Today we welcome Rachel Shulman to the Mixed-Up Files. Rachel is a youth services librarian at the Vernon Area Public Library in Lincolnshire, Illinois. She oversees the library’s creative writing program for young authors, Write Away.
MUF: Welcome, Rachel!
RS: Thank you so much for having me!
MUF: So, what prompted the library to have a young writers’ group?
RS: We had a couple of patrons ask about a writing group, including one patron whose previous library offered a monthly writing group. I was involved in a couple of writing publications in college, so I was excited to foster a love of writing in others, and Write Away was born!
MUF: Tell us about the kids who participate. How often does the group meet?
RS: Write Away meets once a month in the fall and spring. I hold one session for grades 3-4 and one for grades 5-8 each month. It’s not necessary to attend every month. I love it when the kids come back because that means they had fun writing (at least I hope they did!).
MUF: What goes on at a typical meeting?
RS: Each month in Write Away, we explore a different theme ranging from mysteries or fractured fairy tales to creating characters or overcoming writer’s block. We usually start with a warm-up such as MadLibs to get the creative juices flowing. Another popular warm-up is making up creative definitions for some of the weirdest, most obscure words I can find. One of my favorites is kerfuffle which means disorder or agitation. Then there is circumfloribus, meaning flowery or long-winded, which I like because that could describe my own writing at times!
After the warm-up, I introduce the theme with brainstorming or an activity. At this point we usually take a snack break to fuel up before the main writing event begins. The most important part of the session is the 20 minutes of dedicated (and quiet) writing time. This is when the kids can really push the limits of their imaginations. And I just love the sound of pencils on paper as they let their ideas flow onto the page.
Last but not least, anyone who wants to share what they have written so far with the group can do so. It’s not required, and I have to admit that when I was that age, I was way too shy to share my work in public. I’m always impressed by the writers who are brave enough to share and then even more impressed by what they write.
MUF: This program encourages imagination and fun. Do you think it has helped the kids develop their creative writing skills?
RS: Sometimes I have to explain that this is not a class and I won’t be grading anything. My goal is to offer a safe and encouraging environment for young writers to flex their creative muscles. I provide the spark or the prompt for the kids’ ideas and help them develop their creativity with praise and positive feedback. I think their writing improves because I give them the opportunity to practice writing whatever they want.
MUF: Many of the young writers participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this past November. What was that experience like for them?
RS: NaNoWriMo is a daunting task to complete. It takes dedication and a lot of time to write a novel in 30 days, but we had quite a few winners in the Young Writers Program. The participants loved hearing from local authors who presented three programs at the library: how to get started (and keep going); individual feedback and encouragement halfway through the month; and finally our Thank Goodness It’s Over party focused on what it takes to be published. Many of the kids who participated exceeded their word count goals. They took on an intimidating challenge, and I think they surprised themselves most of all with how well they mastered that writing challenge.
MUF: The library printed a literary magazine containing the kids’ stories and poems. How did the kids react to getting “published?”
RS: The first annual Write Away! Literary Magazine was a hit! The library was able to publish a sophisticated book of 50 young authors’ creative writing that is now cataloged in the library’s collection and can be checked out.
My favorite feature, besides the amazing writing, is the ISBN. It makes it look so official. The literary magazine would not have been possible without the library’s Integrated Communications department which designed the book. All the published authors and their parents were impressed, as was I! The kids really loved seeing their writing in print, in a real book. They also enjoyed reading all the other stories and poems by their fellow authors.
MUF: Do any of the young writers aspire to be authors when they grow up?
RS: My Write Away kids are quite an ambitious bunch. There are several who want to become authors before they grow up! After all, when they write their first novel at age 12 during NaNoWriMo, the sky’s the limit. I will be able to say I knew them when!
MUF: What’s planned for this year? How do you see the program evolving in the future?
RS: We’ll be accepting submissions for the second annual Write Away! Literary Magazine starting March 11 until April 8. The Vernon Area Public Library is completing more exciting renovations this spring, so unfortunately that means the monthly Write Away sessions are on hiatus until the fall. Luckily, writers in grades 3-8 can send in their creative pieces to become published authors in just a few weeks time! I will be offering one-on-one editing sessions for any writers who want to polish their work before submitting it for publication. Aspiring authors can click here to find the dates and times on our event calendar.
We plan to offer NaNoWriMo programs again in November and publish an annual literary magazine every spring. Beyond that, I’ll just have to leave you with a quote from Daniel Pinkwater: “Read a lot. Write a lot. Have fun.”
Thank you, Rachel, for visiting the Mixed-Up Files and telling us about the Write Away program. If you have questions for Rachel, feel free to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The library’s website is: www.vapld.info.
Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb Books 2011) and The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days (Wendy Lamb Books, coming spring 2014).
Thanks for your devotion to young writers and to books, Rachel. I adored the library when I was a kid, and guess what? I grew up to write middle grade novels. I bet some of your students do too!
What a great program! My girls would love it. Wish we could do something down here in Florida.
@Jen Swanson, Talk to your local library! 🙂