Teachers Write 7.26.18 Thursday Quick-Write with Ammi-Joan Paquette and Jen Petro-Roy

Our Thursday Quick-Write today is a team effort from Jen Petro-Roy and Ammi-Joan Paquette. Jen was born, raised, and still lives in Massachusetts, even though she rejects the idea that snow and cold are ever a good thing. She started writing in third grade, when her classroom performed a play she had written. It was about a witch and a kidnapped girl and a brave crew of adventurers who set out to save the day. As a kid, numerous pictures of Jen often featured Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins books clutched in her hand, so it was just a matter of time until she started writing her own books for children. In the past, Jen has worked as a teacher and a teen and children’s librarian. She loves running, board games, trivia, and swimming, and has a mild obsession with the television show Jeopardy! P.S. I Miss You is her debut novel.

Ammi-Joan Paquette is the author of many books for young readers, including The Train of Lost Things, the Princess Juniper series, Ghost in the House, Bunny Bus, and The Tiptoe Guide to Tracking Fairies, as well as the Two Truths and a Lie series, co-written with Laurie Ann Thompson. Joan is the recipient of a PEN New England Discovery Award honor, and her books have been recognized with starred reviews, Junior Library Guild selections, and on a variety of “Best of the Year” lists. In her non-writing life, she is a senior literary agent with Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Visit her on the web at www.ajpaquette.com

Jen & Joan both write books that address emotional topics for kids, and they’re joining us today with a conversation and a writing prompt. 

Q: Many books are inspired by their authors’ life events. Did any personal experiences inspire this novel for you?

Jen: Absolutely. P.S. I MISS YOU tackles a bunch of “tough topics.” (Or, I should say, what people label as tough topics.) Because for me, tough topics are real-life for so many, and that’s why it’s so important to include these issues and situations into our narratives–so our readers can see themselves in our books. In my book, Evie struggling with a lot–her older sister Cilla is staying with a relative after getting pregnant in high school and disappointing her strict Catholic parents. At the same time, Evie’s friends are starting to develop different interests and Evie herself is developing a crush on the new girl in school. While struggling with my sexuality is something that I myself never went through, Evie’s relationship with religion and her journey to both question and redefine her faith in God is something that I did experience (and that I am still navigating). For many, faith is something that is set in stone–for them, it’s a touchstone. But for others, for adults as well as kids, faith is something that has to be worked through, doubted, lost, or strengthened. Any of these paths is okay, and I worked hard to make Evie’s journey feel authentic.

Q: What was the journey that led to writing your book? Did you feel any concerns in dealing with such a sensitive topic?

Joan: This novel is the most personal of any I’ve written so far. The external catalyst event that brought on the book was my daughter losing a jean jacket that was important to her. That led me to think about things that I had loved and lost over the years, and about lost things in general. Right before my eyes, the Train of Lost Things was born—and with it, the question: What if there was a way to get back your most precious lost belongings? What if you just had to believe enough?

As I set to writing the story, however, I knew right away that there would be deeper layers to tell. And thinking of loss brought me to the passing of my mother, in a very quick fight with cancer over a decade ago. While Marty in TRAIN OF LOST THINGS is dealing with the loss of his jacket, and his efforts to get it back, the deeper aspect of his fight has to do with the impending loss of his father to cancer, and how he learns to deal with this.

I know some people question whether sad or “tough” topics are too much for kids to handle, whether they should be cushioned from them. But I think we all know that real life is sometimes messy and sad and tough. There’s no avoiding it! Fiction can give young readers the tools to experience some of these sad or hard emotions in a safe space, to explore their own feelings through these hypothetical situations, which may give tools or strength to draw from in any future challenges. As well, sometimes kids—just like us adults—need the cathartic experience of curling up with a sad book and having a good cry.

Q: What is your writing process? How do you begin a new book?

