Sunday, May 19, 2024

Plattsburgh author leads chapter-book series

Students of Mrs. Z’s third-grade classroom and Mrs. Z.

 

By Robin Caudell

New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Kate Messner’s newest release, “The Kids in Mrs. Z’s Class, Emma McKenna Full Out,” is a chapter-book series first for her, and it drops on Tuesday.

“The Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid will have signed copies as soon as Wednesday,” Messner said.

“Rajani LaRocca (author of ‘Rohan Murthy Has a Plan, second book in chapter-book series) and I are doing a joint book tour at the end of May. We will be in Lake Placid on May 28 from 3 to 5 p.m.”

 

THE SPARK

On her website (katemessner.com), Messner writes about the series’ origins:

“This series started with an email. About two years ago, I found a note from my literary agent in my inbox with the subject line ‘Idea for Kate Messner.’ She was sending along a proposal from Algonquin Books Editorial Director Cheryl Klein, asking if I’d like to head up a new multi-author chapter book series about all the kids in one elementary school class. The project was ambitious – 18 books over three years – and involved a ton of collaboration. Each author would create their own main character, who would then be a secondary character in all of the other books. Would I be interested in writing the first and last books in the series and helping to recruit a team of authors to write the rest?”

Besides Messner and LaRocca, the authors are William Alexander, Tracey Baptiste, Martha Brockenbrough, Lamar Giles, Karina Yan Glaser, Mike Jung, Hena Khan, Kyle Lukoff, Kekla Magoon, Meg Medina, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Eliot Schrefer, Laurel Snyder and Linda Urban.

“Honestly, working on this series has been an absolute joy,” Messner said.

“We have all laughed so much. Most of us have made new friends and became closer friends with writers we knew before. Will Alexander emailed me and was telling me the other day about how much he wished he had known Mike Jung in third grade. The collaboration has been so much fun and just has added such a spark of energy and creativity to this series that really lives in every single book that I have read so far.”

 

MESSNER’S PLOT

“Emma McKenna can’t wait for third grade at the brand-new Curiosity Academy. She’ll have a cool teacher, Mrs. Z., who wears high-tops and science earrings. She’ll meet interesting new classmates from all over Peppermint Falls. Best of all, she’ll get a fresh start after last year’s talent-show disaster left her with a terrible nickname. It’s going to be the best year ever!

Then, Lucy walks into Mrs. Z’s room.

Lucy, Emma’s former best friend.

Lucy, who gave Emma that nickname and spread it all over school.

What do you do when your worst enemy knows your biggest secret — and now she’s in your class?”

“So, I am writing the first book in the series and the last book in the series,” Messner said.

“The first book is about Emma’s stress over third grade because Lucy is in her class, and they have this history. The last book is from Lucy’s point of view. So, at the very end of the series, Lucy gets to share her version of the story.”

All the series’ characters — Adam, Ayana, Carlota, Emma, Fia, Lucy, Mars, Memo, Olive, Poppy, Rohan, Ruthie, Sebastian, Steven, Synclaire, Theo, Thunder and Wyatt — are new and invented for the series to populate Mrs. Z’s third-grade classroom.

“One of the ways I did research for this project was I talked to a lot of third graders,” Messner said.

“I do a lot of school visits, and so when I was working with second and third graders at school visits, I asked them for advice, and they shared ideas with me. and I also partnered with a handful of third-grade teachers to ask their kids some questions for me, and a lot of those kids wrote me letters about the best and worst things about being in third grade.”

One common theme that came up over and over again in those letters from third graders was friends’ drama.

“One student was writing to me about the friendship issues that she had in third grade, and she said, ‘The not-so-great thing about third grade is that I have an enemy,’” Messner said.

“Then she writes, ‘An enemy is a friend who doesn’t like you anymore.’ I said oh, my goodness, out of the mouths of kids. That was so profound and so heartfelt that I kind of ended up building Emma’s entire story around that idea of a friendship that broke up and was causing this tension on the first day of school.”

 

OF CAPYBARA & RECORDERS

Curiosity Academy needs a mascot, and Emma nominates the capybara, a creature Messner got up close and personal with at a Miami zoo.

“They’re like big overgrown guinea pigs,” she said.

“They are the cutest, sweetest animals ever. They have this capybara experience where you can go and help feed the capybara and spend some time with them and get to know them.

“The idea to put the animal in the book was there because friendship issues are a huge part of this story as they are in many third graders’ lives.

Emma is so stressed out about that she wants to get along with everyone. She suggests that her new school make their new mascot the capybara because capybara are famous for getting along with everyone. There are memes online with capybaras hanging out with puppies and crocodiles. They get along with all different animals. They are native to South America. They are found in most of South America.”

For the series starter, Messner even did her due diligence researching recorders, though her character longs for the flute.

“The thing about recorders is that even if you’re okay at it, it doesn’t sound great,” she said.

“It’s just one of those instruments. It was fun to learn again and remember the struggles of third grade. My friend Sandy Verity, who is retiring this year, is the music teacher at Oak Street School and Bailey Avenue School, spent some time reminding me how to play and teaching me a few songs, but also sharing some stories. One of the stories she shared was she said, ‘Well, there’s always one kid who tries to play the recorder with their nose.’ I was well, that’s a great scene for the story.”

 

HOW THEY DID IT

The writers connected with each other in every possible way imaginable.

“Smaller groups of us have gotten together at writing retreats and book festivals and for coffee dates,” she said.

“We have had larger Zoom meetings with the whole group. We have a lot of Google Docs. We have a folder on Google Drive that is our teamwork folder, and that includes things like our series Bible, and the map of Peppermint Falls, and the floor plans for the Curiosity Academy and other things that writers have requested along the way.

“Somebody was writing a scene set in the lunchroom and emailed and said, ‘I need a scene shot for lunch.’ We’ve just been creating those team documents as needed. We’ve got a list of the staff at the school and things like that. All of our team documents live in that folder on Google Drive, and we do a lot of collaborating there and via email as well.”

There have been multi-author series before, but not one like this.

“Those were typically series where one author came up with the world and the plot lines and then other authors stepped in to write the stories into a world that was already created,” Messner said.

“With this series, everyone was involved from the very beginning. We had the concept, but everyone got to come up with their own character. Everybody did this really extensive character worksheet to introduce their character to the rest of the team because one of the greatest things and also the most complicated thing about this series was that everybody’s main character in their book is also a secondary character in everyone else’s book.”

The characters’ personalities and speech patterns needed to be consistent from book to book.

“So, we were all using all the character worksheets religiously when we wrote our own books to make sure we got everybody else’s character right,” she said.

“Honestly for me, that has been one of the most magical things about leading this team of writers is seeing the care that writers take with one another’s characters. Everyone on this team has so much respect for every other writer on the team, and they take so much care to get other people’s characters right in their own book. It’s just been so great to see, so heartwarming.

“One of the things that all the authors have talked about is in order to write these books, to craft this series, we really had to go back to third grade in our minds, and in our hearts, and in our memories. That’s been fun. When you’re older, it’s fun to be in third grade for a little while again.”

 

MORE BOOKS

Messner is a master of juggling deadlines, and “History Smashers: The Salem Witch Trials” drops this summer.

“It needs a lot of smashing,” she said.

“There’s a lot of mythology surrounding that. We kind of look at what actually happened. It’s really interesting. After that there are several more books in the series that I will be working on. One about Earth Day and the environment, one about ancient Egypt, and one about the space race, the history of space exploration. So, I will be working on those. I have a novel in verse coming out a year from now. That’s a project that has been in the works for almost seven years.”

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