When Andrea Nelson was in seventh grade, she wrote a letter to one of her favorite authors, Patricia MacLachlan. The award-winning author wrote Nelson back; Nelson still has the letter.
In October, Nelson, now a sixth-grade English language arts teacher at Anoka Middle School for the Arts (AMSA), had an opportunity to meet MacLachlan when she was in Minnesota promoting her book, “The Boxcar Children Beginning: The Aldens of Fair Meadow Farm.”
“I brought the letter when I met her; it was really a special moment that we connected with,” Nelson said. “We got to chatting about what I do and when I told her I was a language arts teacher, she gave me her email address and told me she’d be more than happy to Skype with my class.”
Nelson enjoys MacLachlan’s books because the author writes from “a place that is real.”
“She tells stories of families and love that aren’t overdramatized or sensationalized, which makes them easy for students to relate to,” Nelson said. “Her characters are honest and true to life. I also love her style of writing; it feels effortless because it’s so clean and straightforward.”
To prepare for the Skype chat, Nelson’s students read eight of MacLachlan’s books in class, including “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” which won a Newberry Award. Students were encouraged to seek out MacLachlan’s other books and continue reading them in their own time.
During the Skype session, MacLachlan spoke with the students from her home office in Massachusetts. MacLachlan told the students she gets up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. and writes every day.
“Morning is when I am really smart, I think of most of my ides than,” she said. “When I was in school I didn’t like assignments and deadlines. But one of the things about being a writer is that you have to care when you get your book done because if you don’t get it done, you don’t get paid. You have to become really organized and responsible; I’d rather be whacky.”
MacLachlan told the students they were lucky to have a teacher who encourages them to write. When MacLachlan was in school she had a teacher who told her she would never grow up to be a writer. MacLachlan, who now has about 60 books to her name, went home and wrote in her journal, “I should not try to be a writer.”
“My journal was all fiction,” she told the students. “I know that because in fourth grade I had 18 boyfriends from around the world. I made up these characters and that’s where I started writing.
“What I still write is personal to me. I make things up, but they are based on people I know or something a child says to me. I write a lot about dogs; I love dogs and all my kids love dogs. I think the dogs teach us how to be better people. They love you no matter what kind of jerk you are. They are wonderful to have around.”
After MacLachlan’s intro, the students asked her a number of questions about her and her writing. MacLachlan said she wanted to be a writer because she loves books and stories. An English teacher by trade, MacLachlan became a writer after taking a class.
“I found the books I really liked and read them over and over to see why I liked them,” MacLachlan said. “I took a class with a writer and then I sold my first book. It was like magic.”
Now in her 70s, MacLachlan said she has been writing since she was eight years old. When asked about her favorite book, MacLachlan said they are like her three children; she likes them best for different reasons. MacLachlan said her parents, children, other writers and good books are her role models.
“I belong to a writers group with famous writers, we meet once a week,” she said. “We read to each other, just like you read to your teacher. Sometimes it is scary. We worry that the others won’t like what we wrote or think it is dumb, or think it is boring, which is worse than dumb. You and I have something in common, we are trying to get something done and do the best we can.”
When asked if she’ll ever retire from writing, MacLachlan’s answer was a strong “no.” In addition to writing additional books, MacLachlan has also written screen plays for two of her books.
The students had a warm round of applause after their conversation with MacLachlan. Nelson said through the experience she hopes her students learned that great stories and great books can originate from their own experiences.
“They don’t have to be in love with a vampire or seeking mythical treasure to have stories that are worth telling,” Nelson said. “I also hope that they learned that it is possible to do what you love in life, no matter how impossible that may seem.”