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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Extending a story: the new-scene project

Every year at this time of year I spend two days with the eighth grade at Whitehall (NY) Central School, where every student, alone or in small teams, creates a new or extended scene for my book The Revealers. Each year this is one of the richest projects I get to be part of. English teacher Sue Ringer and I have done it for eight years now, and we’ve gotten better at drawing these new scenes out of the full range of kids. The work they did this week was the best I’ve seen so far.

Not far from Glens Falls in the Adirondacks, Whitehall is a blue-collar town with more than its share of troubles. Kids come to school from all kinds of home situations, and it’s fair to say that many aren’t getting a lot of encouragement outside school to read, to collaborate, to express themselves positively or creatively. But Sue is a remarkable teacher, crisply organized but warmly encouraging, with a ready sense of humor; and principal Kelly McHugh runs a middle/high school that rallies around its kids with an upbeat atmosphere of no-nonsense support.

Even with all the curriculum pressures that get heaped on each year, Kelly and Sue see to it that the eighth graders read The Revealers. Then I come in, and we gather to get our project started in a large, college-style lecture room, whose risers can create a sort of informal theater. In the first period I mostly answer questions about the novel and about my work. A number of students are also reading True Shoes, the Revealers sequel, and even some of my other books; they often have questions about the writing process, and Sue makes sure I mention that I rewrote The Revealers 11 times.

As the next session starts, we give them their assignment. In groups of two or three, or individually, they are now going to brainstorm a new scene that isn’t in The Revealers but could be — or they can extend an existing scene into new territory.

We offer a few examples. If someone has demanded to know why the novel’s conclusion doesn’t wrap everything up more neatly, then why not write the ending they’d like to see? If they connect especially with a character or two, why not do a new scene between them? It just has to fit into the story. How about Bethany, the story’s snarky queen bee, conspiring with her friends about some new way to humiliate Catalina, the new girl from the Philippines? What if Russell’s mom called the principal, as Russell has just begged her not to do, to complain about Richie, the older tough kid, punching her son in the eye?

The kids get it, mostly. They’re huddled and hunched through the rest of the session, puzzling and laughing and cooking up ideas. Hands go up; Sue and I move around, listening, encouraging, offering advice or caution. If Jon and Chris are going to fight at football practice (guys love to write fights), what are they fighting about? Or, see, you actually can’t have Elliot drown after the Jockrots drop him off a footbridge in the park; Elliot's alive in the rest of the book. Or, sure, it’d be great to show how Russell recruits the friends he’s just rejected, so they can turn their banned Bully Lab into a Creative Science Fair project.

The next morning I came back, and in their English class the kids try to finish their stories as we continue to advise and encourage on request. It can seem as if, no way most of these kids are going to get something done in just a few more minutes. Some have written pages, but others squabble over conflicting ideas or stare at nearly empty sheets. We do our best to nudge the stuck or struggling ones into a good flow, and usually they do respond. I suggested to one class that if their team is doing a scene in dialog, they could each choose a character and pass the paper back and forth, each writing their own part. Along with being fun, this can help a group get past the logjams that do sometimes happen.

Writers have deadlines — and the deadline here is that later in the morning we’ll all gather in the lecture hall for a dramatic reading of every story. Often, classmates, Sue and/or I will get asked to be the narrator or take on a character; but every story does get read or acted out. This week I took notes on some of the more striking moments. For example:

Russell goes to his tormentor’s home to find Richie’s dad surrounded by empty beer bottles, and spouting abuse at his son. In another scene, Bethany announces: “I’m everything — smart! Pretty! Popular! That’s all I need!” In another, after Bethany has manipulated her attorney dad into threatening a lawsuit against the school, he tells her on the way into the meeting that he and the principal have been secretly dating.

“What? You’re telling me this now? This is ridiculous!”

“Well, honey, get over it — me and Mrs. Capelli are in love.”

Or: Bethany apologies for her cruelties and manipulations to Elliot, Russell and Catalina, who debate whether to accept. “We may forgive,” Catalina finally says, “but we will never forget.”

Neither, I sometimes discover, do the kids. Each year when I visit Whitehall Central School, a few older students will stop by, or stop me in the hall, to tell me what they’re doing, talk about their dreams of college, or just talk. I’m not saying our project has some huge dramatic impact — but I’m pretty sure it’s something we remember. Most everyone, I bet, carries with them something about that scene they made, those two busy days one December when they were in eighth grade.

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