WRITERS AT WORK: We get letters — and lots of e-mails, too. (Part 2)

Hi everyone,

At this point we are not sure if we will continue doing the series past the end of this month although Sandy Asher and I have been enjoying these Tuesday visits and are learning that at least a few of you do too.

Please let us know if you find WRITERS AT WORK to be of interest and/or help in your own work. If you do or if you don’t, we need to know. The show will conclude at the end of June or continue as our schedules allow, depending on what we hear from readers to help guide our decision.

Feel free to jump in with comments about the monthly topic. The one we’re discussing this month is especially fun because just about everyone who does a school visit or speaks before groups is bound to receive thank-you notes and e-mails. If you have some good examples, please share them.

Don’t forget that at the end of every month we bring all the Tuesday chats together and repost them on the blog of America Writes for Kids. That link again is http://usawrites4kids.drury.edu /

I’m up for today so here we go.

Letters, We Get Letters – and Lots of Email, Too
Response 2 – David
June 14, 2011

Thanks Sandy! I love to hear from readers too. Who doesn’t? They tend to come in three categories. One is the packet of notes required by the teacher after a school visit. “Get out your paper and pencils and think about what we learned today when Mr. Harrison visited our class. What did you remember about what he said? Which poem did you like best?” A second group is from individuals who find something in a book that makes them want to write a fan letter to the author. The third category, which usually comes via the Internet, is from those who not only like our work but seek our help in getting published. That category is probably worthy of another day.

But back to the teacher generated notes from students. “Dear Mr. Harrison, thank you for coming to our class. I remember when you dug up your dead pet parakeet and whacked off its wings. Your poem I liked best was ‘Life’s Not Fair’ because it was about running out of toilet paper and it was short. Your friend, Joe.” I read every note. I bet that every author fortunate enough to hear from a child takes the time to read the note and try to respond in an appropriate way.

I dig my way down through the stack, mining for the gold of originality. Every now and then a real voice speaks out and tickles me. When I least expect it, some kid makes me snort out loud and interrupt my wife to read the note. A few years ago I did a book with two voices called FARMER’S GARDEN. It did well so I collaborated with the same artist, Arden Johnson-Petrov, on a follow-up title called FARMER’S DOG GOES TO THE FOREST. In both books, Dog stops to examine and interview the things he sees, which results in two-way chats in rhyme. A teacher read the second book to her class and asked her students to write about their thoughts. Here’s what one honest kid had to tell me.

“Dear Mr. Harrison,
Your book is weird. First, the dog is talking to inanimate objects. For example, the dog was talking to a tree, some grass, and the brook. Clearly you can see the book is kind of out there.”

Sandy, what can you say when someone that young pins you to the wall with such a valid point! In another case, I wrote a poem about a dead wasp I found on a windowsill in our house. “Death of a Wasp” is sad. I visualized the tiny creature’s futile efforts to escape, bumping against the window over and over until it eventually died on the sill. My editor told me she cried when she read the poem. When I read it to groups of adults, all eyes turn solemn. That’s true of most kids, too, except this one. I love his note.

“Dear Mr. Harrison,
On the wasp poem, I saw my teacher about to cry. I didn’t see why everybody about cried.”

What can I say? If dead insects don’t jerk your tear ducts, they just don’t! Which reminded me, as these notes so often do, that everyone reads with his or her own ideas about what’s good, what makes sense, what’s right, what’s funny, and even what is worthy of tears!

Sandy, do you save your notes from young readers? I do, not all of them, but the ones that really grab me. Sometimes they come in handy, for example, right now.

Being new: “I’m new so I relate to the part (in a school bus poem) that says some kids are new but you wave at them too. That’s exactly what happened to me.”
Being rejected: “I know how it feels to be rejected. I entered in the poetry contest in my school in third, fourth, and fifth grade but I never won. I plan to enter this year. It’s my last chance.”
Cursive writing: “You were just like me when I was learning how to write in cursive. I had trouble with the letter X.”
Being embarrassed: “My favorite poem was the one with you falling off the risers. When you fell off the risers I bet you were embarrassed. I have embarrassing moments too.”

Years ago I was waiting to see an editor at Random House. On the floor by my chair were stacks of boxes of letters from kids addressed to Berenstain Bears. When I asked about them, I learned that letters arrived in such volume that responding sometimes became a problem. Sandy, may I live long enough to receive so many letters that responding becomes a problem! For now, I remain grateful every time a child writes, even when he thinks my book is weird and kind of out there.

Back to you!


8 comments on “WRITERS AT WORK: We get letters — and lots of e-mails, too. (Part 2)

  1. Love these notes! Once after a visit in which I jokingly explained that I spied on kids to figure out how they were like animals for my poems in Stampede, a kid very serious asked what else I saw when I spied on them. Another kid shared with me the animals he thought everyone in his family were like.

    I agree–these notes are a treasure!

    • Hey Laura,

      Thanks for your comment! If a large enough group of writers saved their best notes from children, it might make a fun book. I love your conversation with the student who was concerned about spying. The book I propose should have such conversations in it too!


  2. Yes, I saved every note, card and story I have received from kids when I taught creative writing classes for kids during summer programs at the library, from my Girl Scout Brownie group and when I have helped beginner adult writers. One special note or card can go along ways in feeling it was all worth while.

    • Hi Mary Nida,

      There’s something about notes from young readers that boosts the spirit. They tend to write without pretense or guile. And for some the note is one of their first efforts to write to someone else.


  3. This post (and Sandy’s) point out the relationship between writer and reader. Most of our writing goes unacknowledged, but the reader still brings him/herself to it. What every writer hopes for, I think, is for that reader to think: “I have moments like that, too.” I strive for that when I write–to take something specific or concrete and write it in such a way that it becomes universal.

    • That’s true, Jane. Writing is a solitary act performed in good faith and high hopes that our eventual audience will appreciate our effort. A note from “the other side” gives us tangible evidence that someone did read our work and like it.


    • Greetings, Charles, and thank you! It’s always a pleasure to hear from you. I hope you are busy doing things you like. Have fun at Rebecca’s upcoming retreat.


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