How lucky I am to call so many fine writers friends, Frances O’Roark Dowell among them? I first met her through her wonderful book, Chicken Boy (Atheneum Books for Young Readers), and have been a huge fan of her work ever since. Her newest novel, The Class (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books) ambitiously tells the story of one classroom through twenty points of view. I am in awe of her for taking on this challenge, as well as for doing it so well. Read on for more of Frances’ thoughts about her latest book.
It’s embarrassingly easy for me to judge people—the young mother in the checkout line whose kid is throwing a fit, the driver in the car in front of me who doesn’t seem to have any idea of a) where he’s going; and b) how to drive. When I find my thoughts edging toward the snarky side, I remind myself: You don’t know the whole story and You’d feel differently about this situation if that person were your friend.
Those reminders are at the heart of my latest novel, The Class (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books) , which is the story of one sixth grade class, told from twenty points of view. I don’t remember exactly how it came to me, but I immediately loved the idea of presenting an entire classroom one student at a time. Creating twenty characters, each with his or her own history and baggage, each one of them full of thoughts and secrets nobody would ever begin to guess—what could be better?
It was almost like playing a game of “Telephone,” showing how the students’ perceptions of one another altered from one kid to the next. Is Garrett stuck up or just shy? Depends on who you ask. Hyper Henry drives almost everyone crazy—except for Stefan, who has seen Henry’s more thoughtful side. Maybe if they knew the truth about Becca’s mom, the kids in the class would understand why Becca works so hard to be the teacher’s pet.
At the center of things is Mrs. Herrera, the class’s (mostly) beloved teacher. When rumors start going around that Mrs. Herrera is at risk of losing her job, her students come together to find a way to protect her. Their desire to save their teacher, and their interest in uncovering who’s been stealing keepsakes from her Special Collection of Special things, form the connective tissue that holds the story together from one character to the next.
I’m not a big “the moral of this story is” kind of writer, but I do hope readers of The Class finish it with an understanding that people’s outsides don’t necessarily reflect their insides, and sometimes their actions aren’t indicative of who they really are. The fact is, when it comes to other people, you don’t know what you don’t know. That mother yelling at her kid might be down to her last dollar; the bad driver might have just learned his brother has cancer.
Will reading The Class make kids less likely to judge? To try to understand one another better? I’m not sure one book can tackle such a monumental task. But maybe reading lots of books can. Recent studies show that reading helps kids develop emotional intelligence and empathy. A good book reminds us that everyone has secrets, circumstances and situations that an outsider would never guess. It reminds us that everyone, as the saying goes, is fighting a battle we know nothing about.
Frances O’Roark Dowell is the bestselling author of over twenty books for young readers, including Dovey Coe (winner of a 2001 Edgar Award and the William Allen White Award); The Secret Language of Girls trilogy, Chicken Boy (an ALA Notable Book and an NCTE Notable Book), Shooting the Moon (winner of the Christopher Award and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award honor book), The Phineas L. Maguire series, the Sam the Man, and The Class. She has also published fiction for adult readers, including Birds in the Air, a novel, and the story collection, Margaret Goes Modern and Other Stories. Her novel, Friendship Album, 1933, is available via the Quilt Fiction podcast. She lives in Durham, NC, with her family and her good dog Travis.