Winner of a Chirstopher Award
Wimmer of a Book for a Better Life Award
When worn-down and somewhat cranky children's-book writer Sam Swope agreed to give a writing workshop to some third-graders in Queens, he became so energized by his twenty-eight students that he "adopted" the class. For three years, he became their writer-in-residence, guiding them through cosmic adventures and too-real troubles as they began to compose the crazy, magical, and often moving stories of their lives. Almost all the students were new Americans—there were kids from twenty-one countries, who spoke a total of eleven different languages—and Swope was drawn deep into their real and imaginary existences, their problems, hopes, fears, and fantasies.
In I Am a Pencil, Swope follows his troop through all the trials and triumphs of their days together, coaxing out words and feelings; watching talents blossom, explode, and sometimes fizzle; holding his breath as the children's families brave new lives in the big, strange city. Moving from nature poems ("The world around the tree / Was hectic and moving / Yet it stood still / With a brave heart") to metaphors ("Courage is a rabbit with pink ears") to autobiography ("Snow snow everywhere / I call Jorge to play / He comes right away") and beyond, Swope shows the children how to deal with their experiences by being creative—how to not only express themselves but communicate on the page.
Along the way we meet MeiKai, whose mom is a Taoist priest, ruled by the dictates of the Queen Mother of the West; Aaron, who charms Swope with his sloppy handwriting and loose grasp on literal truth; Noelia, a chubby Dominican chatterbox who becomes the chief suspect in the great report card heist. Some of the children have problems, such as Miguel, an Ecuadorian boy who must cope with a Pentecostal father who puts strict limits on his activities. Or Su Jung, who mystifies Swope with her sudden silences—until he discovers that her mother has left the family. But, whatever their difficulties, all of the children have big dreams.
Preparing his students for a world of adult challenges and dangers, Swope is continually astonished by their courage, humor, humanity, and most of all by their creativity and strength. I Am a Pencil is as funny, warm, heartbreaking, and hopeful as the children who bring it to life.