Young authors draw upon personal experiences to bring characters to life

July 9, 2014 

A new friend I met via email, Mimmi Beck of Arletta, alerted me to a unique project about some local middle school students who wrote a 300+ page book.

Its thrust, kindness. Its title, “The Upstander’s Club.”

Eleven young authors had a reading at Mimmi’s home, its spacious living room packed with family, classmates and friends. The young author/readers were captivating.

“The Upstanders Club” is about kids who help others. Set in a fictional school, story topics include standing up to gossip, welcoming new kids, sharing work with partners, easing shyness, surviving team tryouts, making new friends, explaining math, and fixing things that go wrong.

Author Katelynn Diaz said the real Upstanders Club is a math and writing club that meets once a week at a member’s home.

“We wrote about friends who try to change the world,” said author Kira Rosenlind. “Some chapters are based on what we’ve really done. One writer really shops and gives clothes to others who need them. My chapter is about how when someone joins a group at school, there is worry that the new person will mess up. I talk about a girl, Stormy, who helps someone fit into the group and new school.”

Maggie Baker said, “Fridays, authors meet to work. After going on a zipline, trampoline or down to the beach, we’re inside for hot chocolate or ice cream. We talk about goals, then try to write silently. It doesn’t last long because everyone has a big sense of humor. We’re very collaborative and helpful (in) providing ideas to each other.”

Said Sage Kregenow, “Ideas keep coming until there is one unified idea. Then we write; then we read our stories. My chapter about someone with cancer came from my third grade (experience) when my friend Helen Pennington and I got our hair cut for a donation to be made into wigs for people who had cancer.”

Author Shayda Aliabadi also donated her hair.

“Our hope is people will read our book and realize anyone — no matter how young— can write, and can always do something to help,” Aliabadi said.

“Whenever we meet,” said Anabella Hugo, “we throw around ideas. Sometimes, we do writing exercises. We work together. In every story, the writing is not just the author’s ideas, everybody gives suggestions to make the story better. After our writing sessions, we always share our story. Everybody contributes and gets involved.”

“We also illustrate our stories,” Aliabad said. “Our art process is long and confusing, requiring lots of paper, watercolors, some breakdowns, multiple days and plenty of mental blocks. The end is priceless! We find a photo, sketch on it for muscle memory, then add details and watercolor and consult someone for advice. If it’s ready, we let it dry and put it in the book.”

So how did the group get inspired?

“Anabella Hugo, who wrote about school gossip, was intrigued by how it can spread in any school and how what spreads is often not true,” Graysen Doane said. “Maggie Baker wrote about a girl who is left out, based on a personal experience. I wrote about a disabled girl who learns to ride a horse. I’m fascinated by different lifestyles.”

“Every year on Black Friday my family goes shopping for disadvantaged families,” said Helen Pennington.

Helen’s family buys clothes, toys and board games. Then it goes to a middle school and sets up tables filled with toys and clothes. After getting lists of kids’ ages and what size they wear, family members pick out gifts for them, put them in bags, and hand the bags to families.

“It’s a great experience!” Pennington said.

Gaelan Steele, who goes to a Montessori school, has never attended public school.

“Others told me the school in the first version of my story wasn’t realistic, so I visited Kopachuck Middle School to learn,” Steele said. “The biggest difference is periods. I’d heard of them but never seen them firsthand. I think public school students get more exercise than students at my school, where there’s a lot less running around hallways. A major difference is my school goes from preschool to middle school and has around 150 students. My class is a fourth/fifth/sixth grade split and has only 16 students; I know everyone in fourth through sixth grade. Just remembering names of everyone in your grade at a public school would be a challenge. Writers said my story was much more realistic after my visit.”

“While writing our chapters many of us learned a lot,” said Sarah Batanian. “We’re not just focused on writing but also thinking about finding solutions in reality. This impacted me because I realized we could be like our characters and find solutions and help at school.”

“A few weeks ago,” said Emma Beck, “my friends saw an older kid sitting at a lunch table alone. The kid always sat there but they’d never noticed. They wanted to sit by the kid but didn’t know if they should. They felt sorry for the lonely student. It amazed me how much they resembled characters in our book! From thinking about kindness, they starting to think like their characters! I hope that after reading our book, kids across the country will think like our characters and learn how to stand up for other kids.”

“The Upstanders Club” is available on amazon.com. It will soon be in local stores and school libraries.

Hugh McMillan is a longtime freelance writer for the Gateway. He can be reached at hmcmnp1000@centurytel.net.

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