My seven-year-old student led me down the hallway, out of earshot of his brothers, who hadn’t read the book yet.
“So, you know Charissa?” he said, referring to one of the supporting characters.
“Yes, of course,” I said. “I made her up, remember?”
“Oh, right.” His voice began to rise. “Yeah, well, she’s so mean! She’s always like ‘Ooh, look at my clothes, I’m so pretty! Gladys, you hag!’” He punctuated this last bit with a martial-arts-style kick, then looked up at me with a smile.
It was all I could do not to burst out laughing right there. No one ever calls anyone a “hag” in my middle-grade novel, The Delicious Double Life of Gladys Gatsby, and no one ever gets karate-chopped, either—but the sentiment was spot-on. Charissa is a bit of a bully at times, and she probably does make our heroine, Gladys, feel as bad as if she’d called her names and kicked her.
Once my surprise and amusement at my student’s interpretation wore off, I found myself feeling gratified that he had internalized my story enough to make up his own dialogue for one of the characters. As I biked home that day, I had a vision of a group of kids on a school playground at recess. “Let’s play Gladys Gatsby!” one of them suggests, and suddenly everyone is clamoring to “be” their favorite character. Reams of dialogue and whole new storylines are improvised. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the monkey bars and watch that.
One of the best things about the years I spent as an aspiring playwright in New York was being able to sit in the back of the theater during performances and watch the audience react to the words I had written. I got to revel in the sound of a packed house laughing at one of my jokes (and occasionally cringe as audience members nodded off in their seats in a half-empty theater). So as thrilled as I am that my first novel is going to be published—and that it has a chance to be enjoyed by thousands more people than my Off-Off Broadway plays ever were—it’s been a little bit hard accepting that I won’t get to witness my young readers’ reactions to each funny line, each twist and turn of the plot.
So thank goodness for my elementary-aged writing students, who demanded to read my manuscript as soon as they found out I had written one. Who screamed and whooped when they found out that I had a book deal, and stamped their feet and moaned when they learned that the book wouldn’t come out until 2014. Who pepper me with questions, like “Why does Gladys do X?” (To which I reply, in my best teacherly voice, “Why do you think she does it?” Cue deep thinking.)
One of my students told me this week that she is reading my book for a second time, just for fun. As if that hadn’t already warmed my heart enough, I got to sneak up behind her later at lunchtime and see it for myself. Sandwich in one hand, she was hunched over the Kindle next to her plate, oblivious to the world, giggling softly as she read.
It may not be a theaterful of hipsters, but I’ll take it.
Fellow writers—published, agented, aspiring, etc.—I turn this post over to you! If you’d like to leave a comment, I’d love to hear about the first time a member of your target audience read something you wrote.