With a group of kids surrounding him, he read with his trademark verve and enthusiasm the story “Faithful Johannes” from Grimms’ Tales for Young and Old translated by Ralph Manheim.
Afterwards, a girl, obviously enthralled, approached him with wide eyes and said, “You should make that into a book.”
“That was the catalyst in my writing career,” Gidwitz said. “Before that, I’d been trying to write a book for my students in a conversational style because that’s how I taught.
“I’d quit my job (as an elementary teacher at Saint Ann’s) to get the book published. I’d revised it in a much more serious style. When I took it to an agent, she said it was no good. The problem was that I had lost the voice that I used to speak to kids. When I told them (the Saint Ann’s class) the fairy tale, I re-found that voice that I had lost.”
In the ensuing years, the 36-year-old Columbia University graduate has parlayed his “writer’s voice” into – so far – five children’s books
, one of which, The Inquisitor’s Tale
, earned him the John Newbery Medal in 2017.
Today, he visited Collegiate where he worked with Middle School students, shared his experiences, and conveyed the energy and joie de vivre with which he lives his life and indulges his passion for a creative “re-telling” of time-honored narratives ranging from the Brothers Grimm to Star Wars.
Between sessions, he spoke of his creative calling.
What made you want to be a writer?
Telling stories to kids. As a teacher, I struggled in the classroom except when I was telling stories. I realized that sharing stories was the best way I had of communicating with students.
What excites you about the writing process?
Essentially, my job is to lie on my couch and think of the coolest things possible and try to make kids laugh at them or be scared by them or think they’re cool too. I’ve always been an imaginer. I wasn’t a writer as a kid, but I played a lot. So now I get to play as a job. I just have to make kids feel like my play is as entertaining and edifying and as emotionally and intellectually fulfilling for them as it is for me.
Can one actually teach writing?
Every kid spends time imagining. You can teach kids to channel their imagination, creativity, and thought process onto the page, then give them techniques so they’re effective communicating that to others.
Can you teach creativity, or do you believe every kid has it and it’s a matter of getting them to understand that?
They have it. They just have to get it out there.
Where do your ideas – these fanciful ideas – originate?
I steal all my ideas (he laughs) mostly from folklore and fairy tales: Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Medieval folklore. Medieval history. Star Wars is a kind of folklore. Then I tell the stories to kids, often in new shapes and new versions of the stories.
Does your “writing day” have a particular structure?
Yeah. The ideal day is wake up in the morning. Put on my slippers, make some toast and tea, open up my computer, and write for two or three hours. Then I lie on my couch and stare at the ceiling. I talk to myself, think about my story, make stuff up, take a nap. Eight hours later when my wife (Lauren) comes home from work, I’m still lying on the couch staring at the ceiling. That’s pretty much my ideal day.
When you write, are you telling a story, teaching a lesson, revealing a truth, or a combination?
Telling a story. Every story has truth in it. There’re lessons we can learn from any story. The more we try to teach a lesson with a story, the less good the story usually is; therefore, the less kids learn from it. The better, the richer, the more interesting and surprising the story is, the more kids usually can learn from it.
Should aspiring writers emulate others or develop their own styles?
The most important thing for aspiring writers is to have fun while they’re writing. Sometimes, that means writing like Rick Riordan or J.K. Rowling or Adam Gidwitz. Sometimes it means writing in a way you’ve never seen before. As an adult, you have to find a way to write that makes people want to read your stories and ultimately pay for them. As a kid, the most important thing is to have fun. The more fun you have, the more you’ll write, the more creatively you’ll write, and the better you’ll get.
What would you like the kids at Collegiate to learn from your visit?
That their imaginative life is among the most important parts of their life. Homework is important. Friendships are important. Being a good person is important. If you want to have one of those fun, creative jobs from astronaut to writer to teacher to architect, imagining the world in a new way and then trying to make it that way is the key.
Is writing your job or your passion?
It’s a passion that I get paid to do, which is just the best kind of passion there is.