ALAN v23n3 - THE LIBRARY CONNECTION - Thoughts of a Teacher/Author

Volume 23, Number 3
Spring 1996


Betty Carter, Editor
Texas Woman's University, Denton, Texas
In 1983 Delacorte Books for Young Readers, under the leadership of George Nicholson, instituted a contest, the Delacorte Press Prize, to attract first novelists to young adult literature. According to the contest rules, these authors submit a completed manuscript to Delacorte Press where the editors and publisher, Craig Virden, judge each written work. At this point, Delacorte may choose to name a prize winner from among the entries, to not give the award (as they did in 1986, 1993, and 1995), and/or to name an honor book or books (as they did in all years the award was bestowed except for 1988 and 1994). In addition to declaring award winners, Delacorte Press publishes these prize winning novels in both hardcover and softcover, and gives the authors an option for their next book.

To date, twenty-four novels, including works by Joyce Sweeney (Center Line) , Linda Crew (Children of the River) , Chap Reaver (Mote) , Dennis Covington (Lizard) , Louise Plummer (The Romantic Obsessions and Humiliations of Annie Schlmeier) , and Joan Bauer (Squashed) , have been named as either winners or honor books in the Delacorte Press Prize. (For a complete discussion of the honored books through 1994, see "Across the Center Line: A Dozen Years of Books from the Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young-Adult Novel Contest" by Patrick Jones in the March/April, 1996 issue of The Horn Book . For information about the contest, write to Delacorte Press Contest/Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers/1540 Broadway/New York, New York 10046.)

The 1994 Delacorte Press Prize winner was Martha Moore, author of Under the Mermaid Angel , a book additionally honored by being named as an American Library Association (ALA) Best Book for Young Adults as well as an ALA Notable Book for Children. Of particular interest to ALAN members is that Martha Moore is one of us, a high school English teacher who has long dreamed of becoming a writer. This is her story.

-- BC

It's Almost Midnight; I Have 300 Papers to Grade and a Book to Write...Thoughts of a Teacher / Author

Martha Moore

Some people dream of winning the lottery. My dream has always been to write a book and see it published. In April of 1994, my fantasy came true when an editor from Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Company contacted me at school. The last bell had rung, and I was sitting at my desk staring at an avalanche of papers when the telephone call came.

I'm the type of person who expects the worst. On the way to the English office, I wondered which of my two sons was in trouble. The youngest, three at the time, had been exposed to chicken pox. Everyday for a week we'd searched his body for the inevitable red dots. The oldest, nineteen and living in a college dorm, was supposed to be studying for final exams, but the myriad calamities that could sabotage his grade point average raced through my mind. Hadn't a friend's son received a bad sprain on the steps of the university library? Hurriedly, I made sketchy lesson plans in case I had to call a substitute.

When I answered the telephone and heard a voice say something about Delacorte Press and New York City, I looked around the room for Chris Phenix, the head of our English department. She must have ordered some books, I thought, but no one was around.

"This is Karen Wojtyla, your editor," a voice was saying.

My editor? "Excuse me," I said. "Could you repeat that?" I'm always asking Karen, my editor, to repeat things.

" Under the Mermaid Angel has just won the Twelfth Annual Delacorte Press Award for a First Young Adult Novel," she said, her voice ringing with excitement. I don't scream, even at pep rallies, but inside I was screaming. I gripped the edge of the desk and held on. Of course, I knew I'd entered the contest. I'd made a frantic trip to the post office the day of the deadline in December, and since March I'd been expecting to see my manuscript stuffed inside the mailbox.

After repeating her name and spelling it for me twice, Karen reminded me of the exciting facts of my prize: a publishing contract with a six thousand dollar advance on royalties plus a fifteen hundred dollar award. The reality began to sink in. "I'm not teaching summer school!" I practically shouted. When I hung up the phone, I was trembling all over, and for some crazy reason, I began to cry.

I used to visit bookstores and libraries with an aching envy. For years, though, I nourished the desire to write rather than the reality of putting words on a page. Sure, I jotted notes in spirals, pocket notebooks, and sometimes napkins, but I wasn't a real writer. Then one day in class, while discussing "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray, one of my students asked, "What would you choose for an epitaph, Mrs. Moore?"

