One image. Many stories. Early words from my MG/YA class at Penn.

Friday, January 26, 2018

This Penn semester I'm teaching something new—wading into the land of middle grade and young adult writing with fifteen spectacular students. We're learning about character and voice from verse novels, in-the-round perspective from multiple-voice novels, dialogue and pacing from graphic novels. We're inviting Sara Novic into our fold. We're building personalities, landscapes, tensions, plots—and friendships.

Around a crowded table, we warm up with a five-minute-five-sentence exercise. An image is presented. A question is asked: What is the story?

The image above was created by my artist-husband. The words below come from a sampling of my students. They're pretty great, right? Teaching all of us how one frozen moment in time can mean many things to many people.

She begins a new job in the same city, but somehow it feels like a completely new world. As she watches the other adults go by, something in her shrinks and she reverts to feeling small, young, scared. Her briefcase weighs on her like a suitcase, her resume in hand turns into her beloved childhood stuffed animal, Maxie. 


Relative to her height, the legs around her might as well have been a forest. The pant-legs were saplings, and the skirts like old, stout, round trees. Afraid of losing her grip on the small briefcase, she tightened her fingers until the knuckles all blanched and the sweat in her palm had nowhere to go. In order to get out of this crowd, Penelope thought, she was going to need to pick her way through the forest.


She had been walking for fifteen minutes when it first occurred to her to look up. There had been a voice over the intercom, at first, directing her back to her mother—she had been walking away from that. She and her mother had gone to the mall to buy new shoes for school. Before they had left, she had packed a suitcase with the essentials: goldfish crackers, blanket, and two pairs of socks. Now, the girl was free.


She was on her way home. Her mother said home was faces and so she looked up at the people walking past her. Their faces spoke travel, work, and other things she could not describe. She stood there with wonder and confusion and pondered over which face to trust, which long leg to grasp. Then, she made her choice.


Does growing up mean growing tall?
Do we learn as our bodies grow?
Does small person mean small mind?
A young girl holds her stuffed animal by her side, and she wants to loosen her grip, but doesn’t know how.
What can we learn about what can be lost from the gloss in our eyes?


She'd begged her mother for weeks to let her ride the subway on her own to school - a girl always seeking to be older, imitating her father by using his old suitcase in lieu of a backpack in preschool. After a persistent fight, she finds herself on the platform of the 2, Uptown. And though she is in high school now, the feeling of being absolutely lost makes her feel more like she's five than fifteen. In the midst of the chaos, of adults transferring cars, squeezing between commuters, she feels like her younger self, suitcase in hand, stuffed animal tucked under her arm. And the boldness of her desire to be older is overcome by the reality that she might still be a child.

Erin F.
Her mom had been wearing a skirt, Sarah thought.  A black skirt.  Tall blue jeans and cuff-linked arms carelessly pushed Sarah aside.  She felt as though she were drowning in a sea of long legs and strange faces.  Sarah squeezed her bunny tight against her chest and clutched her suitcase till her knuckles turned white.  Mom would find her, she told herself, over and over again.  Mom would find her. 

A child can slip unnoticed through a sea of men and women. The girl looks up into the stratosphere, gazing in wonder at the adult faces and features so different than her own. She attempts to mimic their calm and collected seriousness as she wades among them, toting her father’s “very important” forgotten briefcase in one hand, her favorite stuffed dog fueling her confidence in the other.

Erin L.
My name is Edna and I am seven years old. Tensions in Poland are rising so my parents have sent me to stay with family in America. I just got off the boat with my toy bunny and suitcase. All around me are busy people, minding their own business. How will I ever find my uncle in this crowd? — Isabella


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