Jen: I’d say that I’m a combination between a plotter and a pantser. I’m a natural perfectionist, so I absolutely need a road map to guide me as I write, but I also thrive off of the excitement that comes from the thrill of that “new shiny idea.” Usually when I have a new idea, I start writing furiously…until I hit around page twenty and realize I have no idea where I’m going. That’s when I start to draw my road map.

I usually plot out my book in a notebook, drawing out timelines and calendars, plotting each chapter, and writing up character profiles. Then I dive back into the first draft, which is my least favorite part of the process. I’m a huge revision fan. I love diving back into the mess, pushing up my sleeves and figuring out what I did wrong and what I did right, how to connect different threads, build up certain sections and further develop characters. Since we’re talking about “tough issues” in this post, revision is another place where I can revisit any serious situations my characters are getting into and make sure both the details and the emotions are true to life, without being too preachy or heavy-handed.

Like many, I go through a lot of drafts as I’m writing, usually at least four before anyone else sees the manuscript. I think it’s so important to realize that that messiness is part of the process. For everyone!

Q: How do you know when a life experience or idea is “the one” to make it into fiction? When it comes to tough subjects, how much is too much?

Joan: I think the best ideas to pursue as a writer are the ones you absolutely cannot put out of your mind—the ones that won’t let you go, no matter what. The ones you can’t help but write. So how do I know when a story is “the one”? When it hunts me down until I write it, and forces me to stick with it come what may. (As a matter of fact, I’m wrestling with just such an idea right now…!) And there is something cathartic about exploring difficult life experiences through fiction, even for us as writers. I think sometimes we sit down with big life questions, framed as the experiences of others, and through the safety of that fictional lens, we can work through to understand what we truly believe, and want, and are.

So how much is too much? That’s a question that only I can answer for my stories, and only you can answer for yours. One thing I do know for sure, though: It never hurts to try. It never hurts to start.

Your Assignment: Brainstorm a list of situations and experiences in your recent or distant past that come back to you. It might be a big challenging life turn, or it might be the smallest conversation or exchange that left you scratching your head or cringing in embarrassment. Try retelling that event in a fictional setting. What will you change? What will you preserve? What is it about that incident that has so captured your mind that you have not been able to forget it? Maybe it would do the same to another reader, somewhere . . .  As always, feel free to share reflections in the comments.

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18 Comments

  1. Martha Willey
    Posted July 26, 2018 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Good morning Jen and Joan, thank you for sharing. It was so interesting to hear your techniques. Jen, I am a combination plotter and pantser too and I have learned to love revision. I used to think it was confining but it’s really a lot of fun, we’ll most times. I think you are both correct in how books with “tough” subjects are needed by kids because life is tough and they get exposed to a lot of stuff.

    Here is a quick, rough snippet from my current work in progress.

    My dad always said that the new year should begin in the spring because that’s when nature begins again. Flowers budding, animals being born, longer daylight. Everything fresh and green.
    But my dad is a liar.
    There is no new life in spring. I know because I looked for him among the greening grass and sprouting trees and fuzzy baby bunnies. . But he wasn’t there. Instead he was where I left him back in winter, six feet under.

    • Ammi-Joan Paquette
      Posted July 26, 2018 at 8:22 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Martha! I do always find it fascinating to hear how different a process can be coming from two different folks 🙂

      Your excerpt is so powerful – wow! Gave me chills. I hope you keep telling this story.

      • Martha Willey
        Posted July 26, 2018 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

        Thank you so much.

    • Posted July 26, 2018 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      Love your writing, Martha! Made me feel so much in just a few short lines.

      • Martha Willey
        Posted July 26, 2018 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Andrea. You are always so encouraging.

  2. Maureen Morrison
    Posted July 26, 2018 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    This was so fun! Thanks for giving us your time. I woke up feeling blah due to last minute budget cuts at school, but this post let me forget and remember.

    She was in 8th grade when she fell for him and they would be in each others secrets for a long time. He was her first hallway kiss. Her first dance, her first boyfriend. He was the reason she broke her own rules. When he hid his car in her garage she convinced herself it was because she was worth the risk. She ignored the feeling that she wasn’t worth being seen with.
    Years later he was another first for her and this would be the last time she felt this way.

