This summer I was fortunate to go to camp not once, but twice (not counting the camping out my family and I did for the Books in Boothbay Festival).

First up was the Young Author’s Camp, a program of the Southern Maine Writing Project, which is itself a division of the National Writing Project. Under the direction of veteran teachers Meg Parkhurst and Kent Chapman, campers spent the week exploring writing in various genres, going through the revision process, and finally polishing and publishing a piece in the anthology. I was honored to be their guest author. I talked to the young writers about the power of the question “What if?” For me, this is how all of my stories start, and how I keep them going. For example, The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill started when I saw a child’s bike parked at a house in a graveyard, and I asked, “What if you grew up in a graveyard?”

“What if?” isn’t just a story starter, though. It’s also how stories keep going. So, with The Water Castle, I first asked myself, “What if a boy moved to a town and everyone was smarter, stronger, and faster than usual?” This of course raised the question of why, which I answered with another what if: “What if there was ‘something in the water’?” As I researched and wrote, I refined the question to, “What if the Fountain of Youth is in this town, but what if it’s not a myth, it’s just something our science can’t comprehend yet?”

What was exciting for me was walking around during the free write time. The kids were building wildly different worlds and characters. One group of boys was working together, and as they collaborated on their world, they kept saying, “How about?” Like, “How about the mayor’s powers allow him to create any material he needs?” I chatted with them a little while, and then I said, “You know, this is just what I was talking about. ‘How about?’ is another way of asking ‘What if?'” I think kids naturally ask this question, which is part of what makes them such good story tellers.

My second camp experience came earlier this week when I visited the Thalia Book Club Camp, run by Symphony Space in New York City. This time I met campers who had already read The Water Castle, and were ready to ask me tons of good questions. First I went through the process of writing the book — from the first idea, through all the different variations on that idea, the research I did, and the editing and book design processes. As I did so, they got to hear all of the “What if?” questions I asked, so we did a writing exercise where I asked them to come up with their own “What if?” questions based on some intriguing pictures I had found. As with the kids in Maine, these campers were eager and ready to share their ideas.

After lunch in the park, we went up to Trinity Cemetery in Washington Heights. The Visiting Artist for the week, the charming and funny Matthew Cody (don’t let it go to your head, Matthew), had brought students on this field trip earlier, and as he promised, the kids found a lot of interesting material with which they could work. Some imagined lives for the people buried in the cemtery, including lengthier lives for children who had died young. Others wrote about the experience of being in the cemetery. One girl created a names database. She went around collecting names of the headstones, with one column for first names, a second for middle names, and a third for surnames. Then she could mix and match them whenever she needed a character name. Brilliant!

As we were walking up to the cemetery from the subway station, one of the girls told me she hadn’t realized there were so many bookish people around. I told her that there were bookish people all over the place. Finding those bookish people is, of course, a real joy, and I’ve made a point of surrounding myself with them. Programs like the Young Authors Camp and the Thalia Book Club Camp let young bookish people find each other, and to find their own voices.

Upta Camp

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