"She made a quilt and she wrote a book," I said quickly. I'd finished the quilt. I could prove it. My fingers were scarred by number ten needles and a queen-sized Lone Star covered my bed. The book, however, was still a dream. How could I hope to be a real writer? Unlike Flannery O'Conner, I had never lived on a farm with peacocks. Eudora Welty had the voices of the South steeped in her blood. I had only the voices of hundreds and hundreds of teenagers.

When I was growing up in the Texas Panhandle, I spent winter nights under a stack of handed-down quilts. Tucked in the layers were usually a book or two and my writing tablet. With few inhibitions, I wrote the dramatic yearnings of my heart in the form of poems and stories. Sometimes I even copied from books, page after page of writing that I pretended to be mine. Still, I did not consider the possibility of being a real author.

To me, a little girl in the 1950's, authors were mostly men. They lived somewhere in the clouds, probably heaven, and their books floated down to earth mysteriously. The women in my family taught school.

I knew I would be a teacher, just as my mother, grandmothers, and even my great-grandmothers had been teachers. A few days after my twenty-first birthday in 1971, I began my first job in the public schools of Texas. I quickly saw that I had no time for writing. Outside, the Vietnam War was raging, and inside my junior high classroom I felt an urgency to establish peace and change the world.

I began with an elaborate bulletin board. I crafted a beautiful white dove flying in the middle of a gigantic rainbow, and, of course, there was some very profound quote for my students to ponder.

I've forgotten the culprit's name, but he was small and lumpy-looking like a knot on a potato. He had dirty crooked teeth and a case of acne as intense as the war on television, the same kid who told me his sister was in bed with infected olives. He was one of the main students I hoped to enlighten.

He struck before I'd barely begun my task. Using a heavy dark-leaded pencil, the kind we use on scantron sheets today, and applying his whole weight, seventy-five pounds at least , he wrote a message on my dove. "Have a good day." He misspelled both have and good , then signed his name. Signed his name! Oh, the lure of being published!

It was more than ten years later, after I'd learned the futility of fancy bulletin boards, that I finally realized that, if I wanted to be a published writer, I could be one. Ironically, a series of tragedies thrust me toward my dream.

Within the span of one year, I experienced the deaths of my mother, grandmother, and youngest sister. On top of those losses, I miscarried the baby I'd futilely tried to save by lying in bed for two weeks, my feet propped on a stack of pillows. Steeped in grief, I trudged through the days, feeling as though I were walking in deep water.

Shakespeare called sleep the balm that knits the "raveled sleeve of care." For me, to create is balm for healing. When I was a little girl and my baby brother died, my mother took an art class at the YMCA. She pressed a thousand pieces of broken glass into wet Plaster of Paris. I would use words as my creative medium. Realizing more intensely than ever the brevity of life, I decided to pursue my dream of writing.

I signed up for community education courses in fiction writing, attended workshops, seminars, and joined critique groups. The first time I read my work aloud and heard criticism, I drove home in tears. How dare anyone say I wrote "trains of adjectives!" I decided not to return, but I did. The fiction writing class, affectionately called "hack and slash" by some of its members proved to be one of the best learning situations I've endured. I learned to work under pressure, producing a story a week, tolerate criticism, and see writing as a craft, not just as an emotional experience.

As I continued writing, I subscribed to a variety of writer's magazines, perused the letters and journals of Flannery O'Conner, Madeleine L'Engle, and others. I spent a summer reading Newberys, and checked out every writing "how-to" book in the public library. I immersed myself in the work of dozens of writer's such as Anne Tyler, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, M.E. Kerr, Katherine Patterson, and Cynthia Voigt, just to name a few. I examined dialogue and description as if I were pinning them on dissecting trays in biology. I even counted the words in paragraphs to get a better understanding of how the text moved on the page.

Finally, in September of 1991, I began Under the Mermaid Angel . I had first written it as a short, short story, trimming about 5000 words into a 1500 word story for a contest in Byline Magazine , a wonderful publication for beginning writers. After winning first place and getting the story published (as "The Girl in the Mouton Coat") I began to think about the possibility of its developing into a novel.

