentric behavior was more easily absorbed. But after a few years — second grade, third, fourth — the students become more familiar with each other. I could see how some of them were in danger of becoming increasingly isolated. I could imagine that Middle School could easily become a problem; they were at risk of becoming lost in the crowd, alienated, separate and alone. I didn’t see students who were picked on or bullied. They were just . . . accepted, tolerated, ignored.

When responding to an email query, Chris wrote to me:

“I know as a fifth-grade teacher, I always hope that the ‘troubled’ student who doesn’t fit in the mainstream group is able to find just one friend. I truly believe you can get through anything knowing that you have someone who likes you and see you for just you — as well as someone who will include you in the most difficult times of the day — recess/lunch!”

I taped those words to the wall beside my computer. And I was on my way. I still didn’t have the story, exactly, but I had the stirrings of what I wanted to write about. Now I needed to do a new kind of research. It was time to hit the books . . .

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