Rodgers Forge students provide aspiring author valuable critique

Rodgers Forge author Frances Schoonmaker has found a unique focus group to test-read the first in a series of adolescent novels she has written and would like to see published — a classroom full of fifth grade students at the neighborhood elementary school.

For the past month and a half, students in Katie Schmidt's 5th-grade class at Rodgers Forge Elementary School — including Schoonmaker's granddaughter, Amelia — have listened as Schmidt has read to them each day from the first book in a series of three written by the retired professor and teacher. "The Alabaster Box" is a story set in the 1840s, just prior to the country's gold rush, which tells the story of an 11-year-old girl who opens a magical box and must deal with the consequences.

Schmidt said she met Schoonmaker during American Education Week in November and, as the two spoke, Schoonmaker mentioned her novels. The two decided on a collaboration through which Schmidt's students could read Schoonmaker's book and provide feedback, while also getting a first-hand look at the writing process by working with an author.

At first, reading the unpublished book was a hard-sell to the students, Schmidt said, but as they heard more of it the students began to enjoy the story.

The students gave feedback about the book to their teacher, who shared the comments with Schoonmaker online through Schoonmaker's personal blog. Students commented on parts of the book that were confusing, or parts that moved to fast, among other notes.

"The kids were super into it and they had a lot of thoughtful feedback," Schmidt said.

The unique process was valuable to students because they felt as if they "had a say" in what they were reading thanks to the feedback they delivered, Schmidt said.

Schoonmaker said the feedback has been valuable. While Schoonmaker said violence is a common theme in the adolescent book genre, she believes that she has written a series that young readers will enjoy that contains no aliens or zombies.

Schmidt said when the class was done reading the first book in the series, 25 students out of 27 said they would like to read the next.

On March 2, Schoonmaker visited the class, which gave the students a chance to meet the author and discuss her work with her in person.

Many students asked about specific characters, wondering if they would return in subsequent books in the series. The visit was a part of Read Across America Day, an annual event organized by the National Education Association that celebrates reading on the birthday of the late childrens' author, Dr. Seuss.

Schoonmaker told the students a little about how she developed the idea for the series based on her own experiences. In 2009, when she retired as a professor of curriculum and teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York, she began turning those ideas into the series, she said. Schoonmaker also worked for Baltimore County Public Schools in the 1970s, she said, teaching kindergarten and first-grade and later mentoring fellow teachers.

Curiosity is an important trait for an author to have, she told the children, because as an author might need to imagine scenarios that he or she has never experienced.

"Everybody starts with a good idea, but a good idea isn't enough," she told the students.

After taking questions from the children, Schoonmaker read a chapter from the second novel in her unpublished series. Names for the books, including the first book, are still under consideration Schoonmaker said.

Students in the room were clearly eager to get a preview of the next book in the series, enthusiastically shouting "yes" when asked if they wanted to hear a part of the next book.

Schmidt said the class will now move on to other authors during the read aloud portion of the class, though Schoonmaker has left four copies of the manuscript of the second book in the series for students to read. The class will take turns with the copies, reading independently, and can continue to provide feedback to the author online.

Schoonmaker said that she has sent her series to a dozen agents as well as several publishers and in response has gotten either "no thank you" or a form letter. But she's not giving up.

Some students asked her if she would let them know when the book is published. They'll know, she said, because she'll likely be setting off fireworks in the neighborhood to celebrate.

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