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Are You Connected?

What’s your first thought when you hear that question? I’ll bet it’s one of two things:

connected to the internet, OR connected to influential people.

Noah Webster was going for the second one. He wanted people like Ben Franklin and George Washington to endorse his plan for reforming English spelling, promote it, even legislate it. By golly, he would make people appreciate his ideas. For him, it was all about connections.

AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET, BEN FRANKLIN AND NOAH WEBSTER’S SPELLING REVOLUTION spotlights the relationship between Ben and Noah. Their connection was based on their love of language and efforts to educate the population. Working together, Noah ultimately learned that the success of their idea was not about being connected to influential people, but rather connecting to the public, his audience.

I learned a lot from both of these men as I got to know them through their books and letters, and pondering all this, I began to think about authors’ connections to the stories they tell. The inspiration for this book came from the connection between my life experience as a teacher and the Ben Franklin quote (“Those people spell best who do not know how to spell.”) that I mentioned in the interview. It’s the reason I saw “those people” as children. Someone else reading that quote with different life experiences wouldn’t be affected the same way and wouldn’t tell the same story.

Once I had connected with those words and began to dig for a story, one source led to another. I connected personally to the topic, the characters, and their involvement in education. From those connections came the theme, the energy, and, ultimately, the heart of the story. Why do we need to “interview” our characters? Why should our research go wider and deeper than our story? Why do authors need to spend time with their fictional characters in their fictional world? I think it’s about connections. The more strongly we connect to the time and place and the more we are invested in the characters, the stronger the emotional core of the story will be. As Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

Even if readers have a very different experience than the action and conflict on the surface, the human connection at the gut/heart level tapping into curiosity/fascination/humor/etc makes them keep turning the pages. That emotional core becomes the bridge for readers. Universals go deep and connect us all.

In the midst of these story connections, there are many more. With critique partners who comfort, encourage, and push us to do better. With the community of kid lit writers and illustrators who share advice, opportunities, and friendship. And of course, the connections we cultivate with agents and editors who turn a manuscript into a book. In spite of the image of writers working alone, “No author is an island.”

We spend a lot of time on the crucial “kid hook” and how kids will connect to our story. (After all, just because I connected with a story doesn’t mean a child will.) Educators stress the importance of the ability to connect, and language arts curriculum asks students to connect text to self, the world, and other texts. But the connections that go in the other direction, between concept and author, are just as essential. Why do I want to write this story? Why do I have to write this story? That special personal emotional connection, that unique telling that comes from investing one’s heart is what makes me as a reader think, question, laugh, or cry. If the author hasn’t put it in, how can a reader get it out?

We hold in our hands the amazing power of books to connect a child to another time and place, to people throughout the world, and to each other. What a privilege!

Beth Anderson, a former English as a Second Language teacher, has always marveled at the power of books. With linguistics and reading degrees, her fascination with language, and a penchant for untold tales, she strives for accidental learning in the midst of a great story. Beth is drawn to stories that open minds, touch hearts, and inspire questions. Born and raised in Illinois, she now lives in Loveland, Colorado.

Also, for a study guide for Beth's new book: An Inconvenient Alphabbet, click here.

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