By BBH McChiller (Lynn Kelley and Kathryn Sant)
Visiting a class of fifth-graders and brainstorming with them is awe-inspiring and gives writers for tweens cool insight into the kids’ world, how they think, and what they like. We discovered a wonderful way to engage them during an author visit, so maybe this will give you some ideas, too.
For several years now, Bob Schumacher and Jeff Lindeman, fifth-grade teachers at Cooley Ranch Elementary School in Colton, California, have invited us to visit their classes on Dr. Seuss Day. Mr. Schumacher would usually have us read the final chapters of Curse at Zala Manor, Book 1 in the Monster Moon Mystery series. From there, we’d talk about writing, the importance of revising, and field questions, but this year we tried something quite different.
We asked Mr. Schumacher to read the final chapters. The students were familiar with our ongoing characters, so we decided to try brainstorming with them for our next Monster Moon book.
First, we drew a simple graph of rising squiggly lines on the board and explained, “Here’s the beginning of a story. All of these hills represent an obstacle the main character has to deal with in order to reach his/her goal. The rising action becomes more and more intense with each obstacle, until finally you reach the end of the story, the climax, the battle.”
Next, we explained that we were going to read the beginning chapters of our work-in-progress, Legend of Monster Island, Book 3 in the series, and we wanted the kids to brainstorm and tell us what obstacles they’d like to see the main characters face.
We read the first couple chapters, which begin with 12-year-old AJ Zantony brushing his teeth in the guest bathroom at his Aunt Zsofia’s creepy mansion, Zala Manor. A strange octopus-like tentacle slithered out of the toilet and wrapped around his leg. He managed to escape its grip and watched it slip back down into the commode.
Soon after, his 11-year-old cousin Jaz screamed from the other bathroom. AJ found her in a puddle next to the toilet with a tentacle attacking her, too. After fighting it off, they tried to get some sleep, since Jaz had a big swim meet to compete in the next day.
The class seemed to listen closely, knowing we wanted to hear their input and might possibly write some of their ideas into the novel. When we finished reading the chapters, we asked the students to share some of their ideas. “What would you like to see happen in the story?”
More than a dozen hands shot up, and we were taken aback by the kids’ eager responses. Some of them were so enthusiastic, they could barely stay seated, waving their hands to be called on next.
As students shared their thoughts, sometimes they’d spark an idea in some of the other kids. Their eyes lit up as they let out an, “Oh-oh” and raised their hands.
Here are some of the comments:
- Boy: “At the swim meet, the kraken comes back to take Jaz away.”
- Another student: “Dang!” (Mad because the other boy thought of his idea.)
- Girl: “When the kraken comes through the pipes in the swimming pool at the swim meet and gets Jaz, AJ and Emily have to get a boat and go to the island to look for her.”
- Boy: “They find the dead body of Vlad. The kraken got him.”
Kids exploded with protests, shouting at the boy. Whoa! He slunk down in his seat and covered his face, clearly sorry he had shared that idea.
The class was in such an uproar at the suggestion of killing off Vlad, the 300-year-old pirate rat (a favorite in the series), that Mr. Schumacher had to stop their protests.
“Great idea,” we told the class. “It’s good to make the reader think something bad happened to a character the reader cares about. They think Vlad’s been killed, but he really hasn’t.” A few minutes later the same boy raised his hand again with another idea.
It was a good way for the kids to learn that when brainstorming, we should be free to come up with anything and everything. Nothing is off limits. Even if one idea doesn’t fly, it can lead to more ideas, some that turn out to be a brilliant twist to our stories. So it was important for that boy and the class to know that his idea was just as good as anyone’s.
We found it interesting the way the students would springboard ideas off of each other’s comments, just like we do when we’re brainstorming Monster Moon plot lines.
Some of the ideas were wild and crazy, and we loved hearing them:
- Boy: “Jaz gets taken in the toilet, but she lets out a scream, so AJ comes in and then he gets sucked in, too.
- Kathy: “Oh, no! How will they get out of the toilet?”
- Boy: “There’s another set of mazes because they’re in the sewer.”
Some of the kids wanted the villains from Curse at Zala Manor to come back in the new book. Many students wanted more scenes in the underground tunnels and secret passages from Curse at Zala Manor. The students’ suggestions confirmed that elements like catacombs and hidden passages appeal to many of us, playing upon our universal curiosity to find out what’s behind the closed door.
Here’s one of my favorite ideas shared by one of the boys:
- Boy: “While Aunt Z is driving AJ and Jaz to the swim meet, all the krakens circle around them and take the pink hearse.”
By the end of the session, every single kid in the class had raised their hand and participated. We had so much fun brainstorming with Mr. Schumacher’s class that we could have spent hours with them, but we had to hurry to Mr. Lindeman’s class, which was right next door.
We repeated the brainstorming exercise, and the same energy ignited throughout that classroom, too. We left Cooley Ranch Elementary School feeling as pumped up as the kids. They’ll be mentioned in the acknowledgements of Legend of Monster Island because some of their ideas made it into the book!
BBH McChiller is the pseudonym for two Southern California writers, Lynn Kelley and Kathryn Sant. The Monster Moon series began one Halloween as a discussion about their greatest fears and ended up being one of their most rewarding experiences.