Homecoming for storywriter

Return: The author of nearly two dozen books and recipient of the Newbery Medal visits the school where she taught 13 years ago, to teach about writing.

November 18, 2001|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

For a moment, Cynthia Voigt is confused. When she wheels around to draw a plot diagram on the board, she is confronted by a white board - not the black one she expected.

"Good grief - there is no chalk," Voigt says as she picks up a dry-erase marker used on the board instead of chalk during her talk to about 50 fourth-graders about books and writing. "I'm having an identity crisis."

Thirteen years ago, Voigt left her teaching post at the Key School in Annapolis to be a full-time writer. On Monday, she was back at Key for the first time since she left, a visiting celebrity with almost two dozen books and a national Newbery Medal for children's literature to her name.

Voigt's visit put a face on the author behind the books the students had read, and teachers hope it will encourage students to do more reading for pleasure and to write stories.

"We want them to see that authors aren't magical people very far away but real people, like their parents and teachers, who are willing to put their ideas in writing," says fourth-grade teacher Katherine Haas, who says the school tries to bring in an author or poet to speak to students each year.

To the children sitting on the floor at her feet, Voigt talks about plot structures in the stories they have read and the stories they have been writing. Though a respected author working on her third series, Voigt tells the students that sometimes she feels clueless when she tries to put characters and events of her imagination onto a page. "I don't know any answers," she says. "In plot, I don't know if there are any answers. I think plot is really hard - it is the hardest thing about writing."

But the children are full of answers. They eagerly tell her about plots that work and don't work. One girl says that a book that begins with just "Hi," wouldn't make for interesting reading.

Voigt challenges her: "One of the greatest books ever written, the first line is `Call me Ishmael,' which is basically `Hi, I am Ishmael,'" she says, referring to the beginning of Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

"The only point I am making here is there are no right answers," Voigt says. "The great thing about writing is it is as different as different people."

Voigt decided to be a writer when she was 14. But it was 25 years, two husbands and two children later before her first book, Homecoming, was published.

By then, the Smith College graduate had settled into teaching. First she taught 10th grade English for a couple years in the late 1960s at Glen Burnie High School, then she went to Key, where she taught mostly fifth-, eighth- and 12th-graders.

"When I was in school, I said I would never be a teacher," Voigt says. "There were family prejudices against it - it was one of those things that, if you were a failure, you teach."

But from the moment that Voigt entered a classroom, she loved it. "I walked in for teaching the first day at Glen Burnie and I was in heaven," she says.

To suggest good books for her students, Voigt began reading youth fiction and soon was inspired to try writing it.

The idea for Homecoming rose from a simple trip to an Annapolis grocery store. There, she spotted four kids waiting in the car in the parking lot and wondered to herself what would happen if nobody returned for them.

That is the plot of Homecoming. Mom doesn't come back, and the four Tillerman children are left on their own. They make it to Maryland's Eastern Shore to a grandmother they had never met. The second book in the seven-book Tillerman series, Dicey's Song, earned Voigt the Newbery Medal in 1982. Six years later, she gave up teaching to write full time, and she and her family moved from Annapolis to an old farmhouse on Deer Isle, Maine.

Voigt's rich and endearing characters are a key to her appeal

"When I read her books, I can imagine a character like me," says Brianna Kelley, a 9-year-old fourth-grader at Key.

While Voigt says her stories are not about real people, her experience as a teacher in Anne Arundel County helped her to flesh out ideas.

"Sometimes while I was writing about kids of a particular age I would cast my mind back to the classes I taught," she says. "It was like having this huge, unwieldy family of short people. ... My teaching experience enabled me to feel comfortable with claiming to be able to write about them."

Voigt's third series began with Bad Girls, published in 1996. The series, the fourth book of which is to be published in the spring, follows Mikey and Margalo, two pre-teen-age girls struggling for popularity and acceptance from fifth grade through ninth grade.

Key's fourth-grade teachers read Bad Girls to pupils before Voigt's visit. Haas says that by reading the first book of a series aloud to students, teachers hope to interest them in the rest.

After Voigt's visit, 8-year-old Caileigh Feldman says she is more excited to finish reading Homecoming, which she had started the night before. "I think her books are really wonderful," Caileigh says.

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