Learning ‘Rules’ of writing
HANSON — In a way, summer vacation lasted a few more weeks for Indian Head School students than others in the W-H district.
They just last week enjoyed the finale of a school-wide summer reading project between Indian Head students and the Maquan School second-grade pupils promoted to third grade at Indian Head.
Newbury Silver Award-winning author Cynthia Lord visited the school on Thursday, Sept. 17 to talk about her life and work as a writer. Students read Lord’s book, “Rules,” about autism and acceptance of differences over the summer.
“Because we house the autism program for the district in this building, we thought it would be important to have a book like that,” Principal Diane White said on the last day of school June 25.
Lord began her visit at an assembly of all three grades before meeting with students in each grade level separately. It was Lord’s second school visit in as many days in Massachusetts. The Maine resident and former teacher spent the day at a middle school in Blackstone Wednesday, Sept. 16.
To illustrate the writing process, she led the children in the creation of a story. Grade four was up first, as the students learned that becoming a writer is a little like the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall.
Her slide presentation began at her own beginnings — a one-page story she wrote in the first grade.
“We all start somewhere as writers,” she said. “I did four things between this early story and [“Rules”] that helped me get there.”
Read. Practice. Learn. Dream.
She asked the boys and girls for the titles of the books they just couldn’t put down. There were few duplicates as she called on several among the large number of students raising their hands. Lord also made sure that they knew writing, like many other skills, takes practice and a willingness to learn from your mistakes.
For her fourth point, she noted a comment from her second-grade report card:
“Cynthia would rather stare out the window than get her work done,” it read.
“Sometimes, when I’m staring out the window, I’m goofing off and that’s not a good thing,” she said. “But other times I’m thinking, and thinking is a very important part of writing.”
As autism acceptance was also the theme for the reading project, Lord talked about the inspiration for “Rules.”
The book was published April 1, 2006, but it started when her 12-year-old daughter Julia, now 25, asked her a question: “Mom, how come I don’t ever see families like ours in books?” Lord’s son Gregory, now 23, was diagnosed with autism at age 2.
There were some out there at the time, but Lord felt the stories about autistic characters were sad.
“It’s funny to live with my son, because he’ll say those things that you and I think but don’t say,” she said. “I think I was writing the book my daughter couldn’t find.”
Her audience had evidently read her book very closely, asking thoughtful questions about the story and answering her question in detail.
Some students were touched more closely by the book than as a fan of a good story. One student told Lord that her heroine Katherine’s love of art inspired his passion to draw.
“My brother has autism, so when I read the book it made me feel really good that someone wrote a book about autism,” another boy said.
He also told her that he’s working on his own book series called “Superbacon,” the inspiration for which came to him over breakfast one morning. His friends thought that sounded really cool. Lord agreed.
The boy’s first “Superbacon” story won first prize in a writing contest.
After her grade four presentation, Lord was surrounded by students eager to speak with her. She was equally impressed by them.
“They had very good questions,” she said. “They asked really thoughtful questions.”
She noted there’s more awareness of autism now than when “Rules” was originally published, partly thanks to the character of Dr. Sheldon Cooper on the CBS comedy, “The Big Bang Theory.”
The show’s humor is an effective tool toward helping foster acceptance of autistic people, she said.
Children can also take a leadership role in that acceptance.
“I think, sometimes, we don’t encourage kids to talk about people who are different, because we are so concerned about not hurting somebody’s feelings,” Lord said. “We teach little kids that it’s not OK to talk about differences, but then those differences exist and they choose not to interact with people who are different.”