Brunswick 5th-graders join exclusive book club

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BRUNSWICK — Writing isn’t something new for Julia Acord, a fifth-grader at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School.

“I already do a lot of creative writing,” she said May 12, standing next to her classmate, Maeva Culbertson, in the school gymnasium.

“Every once in a while, I get a really good idea,” she said, and when that happens, she goes to her computer and types away.

But last week, Acord, Culbertson – who also likes to write – and the rest of the 170 fifth-grade students, gathered to celebrate a milestone that most writers only dream of: getting published.

Since fall, the students have worked with teaching artists from Portland-based nonprofit The Telling Room, a youth writing studio and publishing house, to create an anthology of short fiction.

Last week they sat cross-legged in the gym, holding the fruits of their labor – “The Stars Spoke,” a navy, matte-covered book with a stiff spine – and to listen to their peers read from their work.

The wide-ranging collection of stories was written over the course of nine sessions. Students brainstormed, wrote, and refined stories with volunteers who included a variety of creative professionals: actors, musicians, journalists, and fiction writers.

The program was made possible through a partnership with Arts Are Elementary and the School Department.

“It’s kind of hard to say when you’re in kindergarten, ‘Oh, when I’m in fifth grade, I’m going to get published in a book,” Acord later said.

Culbertson nodded. “When I’m at home I can just write. It’s different to be published to have something people can read.”

That feeling of pride and accomplishment is a fundamental part of the Telling Room’s mission, according to Director of Publications Molly McGrath.

“It’s exciting that (they) get to share it,” McGrath said, describing how the process of reading their work before a group causes “a shift. They start paying attention to their words, and how they’re delivering (them).”

The Telling Room is one of the few publishers of youth books in the country, McGrath said, and student writers are often involved in all parts of the process, from cultivating ideas to editing the final publications.

“We feel that student stories are incredibly powerful,” she said. “And part of that is because they’re often so raw.”

That rawness was apparent last week, and manifested itself in several ways. Students read stories about dreaming, cancer, and a killer rabbit, and stories from the perspectives of a homeless man, a sibling, and a pencil.

Some readers read softly, like Gemma Caswell, who lulled the room with a poem-like story. Riley Jackson, on the other hand, dramatically cleared his throat before captivating the audience with a fantasy thriller, reading forcefully into a microphone that tilted down over his head.

“The idea that the kids have made this happen, this power in this room,” McGrath said, “they actually look taller.”

McGrath said five of the stories were selected for inclusion in The Telling Room’s “Best Of” anthology, which staff compiled from more than 3,300 pieces of student writing and will be available in bookstores and libraries.

“I hope they see themselves as writers,” Whittlesey said. “(And) that there is not one single way to write.”

That seems likely. As the class dispersed back into the hallways, Acord and Culbertson began discussing an idea for their next story – a fantasy collaboration, inspired by characters they had each invented while working with The Telling Room.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Riley Jackson, a fifth-grader at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary in Brunswick, reads a story he wrote working with teachers from The Telling Room, a Portland-based youth writing studio. The Telling Room published an anthology of work written by the entire fifth-grade class, which gathered in the gym May 12 to celebrate their achievement.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.