    • Ammi-Joan Paquette
      Posted July 26, 2018 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      What a memory, Maureen! I can feel the strong emotion coming through here, loud and clear. Great work!

  3. Kay
    Posted July 26, 2018 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for your time Jen and Joan. I am sitting in a waiting room while our son, who has Down syndrome has an endoscopy. He is 31 and an amazing person. We have five great children, but Brett is the best! Your prompt made me think of some experiences that have happened over the years with Brett. And this is one of them.

    Browsing through a clothes rack with Brett on my hip, a girl who worked in the store approached me.
    “Can I help you with anything?”
    “I am looking for a coat for this little guy,” shifting Brett from one hip to the other.
    “How old is he?” she said.
    Should I explain that he is 18 months old, but looks like 9 months, and that he doesn’t walk yet because he has Down syndrome, or should I just say 9 months old?
    “Well, I am looking for a 12 month size; he is little for his age, he has Down syndrome.”
    And right then and there, this girl asked if she could hold him, and starting crying.
    “Sure you can, are you all right?”
    She explained to me that she had just had an abortion because the test confirmed she was carrying a baby with Down syndrome. She wasn’t married, and her boyfriend didn’t want the responsibility.
    “I made the wrong decision,” she cried. “I don’t know if I can get over it.”
    She wanted to know everything he was doing, and if it was easy. I tried my best to comfort her. We talked for awhile, and then we left. I have thought about her over the years, and hope that she has been okay.

    • Ammi-Joan Paquette
      Posted July 26, 2018 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      Hi Kay–This is an incredibly powerful memory, and you have rendered it vividly and compassionately <3

    • Martha Willey
      Posted July 26, 2018 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      Wow. Just wow.

  4. Amy Bortnick
    Posted July 26, 2018 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Her devious ways haunted Jen. As she stood in the doorway of the vacant bedroom, she reflected on the evil, the toxic nature of this child, who she tried to love as her own. They took her in because they had to. Her mom had moved out and her dad had pulled into the driveway with a loaded truck and announced that he could no longer live this way, so he was headed back to his roots, to his family in Kansas. What else were they to do? She truly had nowhere to go, no one to turn to. But that was probably a lie; Jen knew that now. Everything that came out of her sweet little mouth was likely a lie or a misrepresentation. She took something real, honest, loving, and turned it into something wicked, base, hateful. As Jen closed the door on the emptied room, tears coursed gently down her cheeks for what she had lost—a belief in humanity, in innocence, in this child. An overwhelming sense of peace and serenity surprised her as she closed the door on this short but very sad chapter of her life. Tomorrow, she would go to the hardware store for paint, paint that would cover some of the wounds and mask the evil that had dominated this space.

    • Ammi-Joan Paquette
      Posted July 27, 2018 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      This is a chilling piece, Amy – brought me out in goosebumps!

  5. Posted July 26, 2018 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    The numbers on my phone remained aggravatingly still. Watching a digital clock is sometimes even more infuriating than an analog clock, because at least analog clocks show the seconds passing. Sure, I could start reading right now if I wanted, but there was something alluring about attempting to read for an entire 24 hours within the confines of the read-a-thon that kept me waiting. I peered at the stack of books next to me, a few selections from a much bigger box of books in my office down the hall. All of these had been on my TO BE READ pile for a long time, but which should I start with? Suddenly, the two minutes remaining before the official time started didn’t seem long enough. How was I supposed to decide? Stick out my hand and just grab one? The one on the top? I stared at the stack and concentrated, nudging my decidedly stubborn and indecisive neurons towards the decision point.

    “Mama…!”

    The familiar call had come through the baby monitor. My decision was made. I’d read a book that wasn’t in the stack, because none of the books in the stack could be read in the dark of a toddler’s pirate ship bed. Cuddled next to me, my son drifted back into dreamland as I dove into a space opera, all just as the clock turned twelve.

