Each month, we ask distinguished authors or illustrators to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
by Adam Gidwitz
After my first three years of teaching, I came to two realizations.
The first was that, while I loved my students and I loved helping them discover the world, I perhaps did not have the constitution to be a teacher. One parent asked me, in mid-November, if I planned to grade any of the homework I had assigned so far that year. To which I honestly replied: “Oh! Absolutely! I forgot!” Also, I was coming home every day and falling asleep at four in the afternoon.
Teachers have to be able to take the high impact of the day, every day, and then come in again the next day ready to do it again. I wanted to inspire the children and then go home and sleep for 72 hours.
My second realization came during an independent reading time. My second graders were getting settled, finding their books, or perusing our classroom shelves for new ones. A girl named Antonia—tall and skinny, with wild black curls and a spray of freckles—came up to me. Now, you may know that second grade is a crucial year in learning to read.
Sometime between the beginning of first grade and the end of second grade, almost every kid experiences that flip-the- switch moment, when reading goes from being a decoding task to an automatic action—when it starts to flow. Antonia was still waiting for that moment, still laboring through the upper levels of the “I Can Read” books.
But on this day, as the other second graders fell under the spell of their novels and nature magazines, Antonia came up to me, holding an early chapter book. “I really like this one,” she said, and then she asked, “Are there more in the series?” I replied, “Wait, didn’t you start that book two days ago?” “Yeah,” she said. “It was good.”
There were two possibilities: that she hadn’t read it, and was pretending (but then why would she want the next one?), or that the switch had flipped. I asked her a few questions about the book. Not having read it myself, I just smiled and nodded as I gauged whether her answers seemed plausible enough. They did. So it was true, then, she had read it. I offered her the second book in the series. She ran off and settled in to read.
Which is when I had my second realization: “Huh, if I wrote books that kids loved, maybe I could help kids learn to read and still sleep for 72 hours.” That realization changed my life.
I went down to teaching half-time after that year, tutoring kids in reading to make up for the loss in salary. And I wrote my first novel.
It had never occurred to me that authors could be (nearly) as important as teachers and librarians in the process of a child becoming a reader. Strange that such a thing would never occur to me, but it hadn’t.
My plan was to write early middle grade novels—chapter books for kids who are just on the cusp of flipping the switch. But I got caught up in other ideas, other books, other dreams. I published A Tale Dark and Grimm (Penguin, 2010) and its companion novels; So You Want to Be a Jedi? (Disney, 2015); and The Inquisitor’s Tale (Penguin, 2016). Now, though, I’m coming back to the place I started.
“The Unicorn Rescue Society” (Penguin, 2018) titles were written for that moment when reading becomes a joy. They are short, fast-paced, and (I think) pretty darn funny (I always pursue a mix of highbrow humor and fart jokes, as Shakespeare did before me). And I’m working with amazing co-authors including Joseph Bruchac, Emma Otheguy, Hena Khan, and David Bowles to write these books as quickly as possible. By October of this year, the first three will be published; once that switch is flipped, I don’t want anything slowing the kids down. Hatem Aly’s amazing illustrations, on almost every page, should scaffold less confident readers.
The series isn’t only for nascent readers. A number of Inquisitor’s Tale fans have already written me, asking for more “Unicorn Rescue Society” titles. That high-level readers can enjoy the books is all the better for those less confident readers. If those kids are reading the same titles as their more confident peers, they feel proud and emboldened in their reading.
I was talking about the first title in series, The Creature of the Pines, at an elementary school last week. After my presentation, a boy came up to me, holding the book. He raised it in front of my face and told me, “This will be the first chapter book I’ve ever read.”
I’m writing the “The Unicorn Rescue Society” books for that kid.
Thank you, Antonia.