Sixth graders of yesteryear. Today I meet with sixth graders for Critics in the Classroom!

I’ve always been a fan of lifelong learning. It’s an aspect of life that’s highly valued in the town I grew up in, Port Townsend, WA, a hub of history, nature, the arts and inquiring minds. The subjects I’ve pursued lean to the arts side, particularly theater, music and literature. This week, my educational focus has shifted. This week I learned to use Skype and Google Hangout.

Learning new communications technology was inevitable when I launched “Critics in the Classroom.” I’ve temporarily abandoned my no-frills clamshell cell phone for the world of screens because (ta-da!) I am making contact with the younger generation! Sixth graders, to be exact. They’ve read my new manuscript for middle grade readers, written their critiques and will meet with me face-to-face (screen-to-screen?) today, Friday, February 23. My face will be writ huge on the classroom’s big screen, so I plan to brush my teeth really, really well. The teacher and I did a test run yesterday. This made me really happy because who wants to screw up in front of a bunch of 11 and 12-year-olds?

My critics will have the opportunity to ask questions in real time. Someone will want to know if the protagonist in “The Luck of Lily Adams” is based on my seventh grade experiences in 1971. Yes, she is, and I will tell you why. Seventh grade in 1971 is a world I know. I love to write completely fictional stories and create worlds (like my books for adults, “Small-g City” and “Big-G City”) but even in those books the details of, say, downtown Seattle or working as an accountant can anchor a scene with very few words. That’s the advantage of knowing a time, place or job from the inside.

I’ll also share with them how I plan to use some of their comments to revise the book. A few students (and both adults who’ve read my book so far) have recommended cutting down the amount of detail in the opening chapter to liven the pace. I tried- -believe me, I tried!- -to hold details down to a dull roar, but. . . Suffice it to say I almost, but didn’t quite, “kill my darlings.” This expression means to get rid of the stuff that slows your story down, things that you just love that aren’t relevant to the forward motion of the plot. In the next revision, I plan to copy the first chapter into a separate document, strip out whatever isn’t absolutely necessary in launching the story into action and add back only the most powerful details.

All of the written critiques have been informative; some of them are downright moving. My biggest single hope for “Lily Adams” is that today’s kids can relate to someone their own age in 1971. Turns out, they can, some of them extraordinarily so. They can picture Lily as a real kid who might be in their class. When commenting on theme, a common perception was “when things are hard, don’t give up.” Wow. Will Lily’s story inspire kids to keep trying?

It’s pretty amazing to see the culmination of “Critics in the Classroom,” a project I dreamed up last August. With the first of two classrooms bringing their participation to a close, I am grateful, humbled and eager to see what comes next. I’ll be presenting the project-to-date at the Nevada Reading Week Conference, March 3, 2018, Reno, NV, complete with classroom handouts. Warm thanks to the teachers and students who have participated thus far- -without you, I’d have nothing to talk about!

For more about the Nevada Reading Week Conference, see I’m honored to be among the authors and presenters at this event and look forward to meeting the teachers, librarians and other education professionals who’ll be there to hear what we have to say.

Next week I’ll be posting early, a short story published in 2008 based on the real-life challenges of moving a cat 300 miles across the state. Yes, I will definitely post a picture of the cat who inspired the tale!

Stay warm, hug your kids and enjoy the last few weeks of winter!

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