    • Ammi-Joan Paquette
      Posted July 27, 2018 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      Oh my gosh, this is wonderful! Perfect buildup and then turn-out to that heart-melting moment. Love it <3

  6. Diane S
    Posted July 26, 2018 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much. Heres my fictionalizing a memory…She was my buddy. Assigned. Hannah it said on the tiny polaroid. Although six she reminded me of my three year old son. Blonde bob. Her skin almost translucent and eyes sea green. I think she could fit into my pocket or my bag.
    The orientation for us volunteers was very cheery and warm, filled with a lot of justs washed down with apple juice just as sweet.
    “Just hang out. Just chat. Quick check ins. You know, color, snack. This is informal.”
    The social worker stood, a woman very young and thankful for our time but a but more serious than the volunteer coordinator. “Although we understand this is a voluntary buddy program the children were chosen for lack of other services or support. They do not see any one for extra help during their school day even if we know they need it. Their parents have historically denied any need for academic, social or emotional support but buddies is a program they find less threatening.”
    She paused. Smiled. Made eye contact. “If at any time you feel support is necessary begin a report immediately. We will go over your role as a state mandated reporter shortly.”

    A month later I could use her enthusiasm and slow quiet speech. In just weeks the role of buddy was a lot heavier than informal fun check ins of games and snacks.
    I was in a police station with a psychologist, principal, superintendent, Department of Children and Family Services representative and two policemen.
    The stereotypical legal pad was quickly covered, a camers recording me. The sound of my breathing louder than their questions.
    Informal, fun, checking in and just a buddy were replaced by affidavit, fear, confession and victim statement.

    • Ammi-Joan Paquette
      Posted July 27, 2018 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      Wow, Diane! Very tense piece with great detail.

  7. Michelle Hubbard
    Posted July 27, 2018 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Thank you both for your time and your work. I purchased both books an am looking forward to reading them. I teach high school so “tough topics” are definitely more accepted and discussed, however I agree with you both that fiction can be a way to help anyone of any age navigate difficulty in their lives.

    For the assignment, I wrote about a moment I feel embarrassed about with a challenging student. She was using a phone during an exam, so I took it away per school policy. However, she was upset and explained how she felt I was always calling her out and gave little attention to others. This was a big moment for me and I felt a lot of shame and disappointment in myself for not trying to get to know this student. I wrote a short bit from her perspective:

    She always had problems with me. She hated me for no reason. She doesn’t even know me. Yeah I’m loud and I talk a lot, but that’s because I have a lot of friends. She doesn’t care about me. She took my phone during a test because she hates me. I wasn’t the only one using a phone but whatever. She doesn’t get it and she doesn’t care.

  8. Cathy MacKechnie
    Posted July 27, 2018 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    I am one day late, but I love this prompt, although very difficult to write. Here’s an interaction that I had with a student this spring. It honestly still haunts me.

    “Hi Quinn” says Ms. Murphy.

    “Hi Ms.” say Quinn.

    “How are you doing with your research?” inquires Ms. Murphy.

    “Well, if you need any help with anything, please let me know.” Ms. Murphy turns to Quinn’s research partner and says: “Oh, can you pass me her pen so I can edit another students’ work?”

    Quinn rolls his eye.

    Why did he do that? wondered Ms. Murphy.

    Ms. Wilson, his classroom teacher, whispers to me: “You just did it again.”

    “Pardon?” said Ms. Murphy

    “You just said HER again.” said Ms. Wilson compassionately.

    “Really, I did…?”

    “When I hear that pronoun I feel like vomiting in my mouth” confesses Quinn.

    Softly I say: “Why can’t I make the change? Why is this so hard for me? I am so embarrassed. I feel her pain – ahh, HIS pain. I like HIM. I support HIM. Why is this so hard?” I tried to understand my actions. Ms. Wilson listens patiently, but doesn’t say a word.

    “Is this all on me?” I ponder endlessly.

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