Book Excerpt: 'Letters to a Young Teacher'

From "Letters to a Young Teacher" (Crown, 2007)
The children had been told I was a writer and, like many children who quite often make this flattering mistake, they thought this was incredibly exciting and had carefully prepared a bunch of questions that they fired at me energetically, like just so many eight-year-old reporters. The questions they asked were really interesting to me and were, in fact, a whole lot more original than the questions grown-up interviewers generally pose.

"Is it lonesome to write?"

"How do you write so many words?"

"How do you feel if people criticize your books?"

"Does it make you sad when people know your books but can't pronounce your name?"

"Do you feel sad because you're old?"

One of the children also asked, "Do you write little books or chapter books?"

I had forgotten that distinction between books that are, essentially, extended stories and books long enough to be divided into chapters. Although I'd never thought of it this way before, I told the children, "I write chapter books," which led one of them to ask why I didn't also write what she called "easy books" for younger children.

I answered that I'd never done that yet because I think it takes a special gift that I don't have but that I would like to try to write a book like that someday.

"Do it!" the child said, dispensing briskly with my effort to be self-effacing.

The teacher said the children in the class were also writers—several were writing "real books," she reported—and that this was why they'd put a lot of thought into preparing questions for me.

I answered the other questions they had asked the best I could. No, I said, I didn't mind if people can't pronounce my name, because most people find it hard to know which syllable to emphasize. I said it did upset me to be criticized, with which the children seemed to empathize. They said it hurt their feelings too, even though they knew this would help them do a better job on their revisions, which I said was true in my case too. And "yes," I told them, "writing can be very lonesome, that's the hardest part of it for me," but writing "many words" is not so hard once you begin "and sometimes it's much harder to write something short that's really good than something long."

I dodged the question about being "old" and asked if they would tell me more about the books that they were writing, at which point they took their folders out and let me read their books and see the pictures they had drawn to go with them. One of the children asked me how a writer gets a publisher and, when I said I had an agent who helps me decide each time if what I've done is good enough to show a publisher, this persistent little boy asked me for my agent's name and her address.

Teachers in other inner-city schools often tell their kids that I'm a writer, since they want to spur their students to believe they can be writers too. The children always ask me questions about how I write, why I write, and where I live, and who my mother is, and if I have a dog, and what she's like, and whether I have children (it disappoints them when I say I don't), but they do not ask me why I like to be with them. One of the nicest qualities most of these children have is generous discretion. I'm grateful that they leave some pleasant things unquestioned.