Behind the Book
The moment that salutation appears, you know what’s going on: It’s a letter, and someone hopes it has reached you.
We write a letter, send it off, and then we trust it arrives, hope it gets opened and read and thought about. It’s that way with a book as well, and my new novel, Extra Credit, is no exception. Plus, this book has a special kinship with letter writing: it’s built around a pen pal exchange between two sixth graders–a girl from Illinois and a boy from Afghanistan.
For many years now during school author visits, I have asked a simple survey question to large groups of kids: “Raise a hand if you yourself own at least 2 books.” Almost all the hands go up. Then I ask, “How about 5 books? 10? 30? 50?” As the survey progresses, we are all amazed by how many hands are still in the air even at 50 or 75 books. And then I ask, “Imagine a similar group of kids in Afghanistan today, taking this same survey. Would as many hands go up? Why?” This has led to some great discussions about the ways that countries and cultures can differ.
About two years ago it was time to give my editor an idea sketch for a new novel, and, remembering my student surveys, I began wondering what a kid in America and one in Afghanistan might say to each other. And that’s when the characters and the story for Extra Credit began coming to life–and at the same time, so did the idea of a pen pal correspondence.
I’ve always loved letters. I love getting one, and I love framing a reply. Part of what I enjoy is the pace. Email is fast food; an exchange of letters is fine dining. And now that I think a moment, letters have played pivotal roles in a number of my other novels as well, including Frindle, The Landry News, and The School Story.
In this novel I’m not trying to make a political point, not trying to stake out a position on a key issue of our day. I’m just trying to follow a couple of lives and tell a simple story as honestly as possible. However…I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I hope this story will prompt young readers and others to think about Central Asia in a new way. After all, I’m still a teacher at heart.
Thanks for reading my letter, and a special thanks for all your hard work to nourish kids and families and reading. I hope to hear back from you soon.