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.
"[Offers] insight into how children learn and how their minds may be expanded through literature, personal interaction, and outings."—Bernadette Murphy, Los Angeles Times
"Swope lives his bright, imaginative, eager students, most of them children of recent immigrants, and they love him back for his silliness and his fascination in them . . . Delightful."—Chicago Tribune
"Swope is a remarkable person and an immensely gifted teacher . . . He developed extremely creative annual projects, which alone should make this book of value to elementary school teacher."—San Francisco Chronicle
"The drive and energy Swope brings out in his students . . . shows that pushing children to reach their full potential and beyond is what is needed in education. The results of these students' labor are unbelievable."—The Tampa Tribune
"An intriguing and extremely compelling book for parents, teachers, and all those who care about young children today . . . A valiant commentary on what can be accomplished when a talented and dedicated teacher directs a student's creative life."—Providence Journal Bulletin
"Is there a book that more convincingly demonstrates that any students, anywhere, from any backgrounds or surmounting any obstacles, can be led to love poetry, to read like madmen, to write compulsively and be open to the possibilities of the word on the page? I Am a Pencil should be read by anyone who wants to find inspiration in today's students, teachers, and the Sam Swopes who enhance the lives of both."—Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
"I Am a Pencil is a magical journey. Sam Swope clearly has a gift for inspiring the make-believe in others. It's a treat to watch as he taps the imaginings of his immigrant students; in doing so he discovers the realities of their newfound lives."—Alex Kotlowitz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of There Are No Children Here
"Sam Swope's marvelous, moving book revives the teaching memoir where it left off in the 1970s and takes it to new realms of tenderness, insight, and humanity. Anyone who cares at all about children or writing or the drama of everyday life should have a great time with I Am a Pencil."—Phillip Lopate, author of Being with Children
"Quite wonderful. Sam Swope finds the children in Mrs. Duncan's class enormously likeable, fascinating even, especially those who resist his lessons . . . Swope's study of a classroom of children learning to reveal themselves in story and poem is a drama that belongs on a stage."—Vivian Paley, author of A Child's Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play
"How I want to be in Mr. Swope's class, where words are gift-wrapped and trees are muses and the worst thing you can be is boring. Throughout the story of three captivating years, it becomes very clear what Swope and his students have in common: their writing is powerful, beautiful, original, and sweet."—Linda Perlstein, author of Not Much, Just Chillin'
"Delightful, sometime heartbreaking . . . Swope shows how children flourish when their imaginations are nurtured and they are challenged to find inner discipline and write what they see as truth."—Publishers Weekly