Though the school year is drawing to a close and summer is fast approaching, Behind the Book programs remain in full swing. On May 31st, 5th graders at PS 46 in Brooklyn had the first of two visits with author Andrea Davis Pinkney. Ms. Pinkney is the author of Bird in a Box, which the class had read prior to their meeting with her.
Ms. Pinkney began her visit by breaking into song: she led the class in an animated rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” and explained that she believes every person has a light inside of them. Ms. Pinkney then showed the class a few of her writing notebooks, which she pointed out are not neat or orderly but are chock full of ideas nevertheless. Building on this point, Ms. Pinkney pulled out a flip-flop and told the class that her first book, Seven Candles for Kwanzaa, originated with an idea she had while swimming. Because she was at the pool and did not have a notebook on hand, Ms. Pinkney got creative and wrote the idea down on her own shoe.
Ms. Pinkney told the students that every morning, she gets up early to meditate and swim. After those two activities, she said, “anything is possible.” She told the class that both meditation and swimming help her in the creative process because she does her best writing when she is happy. In fact, Ms. Pinkney attributes her daring decision to have a cat called Scat Cat Monroe narrate her picture book Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa to her two early morning pastimes. Although Ms. Pinkney’s process clearly works very well for her, she was quick to remind the students that every writer and artist has their own unique process that helps them to do their best work, whether it be drumming or going for a run.
Explaining the importance of research in writing, Ms. Pinkney said that maintaining accuracy is of the utmost importance and she pays attention to every detail. She also told the class that while she was writing Bird in a Box, she had two goals: to find an actual pair of boxing gloves from the 1930s (the time period in which the book is set) and to get in the ring and take up boxing herself. The class gasped when Ms. Pinkney pulled a worn pair of boxing gloves from 1937 out of her bag and passed them around. Her decision to begin boxing was motivated by a desire to get to the heart of her three main characters, all of whom passionately root for boxer Joe Louis as he competes to become the American heavyweight boxing champion.
The students had created and hung up Bird in a Box posters and Venn diagrams that compared the personality traits of the main characters, and had their books on the desks in front of them while Ms. Pinkney talked. When she revealed that the character Hibernia was based on her mother, to whom she also dedicated the book, the class eagerly flipped to the dedication page and then began asking Ms. Pinkney questions about the book. Although she had previously demonstrated that a great idea cannot be held back by a lack of traditional writing materials, Ms. Pinkney is still a fan of plain old notebook paper, which all the students have access to. In her words, “You don’t need to be a genius to be a writer, but you do need a notebook.”