Today I am excited to welcome middle grade debut author, Edith Cohn to Kid Lit Frenzy. Edith shares about teaching, writing and her new book SPIRIT'S KEY.
Writing a Book for the Teacher in Me
I used to teach 7th grade English, but I only taught for a few years. I foolishly took the job thinking I’d have time to write. Teachers are finished by 3pm. Teachers get summers off. I reasoned. I’ll have soooo much time to write my novel. As a teacher, I’d never worked so hard in my life, and I’ve had a ton of jobs, so that’s really saying something. There ought to be an extra special pot of gold at the end of each day for English teachers in particular. The grading! Please, someone give these folks a raise for all those hours spent after school. And forget summers. Those are for professional development, reading new books for the kiddos, and making new lessons. The whole twelve-week summer is gone in a blink.
It’s too bad, because I liked teaching. But I’ve wanted to write novels since I could read them—perhaps even since my mother could read them to me. So every job I ever took, I took asking myself the question, “How much time will this give me to write?” I hated most of the jobs I had to take to pay the bills (the salary for a budding novelist being sadly, zero), but I’m grateful for my time as a teacher.
I took invaluable things from that experience. I would not trade it. When I realized I had an idea for a middle grade novel rumbling around in my head, the idea came with a list of ways I hoped to make the book classroom friendly. As a teacher, I wanted certain things from the novels I taught. As a novelist, I aimed to include them. So what things did the teacher in me want to include?
Rich themes. Themes are the body and soul of great essays for the classroom. In my debut novel SPIRIT’S KEY, I decided to tackle the theme of tolerance (I was nothing if not ambitious!). This is a theme I wanted so desperately to teach my students. My kids came from all difference backgrounds and cultures. Those cultures clashed. I wanted a book that might teach them to love each other. I wanted a book that could spur essays where they could write about their own experiences with injustice. I wanted a book that might make them look at their own world in a slightly different way. I hoped the insiders vs. outsiders theme in my book might strike a personal cord. I hoped the theme of fear might provide a common ground on which to build a discussion.
A strong girl character that the boys could get behind. I found (and this might have to do with my inexperience as a teacher) that if I didn’t teach a book that the boys liked, I had terrible classroom management. I *had* to engage the boys. So what did I do? I only taught books with boy main characters. I feel terrible about this to this day, because it isn’t fair. It was unbalanced. I’m not saying there aren’t great books out there for boys with girl main characters. But the many years ago when I was teaching, I couldn’t find them or I just didn’t know about them. Or I was too scared to even take the chance. Remember, I was inexperienced and didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to write, much less read. So anyway, when I set out to write my own book, I was determined to give it both girl and boy appeal, while still having a girl main character. This meant including a girl that wasn’t too girlie. This also meant including an interesting secondary character that was a boy.
My main character Spirit Holden, a girl psychic waiting to inherit her future-telling gift, was born. Spirit is a dog lover, a bike rider and strong swimmer. She’s a girl unafraid to stand up for what she believes in. Her friend is Nector Hatterask—a boy haunted by hurricanes and superstition whose greatest desire is to pilot an airplane.
A genre bending book. Spirit’s Key is a mystery novel with light fantasy elements. I wanted a realistic appeal with school, friendships, and family—for the contemporary lovers in my class, as well as action, mystery, a bit of magic and world building for the fantasy lovers. Again with the ambition! I know, I know. But my students were fiercely opinionated youngsters, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the student who would only read contemporary or the one who swore she would only read fantasy forever and always Amen. Do you know these kids? They make picking a book the class can read together a real challenge. So I set out to provide something for everyone. Often this is the kiss of death. Try to please everyone, you lose everyone. But books that defy genre are my personal reading favorites. The ones some people call magical realism. So really, even though I do hope to please a classroom full of very different kids, I was first hoping to please myself, which brings me to my next goal.
A book that would appeal to both adults and kids. Middle grade novels face an interesting challenge. They must first appeal to teachers and librarians in order to be put into the hands of kids. They must win over the gatekeepers. Kids between the ages of 8-12 are in the sweet spot for reading. This is the age where they develop the passion to become lifelong independent readers. And I believe that passion is born in the classroom, as it was for me as a child. It’s a big responsibility.
As a teacher, I had to be over the moon about the book I was teaching, because the students were a reflection of my enthusiasm. If I wasn’t jazzed, they weren’t jazzed. So when I sat down to write SPIRIT’S KEY, I aimed to create a book that would appeal to the adults who teach the class and the kids in front of them.
How did I plan to do that? With an action plot balanced with deep character relationships. Most kids like a page-turner. The popularity of books like The False Prince and The Hunger Games are a testament to the fact that kids enjoy high stakes and characters who are running for their lives. I like those books too. And my favorites are the ones that do a good job combining thrills with rich characters. To me, this was the key to appealing to adults and kids.
In SPIRIT’S KEY, Spirit goes on dangerous adventures through the woods with kids who have very different beliefs than she does. She battles wild dogs and must fight the currents of the ocean in a kayak. In quieter moments, she has interesting discussions about the island’s legends and spirits with her Dad, her new friends and her crazy neighbor, a fur-wearing agoraphobic named Mrs. Borse.
Does SPIRIT’S KEY accomplish everything I set out to do? I was so worried it wouldn’t, it took me a year and a half before I found the courage to begin. But I finally did. I pushed fear aside and wrote a book for the teacher in me.
A video of Edith talking about her book and sharing the arrival of a finished copy: