For twenty-five years I’ve been an Early Childhood teacher, teaching children from pre-k to third grade in the public schools of Illinois. Having only worked with socio-economically challenged and at-risk students and families, some years were definitely longer than others.
Through no fault of their own, most of my students face challenges that would test even the strongest willed adult’s ability to retain hope and faith for a good future. Poverty, hunger, incarcerated/addicted/absentee parents, homelessness, even parents who’ve committed murder are some of the challenges my three to nine-year-olds have had to deal with over the years.
I’m often asked, “How do you keep doing this every year?” The answer is easy: I do it for them, for my kids. I may be the only positive influence in their lives, and I want to make it count. Every day. So, what does this have to do with writing, specifically with writing my debut picture book, KATIE COMMA?
Well, as writers, we face struggles—writer’s block, self-doubt, rejections from agents and publishers—a far cry from what I’ve listed above, but no less valid of reasons to want to give up hope of becoming a published author.
Everyone needs to learn methods for coping with hard times. Life is hard. There’s no way around that. The wise words of Westley in the movie The Princess Bride say it best:
“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
When I set out to write KATIE COMMA, I wrote it with my students and teachers like me in mind. Those who work tirelessly to be the light for their students. To show them that there is another way of life. That sometimes the world can be great. That it’s not only ok, but necessary to have hope that you will find your place in the world.
In my book, Katie Comma gets blown from her story. She travels through the classroom from book to book and sentence to sentence trying to find her home, the place where she belongs. She struggles, she searches, she almost gives up hope but eventually her determination pays off. That determination is what I strive to encourage in the children I am trusted to teach.
My students deal with a lot, as you’ve read, and sometimes the personal issues overshadow and affect their struggles in the classroom. Learning to read is difficult when you don’t have the support or role models at home. Completing homework and bedtime stories take a back seat to a single mom having to get the kids to a sitter as she rushes out to work the night shift at her second job.
Children don’t have the benefit of understanding though. Developmentally egocentric, they blame themselves. When a child feels like they can’t do anything right, they sometimes cause disruptions and lash out verbally or physically at other students or me, or completely shut down and quit trying.
Imagine, as a writer, you go through rounds of edits and polishing and betas and edits and more polishing until you finally get that nod from an agent or publisher to “take a look” at your story. In the middle of your high and daydreams of bestseller lists, the rejection comes. The dreaded form letter. Maybe you cry. Maybe you drink. Maybe you throw your computer out the window and swear off writing for good. (I don’t recommend the last one.)
Now imagine that you have never heard the word subjective and you think the rejection is your fault because you can’t write. That’s how some kids feel, and it carries over into their adult lives. Quitting is the easy way out. And I’ve never taken the easy way, nor do I allow my students to choose that path. From day one in my classroom, I tell my students that it’s okay to fail. In fact, it’s the best and sometimes only way to learn. We have a saying for this;
When you struggle, it means your brain is growing.
I tell my class that to learn they have to try and that failing is only bad if you give up.
This year at our meet-the-teacher night, a mother told me that her son couldn’t read, and he didn’t like school because of it. He’d refused to read at home, and she had never heard him read a single word.
I knelt down and met him eye to eye. When I asked if he wanted to learn how to read, he nodded yes. I promised that I would teach him how to read, but he had to promise to try even if it was hard because that was the only way it would work. He again nodded and I moved on to the next parent. Later that night, I got an email from the mother saying her son had gone home that night and read to her for the first time ever.
Just a few heartfelt words were all it took for that young child to have faith in himself. The hope I have for my book is that KATIE COMMA can plant that seed of hope in other children who hear it. Yes, I want them to learn about punctuation and where a comma is used. I wrote it because I couldn’t find a book that outlined the basic use of commas for a younger audience.
But there is so much more to the story and it’s the theme of perseverance that makes my book special, I think. After all, who couldn’t use a little pat on the back every now and then? I think Katie makes a perfect role model for that.
About the author:
BB Swann is the author of Breaking the Bro Code, Breaking the Barriers, Katie Comma, and Twisted Fairy Tales.
Teacher by day, author by night, BB fights old age and empty-nest-syndrome one story at a time. Writing picture books keeps her young, young adult romance and sci-fi keep her passionate, and short stories keep her entertained. Her issue-driven fiction makes her similar to John Greene, only she doesn’t kill her characters—at least not the ones readers might like. You can sign up for her newsletter, read more about her Midwestern life, and even read samples from her books at: www.bbswann.com.