The WinS Blog

Welcome to the WinS (Writers in Schools) blog, where we post dispatches, updates, and reflections about our author visits with DC high school classrooms, teen parent groups, and youth facilities.

In the coming weeks and months, we’ll expand the content here to feature helpful, downloadable resources for teachers, writers and students, as well as showcase exceptional student work, so make sure to check back soon.

To learn more about PEN/Faulkner’s Writers In Schools Program or to make a request for an author to visit your classroom, click here. To contact Writers in Schools with questions or concerns, email us at wins@penfaulkner.org.

2014 Summer Supper & Book Club: Elliott Holt Riffs on Writing about Cold War-era Washington

Elliott Holt

Minutes before the thunderstorms that lent the Capitol a brilliant rainbow two Tuesdays ago, author Elliott Holt walked into the PEN/Faulkner Summer Supper & Book to discuss her 2013 novel YouAre One of Them.

Upon its release, the Washington Post declared that, “Holt has found inventive ways to use language that suggest the porousness of identity, the correspondence between self and other, neighbor and foreigner, you and them. Her ingenuity brings distinction to this confident, crafty first novel.”

Set in Washington, D.C. and Moscow, You Are One of Them is a story about two girls growing up in 1980s Washington, D.C. whose friendship is forged and tested by events that marked the era.

9781594205286_YouAreOneOf_JKF.inddOn that evening, book club members reflected on the Sarah Zuckerman and Jennifer Jones’s friendship; the choice of D.C. and Moscow as settings and the story’s ambiguous ending.

Holt told the book club members that the book was loosely based on the Samantha Smith story, which fascinated her as a child growing up in Washington, D.C.  Holt pointed out that the character in her story, Jenny, who becomes a “child ambassador” dies in a plane crash (just as Samantha Smith did), but in her version the Samantha Smith-like character remerges to her friend Sarah, claiming her death was hoax.

Holt, who has also lived in Moscow, said the choice of setting the story in these theaters of the Cold War was because Washington, D.C. and Moscow offered good backdrops for a story that revolves around that frigid conflict.

Last week the Summer Supper & Book Club read Danielle Evans’s short story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, and in preparation for tonight’s meeting, students have read David Ebenbach’s Between Camelots.

— Kangsen Feka Wakai, PEN/Faulkner Summer Intern



2014 Summer Supper & Book Club: A Dispatch

This first dispatch from our Summer Supper & Book Club comes from Kangsen Feka Wakai, who is focusing on Writers in Schools-related projects during his summer internship with us. Stay tuned for more updates from the Book Club right here at the Writers in Schools blog!

 

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The 2014 Summer Supper & Book Club Is Here

Tuesday July 1st marked the beginning of this year’s Summer Supper & Book Club, an offshoot of PEN/Faulkner’s Writers in Schools program, which provides DC area high school kids with complimentary copies of contemporary literature and the perk of meeting the writers behind the works.

This summer’s first guest was Susan Richards Shreve, prolific novelist (and co-chair of PEN/Faulkner’s board of directors!).

Susan Richards ShreveShreve’s 2001 novel Plum & Jaggers was the summer book club’s first offering. The novel tells the story of a traumatized eldest child’s obsessive tendencies towards his three siblings in the aftermath of the train bombing that murdered their parents while the family was vacationing in Italy.

So, on that balmy Tuesday evening, between bites of cheese and peperoni pizza, our assembled DC high school students, copies of Plum & Jaggers nearby, sat around a rectangular table in a second floor room in DC’s Hill Center awaiting the writer’s arrival.

Described by author Stuart Dybek as,one of the more risky books I’ve read in a long time and certainly one of the best,” most of Plum & Jaggers takes place in DC, the city the writer calls home.

A fan of David Sedaris’s ability to morph pain into laughter, Shreve told the students how Plum and Jaggersone day while thinking about the comic, she realized she wasn’t scared to die because her children were all grown and could take care of themselves. She tried to imagine what would have become of their lives had she died abruptly while they were young, and the seeds of Plum & Jaggers were planted.

After reading from chapter six, a scene in which a bomb explodes in the Cleveland Park train stop, the students wondered if familiarity with the city was a factor in her decision to base most of the story in the city.

“DC is a contradiction of a place; people who don’t live here don’t think it’s a place and I like writing about the DC that people live.”

When asked by a book club member if it was her goal to make Sam, the oldest son and protagonist a tyrant, the writer, pointed out that even though the siblings were victims of Sam’s control, they still saw him as their leader.

She added that her affinity for Sam’s character might have its roots during her time in DC’s public schools when she was drawn to troubled kids not unlike Sam.

