Helping kids find their `voice'

Workshop: Author Michelle Y. Green shares writing techniques with pupils in Elkridge.

April 23, 2004|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Michelle Y. Green, Several years ago, children's book author Michelle Y. Green was visiting the Negro Leagues Baseball Shop and Museum - then in Mitchellville - when she had an epiphany.

Green had picked up a T-shirt with the photo of the league's only female pitcher, Mamie "Peanut" Johnson. To the author's surprise, Johnson was in the shop and offered to autograph the shirt.

That meeting with Johnson inspired Green to write the award-winning biography A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie "Peanut" Johnson.

"What I said to Mamie was: `Has anybody written your story?' " Green told pupils yesterday at Elkridge Elementary School.

Pupils heard how Green began interviewing Johnson the day they met and researched the story for more than two years, using books, the Internet and interviews. Green also learned how to pitch. This, she told pupils, is how a writer can "bring all of the sense in your writing. I had to learn how to play the game. How am I going to write about baseball just by watching it?"

Christine Duncan, 9, a fourth-grader, said she was surprised that "it takes a long time to get the research" for a book.

But another fourth-grader, Nicholas Snyder, 9, said that Green made the process sound enjoyable.

"It's sort of fun when you're trying to write a biography and doing all the interview and stuff," he said.

Green, of Upper Marlboro, is a full-time writer for the National Education Association's human and civil rights department, and she travels nationwide visiting schools and speaking at writers' conferences.

"My primary goal is to bring the joy of reading to children, especially in a time where testing is the focus" in education, she said. "The work that I do during the day dovetails perfectly into my vision as a children's book author."

Green's message to children "is that dreams do come true, and I write about characters who had dreams and who, through determination and perseverance, saw their dreams realized," she said.

3 winning seasons

One of these characters is the 67-year-old Johnson, who pitched three winning seasons for the Indianapolis Clowns in the 1950s and was a teammate of baseball great Hank Aaron.

"The story of A Strong Right Arm is phenomenal," said Karen Moroughan, media specialist at Elkridge Elementary. "To break into professional baseball as a woman and to play is a phenomenal event."

`Who's the storyteller?'

Green used stories to talk to the children about "finding their voice. Who's the storyteller? About how important revision is. That you don't get it perfect the first time around. That's what kids really need to hear, and that's what teachers especially want me to talk about."

She showed the children drafts of A Strong Right Arm with notes and red ink from her editors. "We went through six revisions of this book before I got it right," she said.

Fourth-grader Jackie Anderson, 10, was preparing to work with Green in a small group later in the morning.

"I'm hoping that she likes my stories, and I'll be a better writer," she said. She also learned from Johnson's story "that girls can do anything that boys can and that some girls are really amazing."

Exploring the unknown

On her Web site, www. michelleygreen.com, Green writes that she enjoys finding unexplored areas in history, particularly little-known aspects of African-American culture. Her current writing project is a biography of African-American filmmaker and novelist Oscar Micheaux.

By bringing in a successful author, Moroughan said, "we're really trying to help the kids imagine themselves as a writer. To say, what are you interested in, what are you excited about and how can you make other people excited, too, with your writing?"

Teachers will do follow-up writing activities, with a focus on how writers find and then develop an idea. "I think the seeds that are planted from this may turn into incredible fruit," Moroughan said.

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