When Jerry Spinelli finishes writing a book, he jumps up from his desk, does an end zone dance, and spikes his pencil. This tidbit, shared by the beloved children's author, delighted 6th graders at an assembly at John Witherspoon Middle School on Monday, January 23, 2017.
Mr. Spinelli, whose book Maniac Magee won a Newbery Prize in 1991, was at John Witherspoon Middle School to talk with 6th graders about what it is like to be an author and how he approaches the writing process.
“It is wonderful to see kids so engaged in asking questions and listening intently to a renowned author tell stories of how he gets ideas for his books,” said Jason Burr, Principal at John Witherspoon Middle School.
Mr. Spinelli said it often takes him 12 months to write one of his novels, revising continually as he goes and frequently asking his wife, fellow author Eileen Spinelli, for her input.
When a student in the audience asked what it feels like to write a book, Spinelli said it's an incredible experience.
“Where there were just blank pieces of paper, I created something called a story,” said Mr. Spinelli, adding that the only feeling equal to writing a book is when someone reads it.
6th grader Wolfgang Dorman-Schroeder said Mr. Spinelli's books have been an important part of his childhood and literary journey.
"Maniac Magee was one of the first books where I read the whole book,” said Wolfgang. One of his all-time favorite books, Stargirl, is also written by Mr. Spinelli.
When asked about how he deals with writer's block, Mr. Spinelli told the students that he thinks writer's block is a flimsy excuse and should be ignored. Teachers don't wake up in the morning with teacherí' block, why should writers be able to claim writer's block? Instead, Mr. Spinelli told students that when they feel writer's block, they should persevere and continue writing.
The students also learned Mr. Spinelli's favorite baseball team (the Phillies), the book he is currently reading (The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead), his favorite food (Dutch chocolate almond ice cream or Ben & Jerry's Super Fudge Chunk), his favorite movie (Anne of Green Gables), and his favorite book (one of his wife's called When You Are Happy).
As the assembly came to a close, there was one final question from a student. Which does Mr. Spinelli enjoy more: reading or writing?
Out of all the assemblies, book signings, and guest speaking engagements Mr. Spinelli has done in the course of his 35-year career, this question was a first. He told the students that writing, when he isn't enjoying it, is a lot of work. But there is never a time when that is true with reading.
“It's always enlightening, entertaining, or fun,” he explained.
Mr. Spinelli left the students with a single piece of advice for becoming authors themselves: “Write what you care about.”
He explained that if you care about what you are writing about, you will put forth your best effort.
“We are always looking for ways to help fuel our students' passions,” said Principal Burr. “So that was great advice for our students to hear.”
As part of his visit to Princeton, Mr. Spinelli also visited the Princeton Public Library to promote his new book, The Warden's Daughter.