Class 5 Students Find Their "Sparks"

During the Book Fair in November, 18 accomplished authors visited Chapin, signing their books and taking photos with eager fans. One of these guests, middle-grade novelist Jessie Janowitz, took time from her busy day to sit down with our Class 5 students and share advice on writing inspired stories. As the group gathered around her, Ms. Janowitz stood at the front of the room, holding her book “The Doughnut Fix,” and gazed out the window with a smile.

“I’m looking out at the river right now and remembering that when I was your age I saw this same view from my classroom at The Town School. So, I feel really connected to all of you and I’m so happy to be here!” the author began.

After introducing herself and describing her journey to becoming a published writer, Ms. Janowitz shared how she defines the word author. “I believe that an author is someone who has the courage, patience and persistence to finish a story, beginning to end, and make it the best that it can be, regardless of whether or not it is ever published,” she said. She explained that, while reading a great story can feel like magic, writing a great story is not magic, which means, “We can all write amazing stories if we are willing to put in the time and develop the tools!”

To elaborate, the author shared what she feels is the secret recipe for all good stories: “Spark + what if + revision”…. a “spark” being an experience in real life that inspires us and a “what if” being a question we ask that gets our imaginations firing.

For example, the spark for Ms. Janowitz’s book “The Doughnut Fix” came from a sign she saw in the window of a rundown, small-town general store. The sign read, “Yes, we do have chocolate cream donuts.” “I decided that sign was definitely a lie, and I thought it would be a great place to begin a story!” the author exclaimed. “What if… someone believed the sign and went in to purchase a donut? What if… a boy from NYC moved to a small town with no restaurants and opened a donut shop?”

Ms. Janowitz then pulled out a copy of her book and, much to the delight of the students, read a short passage. “This is what my ‘spark’ and ‘what if’ turned into,” she said as she closed the cover. “Now it’s your turn!” The author asked the students to take some time to come up with their very own sparks and what ifs.

“We all bring our own unique perspectives,” Ms. Janowitz encouraged. “So even if you feel like a story has already been told, remember it will be completely different when you tell it.”

The students quickly got to thinking – some resting their heads on the table, deep in thought, while others gazed intently into the distance. After a few quiet minutes, they were ready to share.

One student enthusiastically explained that her spark was a light switch in her family’s apartment that doesn’t turn anything on. “What if… I discovered that the switch opens up a secret passageway?” she wondered. “And what if the passageway was full of creatures that were sneaking into our house?”

Another described a boardwalk she had once walked down that ended in a thick patch of cattails growing over a worn dirt path. “What if… I went down the path and it led to a hidden lair?” she exclaimed.

After listening to several other creative ideas, the group began to discuss the many ways we can experiment with how our stories are told. “Sometimes you might go down the wrong path and have to turn around,” Ms. Janowitz explained. “That’s how you make your story the best that it can be!”

From rethinking the narrator – “Is this the best person to tell the story?” – and analyzing the plot – “Are there enough surprises in my story?” – to rearranging the structure – “Could I make things more exciting by messing with the order?” – the author shared helpful tips and tricks to keep in mind when editing your work. “These revision tools are also great things to mention in any papers or book reviews you write here at Chapin,” she noted.

At this, the Class 5 students gathered their things and prepared to head to their next classes, armed with the inspiration and tools they’ll need to grow as thoughtful readers and writers. Ms. Janowitz left them with one enthusiastic plea. “All of you have amazing stories inside of you, and you need to tell them. So don’t give up, and please, keep reading and writing!”