For over a year I met weekly at Denny's with three other teachers who were passionate about writing. You have to be passionate, perhaps even a little bit crazy to teach all day, rush to a restaurant for an hour and a half of reading in hushed tones amidst stares and comments, then rush home to cook dinner, grade papers, read bed-time stories, and write.

People often tell me, "I wish I had time to write." I wish I did, too! I teach six classes, have three preparations (tenth grade honors English, creative writing/literary magazine, and twelfth grade "trailer English" (a class for repeaters). On top of my teaching and family, be it blessing or curse, is an insatiable desire to write that cannot be ignored.

I get up between 4:30 and 5:00 most mornings. I head for the microwave for my coffee then to the computer where I write for at least an hour. I've found that time of day to be best for me. I haven't had time to become too rational or critical. I'm at the edge of sleep, and my ideas seem to emerge with less resistance than after a full day of working hard.

I need more time. I do have spring break, winter break, and summers, and I use those, but it's never enough. I'd like to sit in a room with windows along one wall looking out into the woods. There would be mountains, of course, and time would be something elastic that would stretch with me.

There wouldn't be bells or alarm clocks, grocery lists, or progress reports every three weeks. With this kind of time, I could write leisurely. I'd even look like a writer. I'd have time to shop for long flowing dresses and exotic earrings. Life would be full of calmness and rationality. I wouldn't arrive at a wine and cheese reception with a pink velcro roller stuck in the back of my hair.

"What did you do?" my students ask when I tell them that story. They genuinely feel my pain.

"Well, after I returned to the car and looked in the mirror, I jerked the thing out," I say. I survived. It's a theme I want to echo in my books. Virginia Euwer Wolfe does it in Make Lemonade . Joan Bauer does it in Thwonked , and Christopher Paul Curtis does it in The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 . You could name many, many others.

Recently, a woman said to me, "I loved your book. Why don't you write for adults?" It's a question I've heard more than once. Young adult fiction is often perceived as a stage, on its way to, but not quite as refined as adult fiction. People also want to know for what age the book is aimed. I have a hard time with that question. You won't find Cynthia Rylant's Missing May in most high school libraries, and most adults would not think of looking in the juvenile section of the public library for a good book to read, yet that book would touch anyone who reads it.

I recently reread Margaret Wise Brown's 1947 Caldecott winning picture book The Little Island (published under the name Golden McDonald). This children's book is a perfect companion for teaching John Donne's "Meditation 17," echoing Donne's theme that "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." Good books, as good readers know, aim for the soul. The ageless human heart is the target of any good writer.

Trying to teach and write can be an arduous task, but the two go together naturally. My students are very supportive. Sometimes I read passages, and they can be a big help, not so much by what they say but in how they listen.

Recently, I read a new beginning to my second book that I'd been working on for several weeks. As I read, I could see signs that it wasn't clicking. Some students sat with glazed eyes, trying to maintain a position of polite interest. Others doodled on the edges of their notebooks. One or two yawned. I stopped reading.

"Where's the part about the mother standing on the coffee table?" someone asked.

"I changed that," I answered.

"Well, put it back in," she said. I trashed my second beginning and went back to the first one I'd written. The students liked it much better.

Sometimes I grab our drama teacher, Matt Hunt. He has the patience of Job and will listen to me explain the plot I've been laboring over. I tell it haltingly in long disjointed segments that would have others straining to get away from me. He'll really listen; it's almost as if he likes hearing the kind of stuff that makes most people glance at their watches. In a sentence, he can pull me out of a tangle and get me on my way again.

Then there's the Star Trek kid in the cafeteria who confided that he read Under the Mermaid Angel out of curiosity, wondering what a teacher could have to say. He whispered, "I really liked it."

I am going to keep writing. My five year old goes into bookstores barely even nodding at my book propped on the shelves. Doesn't everyone's mother write a book? "I might get an editor," he said one day. "For when I get my book published."

Admittedly, I no longer can spare the time to attend all the football games, concerts, plays, and other activities we have at school. I've had to drop my membership in a variety of organizations. I can't do everything, but maybe I can show my students that writers are real people and that dreams, with hard work, can come true.

Martha Moore, winner of the 1994 Delacorte Press Prize for Under the Mermaid Angel, also teaches English in Texas.