Wendelin Van Draanen Author Essay
Your Silent Partner
I’d been a classroom teacher for twelve years when my first book was finally published. I stayed on pace at school for the next three years, writing stories for young readers in the early morning, juggling six classes, two clubs and producing the school’s newspaper during the day, and still trying to be a good mom to my two young sons the rest of the time.
When Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief won the Edgar for best juvenile mystery the series seemed to show great promise and I began being asked to speak at conferences and schools. I was stretched crepe-paper thin and something had to give, but when my husband urged me to take a leap of faith into writing full-time, I resisted.
I really loved my job.
School can be a stressful place when you don’t fit in, and being the daughter of immigrants and awkward myself as a kid, I remember well what that felt like. So when I was a teacher I kept a watchful eye out for kids who seemed a little lost, or were socially unsure or struggling. Helping students navigate their growing years mattered to me.
After my fifteenth year in the classroom I finally resigned my position, but the first September away from teaching I felt like I’d abandoned my profession. I missed seeing those young faces every day; I missed feeling like I had an impact in guiding them toward positive futures. We teachers don’t show up to work everyday for the extrinsic rewards. We show up because we hope to make a difference.
As the years went by, I had a gradual awakening to the overlap of my new writing career and my former teaching career. This new awareness happened because instead of being in the same classroom everyday, I was now visiting schools all over the country as a guest speaker.
As a visiting author I gained a new perspective on just how much librarians do and know, and how valuable they are. I saw them engage the shy students and the kids on the fringes. I saw them work to match kids and books, their mental gears lining up a student’s interest to their reading ability. And I saw them use books to broaden thinking, introduce new concepts, and create empathy.
With the opportunity to spend quality time in different libraries and classrooms came an expanded perspective which created a wonderful epiphany: I hadn’t actually given up my profession! Maybe I didn’t have my own classroom anymore, but now it was my books, not me, that were physically present. And instead of me delivering the goods, librarians and language arts teachers were connecting students to my work.
My underlying purpose in writing is to instill my readers with self-confidence, compassion, and strength, and to nudge kids into seeing beyond themselves. Helping kids through their growing years is still my vocation, but now I work invisibly through the characters I create, and it gives me great joy to think that I haven’t abandoned my career after all. So whenever you connect one of my books to one of your students, please know that I’m honored and grateful to serve as your silent partner.
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Wendelin’s first book on the craft of writing was inspired by requests from teachers and librarians who hosted her for school visits. They asked her to document her stories and the epiphanies she’d derived from them so that they’d be available to everybody. The result is Hope in the Mail: Reflections on Writing and Life, which contains many of those stories and takeaways as well as practical advice on the craft of writing, including dialog, theme, plot, structure, character development, and the golden key to good writing: revision!