Reflections From An Educator
Layah Schreiber, BA
Teacher & Photojournalist
In my house I have two bookshelves. One is stacked with books that remain unfinished -- those recommended, book-listed, discounted, I’ll-get-around-to-it books -- and the other holds a far more accessible line-up that frequently wanders over to my bedside table. Those are the ones with the dog-eared corners, soft pages, and faded white binding and edges, creased from spending more time off the bookshelf than on.
When I was eleven, I shared a room with my older sister, and therefore all furniture was divided accordingly (perhaps more-so in her favor, as she rightfully got first dibs). My bookshelf was the middle of three shelves, a space for the most prized and sacred of my book collection at the time. Easily accessible in the middle of that shelf was a purple-bound chapter book called The Wish by Gail Carson Levine.
I chose it as part of a Scholastic Book Club order, offered twice a year at my elementary school in Chicago. One of the most celebrated moments in the classroom was when that large cardboard box with vibrant red “Scholastic Inc.” tape arrived with each student’s choice book selection. At a time when Lisa Frank pencils and Bonne Bell Lip Smackers were an attractive bonus to many pre-teen listings (which we denied being swayed by but were all guilty), few books of that genre came without the trimmings of dreamcatchers and strawberry scented journals as pure-bound unpretentious book. The Wish was one of the latter.
It was the title that hooked me, in addition to the brief abstract about Wilma Sturtz’s unpopular existence at Claverford Junior High before she meets an old wish-granting woman on the subway. Although I don’t recall the ending of the novel, or its details, I do remember that Wilma’s fairy tale story was more relatable than glorious, and that it was one of the first chapter books I loved. One of the few novels that I read more than once, twice, or three times throughout middle school. And perhaps the first novel that captured my mind and heart, and planted a literary-loving flag firmly in the center.
It is no surprise then that Ms. Levine’s visit to Preschool of the Arts, for a reading of her picture book Betsy Who Cried Wolf to the Pre-K and Nursery classes, fused an unexpected fantasy with my reality. And perhaps not just for me.
“Meeting Gail was a very valuable experience for the Structures Class,” says Pre-K teacher Shayna Landes, “because it brought the idea of ‘being an author’ to a very concrete level.” The class spent several weeks reading and discussing the book, expressing intrigue and curiosity in its details. They took initiative in preparing for the visit by creating hand-written invitations and questions for the author, such as, How can you write the letters so small in the book? and How come you wrote the words? "This gave the class a sense of responsibility and power over the event...it became their event."
During the spirited and interactive reading in the Flatiron Library on 22nd Street, children delightfully howled like the wolves in the story and answered vocabulary and thematic questions. In an additional Q&A session with the author, the Structures class discussed the role of illustrators and editors in book-writing. Ms. Levine also shared two writing tips with the room of soon-to-be-authors: to practice patience when writing and to consider writing funny stories.
For the children and the school, this event was an exciting honor and incredible exploration of what it means to be an author. The event brought to life an elusive name, printed in vibrant blue and red letters on one book and in curling golden letters on another. I realize that if part of the magic of learning is seeing something familiar in a new light, we most certainly experienced something extraordinary. Especially because what I did not realize, until I reopened The Wish over winter vacation, is that its story begins as the protagonist exits the 23rd Street subway station. Who knew where I would be 15 years after reading that prologue?