In Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte, 2010) my main character Maebelle T. Earl lugs around a Little Known Facts Book of Just About Everything after she doesn’t test into the gifted and talented program as she moves into 6th grade. Over the summer, which is when the book is set, Maebelle attempts to memorize as many facts as she can in hopes that memorizing and recall of these facts will make her “gifted and talented” once again. Without the G&T program, Maebelle doesn’t feel she fits in with the rest of her accomplished family. Her parents are out on a book tour, her grandparents are recently retired legendary honky tonk singers, and her newly adopted cousin that she is stuck spending the summer with is a trumpet playing prodigy from Chicago–who doesn’t say ma’am (as all good southerners do)–and accuses her family of having owned slaves since Granny and Gramps live in a newly inherited antebellum home.
That’s the set up. A big one. When I go visit schools and libraries, I talk to kids about the fact and fiction in my own life. I share something like this:
There is an adage in writing–write what you know. I do that. But I also write what I don’t know. Fiction for me takes a little bit of facts–some from my own life–and mixes it with a whole lot of what ifs and what thens. The facts about me that ended up in Truth with a Capital T are:
- Like Maebelle, I tested for but did not get into the Gifted & Talented Program.
- When I was in middle school, I played the trumpet–though I wasn’t a prodigy like Isaac.
- Like Isaac, I was born in Chicago and chastised for not saying “ma’am and sir” when I moved to the South.
But there is plenty of fiction in Truth with a Capital T
- My grandparents aren’t honky tonk legends who drove a Winnebago that honked out their top hit.
- My parents didn’t mortify me by writing a marriage self help book and appearing on tv.
- I never had an adopted African-American cousin.
- And, though the town of Tweedle is based on many small Georgia towns, where I did live–it only exists right here between the pages of this book.
I then lead the kids in character sketches. When asked what a sketch is, kids know the answer to that. But a character sketch–they are not so sure. We talk about how when drawing we use our pencils to shade faces, to draw details. A character sketch they soon realize is much the same. One young student, a fourth grader, even said, “Oh, it is drawing with words!” Exactly.
I have them pick concrete details for their characters–that are all fiction. The character’s name. How tall, how short. What they are good at. What they are not-so good at. What they like to eat. What is their favorite song.
Then we work on emotional facts. Facts from their lives that could help them shade the fictional person they just created. “When we write a story, I tell them, and move this character around on the page, it won’t be you but it won’t not be you, either.” I don’t mind the weird ‘what are you talking about, lady’ looks. I don’t refute them, I just take them in. I know the magic that is coming. I ask them to jot down their most embarrassing moment, a memory of what made them the most happy they’ve ever been, or the most sad. I ask them what their favorite private place is. I ask them what it feels like to ride on a bus, walk a country road, see paintings in a museum, etc.”
With our lists complete, our character sketch now is. We plop the characters–those created with a little bit of fact and a little bit of fiction–and we play. We write and write and write and at some point I ask for volunteer readers. I don’t make the students who read tell which parts of their own stories is fact or fiction, but I do ask what it felt like to write the scene. The kids come up with some interesting answers. “More real.” “Fun–kinda.” I’ve even heard “scary.” Those are all the right answers, I tell them. Writing fiction where you use your imagination and draw on a bit of your own emotional truth and then give that feeling away to your main character does make it more real, it does make it kinda fun, and it does make it scary. Most fiction writers I know feel all three of those things when they write–and on a daily basis. I sure do.
We end these visits going back to Truth with a Capital T, to Maebelle and her quest to find her talent, to be good enough and seen as enough (by herself) and as being recognized as brilliant as the rest of her family is. If they’ve read the book, we talk about Maebelle’s research into her family’s past to see if they indeed owned slaves or were a part of the Underground Railroad. We talk about Maebelle learning the quilt code, which some historians believe is fact and others believe is fiction. We talk about whether or not getting back into the gifted and talented program is as important to Mabelle by the book’s end as it was in the beginning. For the visits, where the students haven’t yet read the book, we usually perform a readers’ theatre. The kids read a scene–act it out–and then we together turn another scene into a script and perform it. That exposes them enough to some of the scenes that we can have a similar discussion–sticking to the scenes we worked on.
Both groups, the ones who’ve read the novel in full and the ones who haven’t, end the visit having written. They do what I do every day; they’ve taken real circumstances and real feelings and mixed it with imaginary circumstances and imaginary feelings. They’ve started with a blank page, as I do every day. They felt, if even for a moment, the magic that mixing fact and fiction can bring. The personal catharsis–the feeling that makes–and keeps writers writing. I may not leave knowing which child is destined to become an author, if any, but I do leave knowing that they all got a small taste of what it is an author does and the emotional roller coaster–joyful and scary–that a fiction writer experiences. Sharing story, whether with kids directly, or in the pages of the books I write–is a talent. And like Maebelle I searched for a long time before finding it but find it I did.
Our guest blogger today is author Bethany Hegedus. Bethany’s books, Truth with a Capital T (Delacorte/Random House) and Between Us Baxters (starred) (WestSide Books) were both named as Bank Street Books, Best Books in 2010 and 2011. Forthcoming, with Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, is the picture book Grandfather Gandhi, co-authored with Arun Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma. Bethany is the Editor of the Young Adult & Children’s page for the VCFA literary journal Hunger Mountain. She operates The Writing Barn, a writing workshop/retreat space and all-around book lover haven. She serves as a preliminary reader for a New York publishing company and teaches privately and speaks across the country. A longtime resident of NYC, she now writes from her home in Austin.
If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is awesome, Bethany. I can see the light bulbs going off over kids heads! Thanks for sharing your fact vs fiction character sketch!
When I did a writing workshop last year with 4th and 5th grade students, I had them write a decalogue. We read the decalogue from Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. Then I had them write a decalogue using themselves and then they did one for a fictional character. It turned out great!