While most of the book club members seemed repulsed by Sam’s antics, Shreve revealed her sentiments about Sam, “I like Sam, but would I want him to be my elder brother? No!”

A new edition of Plum & Jaggers was recently reissued as part of the Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust Rediscoveries Series.

This week the Summer Supper and Book Club read Elliott Holt’s novel You Are One of Them. Next week students will read Danielle Evans’s collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.

Stay tuned for more updates on the Writers in School program and the Summer Supper and Book Club!



Polar Vortex? What Polar Vortex? Writers in Schools kicks off its Spring 2014 Programming
©The Weather Channel

©The Weather Channel

So far, 2014 may be best known as the year of the polar vortex so far, but we’re not letting the cold (or the school delays and closures) get us down.

Already we have plans for Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the acclaimed novel Wench all set to discuss Solomon Northrup‘s memoir Twelve Years a Slave. She wrote the introduction to a spectacular new edition of the text, and is eager to share her knowledge of Northrup’s harrowing story with the students. Stay tuned for more details. 

Also coming down (the frozen) pike is the very first virtual Writers in Schools visit. Longtime visiting author James Grady has always hoped to share the WinS experience with students from his hometown high school in Shelby, MT. When he published a new e-book entitled This Given Sky, he saw the perfect opportunity. The short story, set entirely in Shelby, was sent out to over 75 local high schoolers and Grady will Skype from PEN/Faulkner headquarters in D.C. with each class to discuss the story, and his life as a writer. 

The low temperatures have also given the cold shoulder (har har) to Baltimore, our fair neighbor to the north where our Writers in Schools expansion is entering its fourth semester of programming. As you might suspect, Baltimoreans are not ones to let a little ice and snow stand in thier way. This week, WinS Baltimore will hold four visits with  author Geoffrey Becker at Baltimore’s Academy of College and Career Exploration

To the cold we say meh, and you to we say keep warm out there!

— Ariel Martino & Nate Brown



A Series of Firsts for Reading Series Authors: Perrotta, Semple, Caputo, and Powers Head into High Schools

When an author comes to DC to read for PEN/Faulkner, we ask if he or she would be willing to participate in Writers in Schools. We lay out the basics of the program—that we aim to serve students in public and public charter high schools by donating books, providing instructors with curricular materials, and by arranging for students to meet with authors whose work they’ve studied—and unless there’s some extenuating circumstance that prevents an author from participating, they almost always enthusiastically say yes.

It’s amazing, though, that no matter how good the program sounds in theory, in practice it nearly always exceeds expectations. Perhaps that’s merely illustrative of the differences between theory and reality; that is of course it sounds like a good idea to donate books to kids and of course it sounds like a good idea to arrange a meeting between students and the authors they’ve read for class, but just how the visit goes is often something of a mystery if the author hasn’t yet participated in Writers in Schools. 

Author Tom Perrotta discusses the short stories in his collection “Nine Inches” with students at McKinley Tech.

In October, we kicked off the 2013-2014 Reading Series with an event called The Human Comedy: Serious Humor in the American Novel. The reading featured authors Tom Perrotta and Maria Semple, who packed the seats at the Folger and who participated in an  engaging and entertaining discussion moderated by NPR’s Linda Holmes. In addition to the reading, both Perrotta and Semple participated in Writers in Schools for the first time. On October 22nd, Maria Semple visited the SEED School of DC where she met with 21 students who’d read her novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Perrotta visited another 30 students at McKinley Technology High School on October 23rd. 

Author Maria Semple signs books for students at the SEED School of Washington following a long discussion of her novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”

In each case, the students peppered the authors with questions about their inspiration, their writing process, their lives and—not surprisingly given each author’s particular talents—their senses of humor. For her part, Semple’s Writers in Schools visit focused largely on the details of writing an epistolary novel. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is largely composed of notes, emails, diary entries, etc. It was, according to the students, not like many other novels they’ve seen. Perrotta’s visit was wholly different, though the students also zeroed in on the structure of the book. Perrotta’s latest publication is a collection of short fiction called Nine Inches, and it provoked several specific questions about individual stories but just as central to the conversation were the questions about collections in general. How long does it take an author to put a collection together? How do you know what to include and what to leave out? Once you’ve written several stories, how do you most effectively put them in an order that makes sense to a reader? Do the stories need to be thematically linked, or can they represent a range of ideas, narratives, and writing styles? 

Kevin Powers at Washington Latin Public Charter School

Author Kevin Powers begins his Writers in Schools visit with a short reading from his novel “The Yellow Birds.”

