This fall our third through fifth grades agreed to participate in the Global Read Aloud by reading PAX by Sara Pennypacker during October and November. Most classes finished reading yesterday. I was fortunate to be asked to read aloud to a fourth grade class. (As a reading specialist, I haven’t had the opportunity to read a whole novel to a class in a very long time). What an amazing experience it has been to share this novel with students! They were able not only to follow the story, but also were able to think deeply, feel empathy for Pax and Peter, and ask interesting questions that stretched all of us.
Today, we had the privilege of participating in a 45-minute Skype session with Sara Pennypacker, the author of PAX. The whole 4th grade gathered in the library. Sara talked for about 20 minutes about her “writerly life.” Here are some of the points I want to remember:
- She was happy to speak to 4th graders to encourage them to keep growing as writers so that perhaps one or more might become the storytellers of the next generation. She said all generations need to create storytellers so that the stories will remain and not be lost.
- She encouraged them to write about their passions, which we have heard before, but then she qualified it by saying that she didn’t just mean writing about the things we love. She included anger, fear, hate, obsessions, as well as love in her list. In fact, two very different passions inspired PAX. She said that her sense of wonder at the bonds that can be forged between children and animals, both pets and wild, was one driving force in the story. The other passion was the anger, frustration, and outrage at the outcomes of war and the 30 million children who are currently homeless due to war. She said in the history of the world, children have never waged war. It has been the adults who go to war while much of the suffering of war is born by children.
- She talked personally about her writing process and described how she is always working as a writer no matter where she is. She worked on PAX for seven years. The first year was all inner rehearsal–no words put on the page for a year! I loved how she was open about needing to create a quiet space where she could be comfortable (in her jammies) and how she uses her time swimming to shut out the world in order to be able to imagine more deeply. We all need quiet to be able to access our imagination in meaningful ways.
- She encouraged us to find an activity that allows us to access our own creativity.
- All you need is a pen and paper.
- She talked about her decisions as a writer. The original manuscript for PAX was twice as long as the original. For several years, she read, revised, and recreated her scenes, characters, and word choice. She was intentional about keeping a reference to time and place out of the story because she wanted each reader to sense that “this could happen here.” She felt that if we could tie the setting to a specific time in the past or future, we might dismiss the story as not relevant.
- The students mentioned a metaphor she used near the end of the story when Pax gently put his teeth on Peter’s wrist. She was so happy they noticed it, and she said it was one of her favorite metaphors. She called it “a bracelet of teeth.” She said metaphors have to work, not only to accurately describe something, but also to bring the desired emotional connection. I think she hit mastery with that one.
- The students wanted to know if she planned a sequel. Again, she related the intentional decision to end the book where she did so that all readers could have the story live within them as they worked out for themselves what would be the next consequence of the last paragraph.
I’m happy tonight to have had the experience of reading with children and the opportunity to share in their thinking. So many times a student would make a comment or ask a question that took us to a new level of understanding. I’m also so happy tonight for the gift of writers who are willing to take 45 minutes on a Tuesday morning to talk with 75 fourth graders and their teachers.