Watching emergent writers is fun, especially when they have mastered the art of writing their letters and then sticking them together into words (more or less) and are able to venture into putting their ideas on paper. My own students are middle schoolers, and although their journeys through writing are far from over, they have the basics down. They may not yet always find the joy in it, but they know how to express themselves in writing.
My son, however, is only in third grade, and he loves to write stories. The physical act of writing letters was difficult for him, and compounded with some very negative experiences in first grade, it took him most of his second grade year to really get comfortable with writing and get past his frustration that his hands cannot keep up with his ideas at all.
However, he is a born storyteller. Since he could first talk, he has been telling vast and complicated stories with byzantine plot lines, which may be abandoned for days and then suddenly, with no warning, context, or transitions, will reappear in our conversation like no time has passed. It has kept me on my toes trying to keep up. (And, I’ll be honest here, when he hit the age where most of his stories started to involve fast cars and things randomly exploding for no reason, I did start tuning out from time to time and murmuring “hmmmm,” and “really?” at appropriate intervals.) Most of his stories involve cats. He is obsessed with cats, and has been telling me stories of his imaginary cats since the second day of preschool when he was three. That means 5 1/2 years of imaginary cat stories and adventures. It is natural, now that he can write more easily, that many of his stories center on cats.
He has also reached the age of imitation. I remember this from my own childhood. In my early primary years, I was obsessed with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories, and so, naturally, I wrote my own versions. My mom still has the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle story that I wrote her as a wedding present when she married my stepfather when I was 7. I know that in reading, students develop mastery by going through phases where they read the same books over and over, and then the same type of books over and over (like the Nancy Drew books, then branching out to books of similar style and genre). I assume that in writing, the developmental process is the same. After all, we use mentor texts as models when we teach writing, so why should students not write their own versions of beloved stories? I feel confident that somewhere in the research on brain development, this is an actual thing. Also, the roots of fan fiction. Either that, or my son and my younger self are just raging plagiarists.
On Monday, as he emerged from several days of high fever but still felt terrible and had no voice, my son noticed that I had purchased him a new book on Friday night. It’s the newest graphic novel/comic of Georgia Dunn’s “Breaking Cat News” strip, which is hilarious, touching, and beautifully rendered with immense detail. I discovered this as a web comic before she was even asked to syndicate it, and she created huge panels in a variety of complex shapes and sizes for her art – and it was very much art, as well as storytelling. It is these graphic novel type pages that are collected in the new book, and my ailing child was entranced. He read the entire book in one sitting, and really scrutinized the parts at the end where she talked about how to create your own drawings and ways to make similar comics about your own pets. (I immediately loved this artist even more for realizing the power of imitation to inspire young artistic minds.) Then he wrote me an earnest note asking for some more drawing paper, and disappeared into his room to draw for hours. He made practice sketches and crossed out shapes and designs he did not like. He decided on how many characters he wanted and what their names were. He sketched a layout for his cover before he started to draw. This was a Serious Project. The cover itself took hours, but he has told me some of the many adventure stories that will go inside. I know that his brain is ticking over the ideas and making myriad connections between what he has read and seen and what he can create with his own hands. Though the resulting book may look much like the original, I could not be more proud of his hard work.
P.S. If you are a cat fan and you have never seen “Breaking Cat News,” you can read it here: https://www.gocomics.com/breaking-cat-news.