Jill Eisenberg, our Resident Literacy Expert, began her career teaching English as a Foreign Language to second through sixth graders in Yilan, Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow. She went on to become a literacy teacher for third grade in San Jose, CA as a Teach for America corps member. She is certified in Project Glad instruction to promote English language acquisition and academic achievement. In her column she offers teaching and literacy tips for educators.
While teachers are always encouraging their students to write, the presence of an author can be the turning point that hooks students on writing—especially when the visiting author has written one of the first books that really resonates with students.
“I literally have no idea where my next book will come from until I stumble across something in the real world that absolutely floors me,” asserted G. Neri, author of Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty and Chess Rumble, recently to a room of seventh-graders in Spanish Harlem.
G. Neri and this seventh-grade English Language Arts class have partnered with Behind the Book, a literacy nonprofit committed to bringing authors into classrooms to inspire young writers. The students are working on a writing and art project that will be published by Behind the Book into a class anthology. After they finished reading Yummy, the unit culminated with a visit from the author.
“Truth is stranger than fiction and it’s far more compelling than anything I can make up from scratch, but I take it one step further. I sample real life and then turn it into a story because in the end, I am a storyteller,” Neri told students, his conviction and passion palpable to all in the room.
For nearly twenty years, the percentage of children’s books by and/or about people of color has stubbornly hovered around 10%. Growing the number of books by and about people of color necessitates investment in future writers. That is exactly what literacy nonprofits like Behind the Book and authors like G. Neri are striving to do, classroom by classroom.
Hoping to motivate students to pursue writing, he urged them to not give up: “Everyone here has a story worth telling. So just tell it. Don’t worry about making every sentence perfect. In the beginning, you have to give yourself permission to write terribly. You have to get those ideas out of your head into the computer to see what you have to work with.”
In challenging stereotypes of what a writer is, Neri told students that he approaches a story like a sociologist. “A sociologist studies people, communities, and neighborhoods.” Propelling the point further, he added, “Most writers write what they know; I force myself to go out into the world and write what I don’t know—and what I don’t know can fill a book. That’s how I learn things these days.”
Among the half dozen books Neri has written, Yummy holds particular meaning for the author. “Yummy made me an author,” affirmed Neri. “I was a filmmaker at the time but that project wanted to be a book, so it forced me to learn how to write.”
Neri discussed how small kernels of truth from real life can grow into a book. He was drawn to the story of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, a young boy killed by his own gang, because “no one was telling the story outside of a news context. I wanted to go deeper and find the story behind the headlines.”
Interested in learning more about Yummy, Chess Rumble, or G. Neri? For discussion questions and author talks, check out Lee & Low Books’ Yummy and Chess Rumble. Explore the website of author, G. Neri, at www.gneri.com. For more information on how to bring authors of the books your students love to your classroom in New York City, check out Behind the Book.
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