A Fly on the Monkey Bars

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.


Filed under Happiness, Satisfaction, Thankfulness, Writing and Life

15 responses to “A Fly on the Monkey Bars

  1. Cynthia Levinson

    What a fun post, Tara!


  2. Not that many “target audience” kids have read my book yet, but one that did, had a different take on the ending than any of the adults that read it. In KATERINA’S WISH, I try to create a little ambiguity about the “magic” in the story–whether there really is magic happening or not. The “moral” to the story is in the answer to that question, and all the adults who read it have clearly walked away with the less magical explanation. My two young readers, however, walked away debating that question, and coming up on the side of there really being magic behind Trina’s success. At first, I thought maybe I had missed the mark because of that, but as I thought about it, I think a reader remaining open to the idea of real magic is means that I left them with the feeling of optimism that the ending should inspire.


    • How fascinating, Jeannie! I guess that just goes to show that readers are going to come at our books from all angles, and draw conclusions that we may never have anticipated. I can’t wait until more of the “target audience” gets to dive into your book!


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  4. J

    I’m kind of glad most of my readers are too old to act out my plot. I’m not sure my insurance is that good.


    • Ha! Well, the first scene of my book actually features the main character accidentally setting her kitchen on fire with a blowtorch. Let’s hope no kids decide to “play” that one, either…


  5. Love this post, Tara! A few teachers in my school read FLYING THE DRAGON aloud to their classes, which was a very surreal experience for me. A few of the kids would stop into the library to see me on their way out to recess to give me updates: “We’re on the part where…” One funny moment was when two 4th graders were debating the grandfather’s fate in the story right in front of me as if I weren’t there (and as if I didn’t know what happens to Grandfather!). After a minute or so of debating back and forth, they looked at me and the lightbulb went on…”We can just ask Mrs. Lorenzi!” Of course, I told them they’d have to read on to find out what happens. 😉


    • How cool it must be to stand in front of a roomful of kids who have read your book, Natalie! I imagine that this must be one of the huge perks of school visits for authors, too. I’m glad that you told the kids that they’d have to finish the book to get the answers about Grandfather; a couple of my students have even started pestering me for details of what will happen in the sequel to my book–which is neither contracted nor written at this point!–but my lips are zipped.


  6. Melodie

    I had a teen editor read through the YA MS that’s going back on sub next month. She loved the characters I loved, hated the ones I hated. It was great…and her suggestions were really helpful.


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  8. I have found it to be fun and scary and poignant and hilarious to visit classroom filled with kids that have read/heard One for the Murphys. Thing that shocks me the most is that they talk as if the characters are real. Ask questions about things not in the book. First time I got a question like this, I stood there for a few seconds just trying to process it! Hopefully it wasn’t too long! I think these moments have been among the highest compliments I have received.


    • Lynda, I’m not surprised at all that kids think the characters in your book are real–that’s exactly how I felt when I finished reading it! You should take it as a compliment indeed. 🙂


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