In November, authors Philip Caputo and Kevin Powers travelled to Washington to participate in a reading series event that we called Blood Lines: The Literature of War. As with Semple and Perrotta, the visit represented the first time each author would participate in Writers in Schools. Caputo visited the newly renovated and recently reopened Cardozo High School while Powers met with a class at Washington Latin Public Charter School. Because Caputo and Powers both write about war (NB: both are also veterans of war), the tone of these visits was necessarily different than it’d been for Semple and Perrotta. During Kevin Powers’s visit to Washington Latin, students had many questions about the ethical guidelines of the military’s Rules of Engagement (ROE), and about the ins and outs of being a soldier. 

Having accompanied Perrotta, Semple, and  Powers on their Writers in Schools visits, I was struck not merely by the range of tones, topics, and craft issues that were touched on, but by the analytic depth and the rigor that students applied to their own reading. In an age of abundant forms of digital entertainment and distractions, it’s easy to feel pessimistic about the state of American readership and the future of the book. But in every visit I’ve attended this semester, the students have had such clear-eyed questions and such genuine insight that fretting over the future of the book and, more generally, of readership seems unnecessary and, well, wrongheaded. 

As Writers in Schools aims to complete 170 author visits in Washington, DC this school year and another 30 visits in Baltimore as part of our expansion to that city, it’s hard not to feel excited about the future. As an arts administrator and as a reader, I can’t think of a better or more fitting way to bring 2013 to a close. 

— Nate Brown
Deputy Director, PEN/Faulkner



Elizabeth Gutting, PEN/Faulkner’s Newest Staffer, on Her First WinS Visit
McKinley Tech High School

McKinley Technology High School – Washington, DC

One month ago, on Monday, October 7th, esteemed writers from all over the country came to D.C. to read at the PEN/Faulkner 25th Annual Gala—as well as to visit local schools to discuss their books. Among the writers was Roy Scranton, who visited McKinley Tech to talk about Fire and Forget, a collection of war stories from Iraq and Afghanistan that he and another writer, Matt Gallagher, edited together. Scranton served in the U.S. Army from 2002 to 2006, including fourteen months in Baghdad, and spoke to students about writing, putting together a story collection, and what it was like to be a soldier in Iraq.

He began by reading from his story in Fire and Forget, acting out dialogue between soldiers and Iraqis with gusto. A storm raged outside, making the moment all the more dramatic. Students leaned in and applauded him when he finished, and then had a slew of sharp and unafraid questions. When one asked if a soldier could really “fire and forget,” Roy shook his head, and replied candidly. “As a solder, you go overseas and fight—and it’s impossible to forget. We wanted the title of this collection to have a certain irony to reflect that.”

Fire & Forget Book JacketHe went on to discuss the order of the stories—chosen carefully, like a well thought out “mix CD or playlist,” where each story is in conversation with the others, drawing on different aspects of the two wars. One student asked Roy to talk about what inspired him to write and collect stories about war. Roy responded that while both Iraq and Afghanistan played a hugely important role in the last 10 years of this country, very few people seem to understand what was going on in these countries while soldiers fought. The collection, he said, aimed to help translate the experience he and others had overseas.

One student commented that reading the stories had raised this question in her mind: Does war make people more human, or does it make people inhumane? What did he think? 

Scranton paused to reflect on this thoughtful question. War is such an extreme thing, he began, and so it can bring out the best and the worst in a person; overall, though, it tends to brutalize people. He went on to say that war can make a person numb to others’ suffering—“because you just have to get through it.” He made the point that things that are horrific in a civilian zone become normal in a war zone. But then, he said, you also have to consider that humans are the ones making war—and so there are lessons to learn about what it means to be human from the way we start and wage wars.

To conclude, one student asked Scranton: how did it feel to put the book together?

It was difficult, he said, to go back over some of those experiences, which reminded him of his own life as a soldier. And he’d found that with his own writing, it often felt odd to use personal memories to create fiction, mentioning that sometimes now it was hard for him to discern between his real memories and the ones that he’d altered for fiction.

After his visit ended, students lingered to sign books and talk with him. As we left the school, he marveled at how brave the students were with their questions – commenting that few readings he’d given elicited such an intense discussion.

I, too, was impressed by the depth and intensity of the questions, which clearly came from students who read closely and thought critically. As a new member of the PEN/Faulkner staff, this was my first WinS visit —and I have to say, it exceeded even my highest of expectations. I can’t wait for more!

— Elizabeth Gutting
Office Manager
PEN/Faulkner Foundation