Tag Archives: Abby Cooper

Grooming Our Own Replacements

Norma Fox Mazer and I were good friends. We taught together at Vermont College of Fine Arts back when our MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at VCFA was very new, when it was the only program of its kind. And I still remember the time when Norma stopped me in the hall of our ancient stone dormitory and said, “You realize we’re grooming our own replacements.”

I laughed. We both laughed. But, of course, it was true. By passing on the skills we had gathered over so many years we were making certain that those coming up behind us would have the acuity required to step over us one day.

Now Norma who, along with her husband, Harry, practically created the young-adult field, is gone, but that truth she and I once laughed over continues to play out all around me every day.

I saw it again last month when I attended the Minnesota Book Awards ceremony.

My verse novel, Little Cat’s Luck, was one of four books selected in the middle grade category.  I attended the ceremony with no expectation of my lucky little cat’s winning, and she didn’t.  However, the amazing non-fiction book I was certain would be chosen over mine, Sachiko by Caren Stelson, didn’t win, either. Instead, a beautifully written fantasy, The Secret of Dreadwillow Curse by Brian Farrey took the award.

(If you want evidence of the idiosyncratic nature of any kind of awards selection process, you have only to note that the 2017 Newbery Award novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, is also by a Minnesota writer, Kelly Barnhill, and that book didn’t make the list of four. But that’s another topic entirely.)

I had gathered a group of friends to attend with me, not needing an expectation of winning to enjoy the elaborate evening orchestrated by the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library. I invited my friends and I showed up prepared for the great pleasure of spending an entire evening celebrating Minnesota writers. But when I got there something more awaited me.

I found to my delight that I was sitting at the autograph table next to Abby Cooper, a young woman with whom I have a unique connection. A couple of years ago Abby sent me an e-mail saying, “You may not remember me, but when I was in the fifth grade, you spoke at a young-authors’ conference that I attended.” And, I’ll admit it, I laughed. Not derisively, but quite spontaneously. There had been so many young-authors’ conferences, so many fifth graders. No, I did not remember Abby.

Credit: David Cooper

But then she went on to tell me that she had approached me at the end of my session to ask if she could send me a story she was working on. I gave her my address, received her story, and responded with a critique. For a time we wrote back and forth, discussing her work, and then she moved on as fifty graders inevitably do.

Over the years I have had a similar correspondence with quite a few young writers, all of them bright, enthusiastic, passionate. I’ve accompanied each of them for a short distance, and then they’ve moved on. So the truth was, even with this new information, my memory of Abby was vague at best. Still, I was delighted to find out that she was writing to say that her first novel, Sticks and Stones, had been accepted for publication by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Sticks and Stones received a starred review from Kirkus, and now it was one of the four finalists in the middle-grade category for a Minnesota Book Award.

I sat down at the autograph table next to the still very young Abby—she was nearly vibrating in her chair in her excitement—and said quietly, just to myself, “You realize, we’re grooming our own replacements.”

But being there with Abby made the evening for me. I’ve had enough books published, enough awards, enough opportunities to sit in a large, noisy room autographing. But I’ll never have enough of watching young people rise up behind me … even when their rise suggests it’s time for me to move on.

So congratulations, Abby Cooper. I wish you well. May you replace me with vigor and joy. And may you take this good work we love and make it new for a world that is now yours!

You Probably Won’t Remember Me

flameHello!

You probably don’t remember me, but I attended your session at the Young Author’s Conference at Bethel about fifteen years ago when I was in fifth grade. I was just going through some old photos and letters and I came across several e-mails you wrote to me following that conference—it appears that my overly-persistent fifth-grade self asked you to read and comment on one of my stories, and, despite your own projects/busy schedule, you did!! I remember being so over the moon that a real author took me seriously and thought my writing had potential. 

I thought it’d be fun to let you know that I’m about to be a published author—my first novel, a middle grade called Sticks and Stones, will be out from FSG/Macmillan this July! A second book will follow next summer, and hopefully many more after that. And I’m going to teach a session at the Young Author’s Conference this spring!! Hopefully I can be as inspiring to some young writers as you were to me. 

Thanks so much for your support all those years ago—it made a huge difference!

Best,
Abby Cooper

I laughed out loud when I read Abby’s “you-probably-don’t-remember-me” line followed by the context in which we had met, that she was one of the thousands of students attending one of the dozens of young author conferences where I’ve spoken over the years. And, of course, she was right. I don’t remember her . . . or even our exchange of e-mails after the conference.

But I do remember the light in her eyes. I do remember her thoughtful questions. I do remember her enthusiastic writing, no-doubt fifth-grade clumsy, but alive with ideas and hope. And I do remember how grateful I was that she was in the crowd that day . . . or another student like her.

Because when I was at that conference I had only so many things to say about my own books, about the writing process itself, and I had said all of them many times . . . so many times that I had grown rather tired of hearing my own voice. But then there was Abby—or another young writer like her, a pair of dancing eyes, an asker of penetrating questions, a young writer eager to share a work in progress, and she filled me with energy and made me glad to be there.

Yes, my life would have been busy when Abby sent me her manuscript. Aren’t grown-up lives always busy? Too busy for any good use much of the time. But it wasn’t difficult for me to imagine what it would have meant for me to share some piece of my long-ago self with someone the world had dubbed a real writer. (I never actually met a writer when I was a child. I think I assumed they were all dead.) And the truth is that it didn’t take much of my time to read her manuscript and to say something encouraging. She had earned the encouraging words by her enthusiasm and her tenacity and by the strength of the creative fire that had brought her to me. And because enthusiasm and tenacity and creative fire are always gifts, our e-mail exchange blessed me.

Teachers ask me sometimes how they can best teach young writers, and I say they can help mostly by getting out of the way, by making space for all that enthusiasm, by fanning the flame. Yes, of course, there are rules that must be learned, grammar and punctuation and spelling and plotting and characterization and on and on. And by the time a writer is ready to submit a manuscript to be considered for award or publication, those rules must be firmly in hand. But first comes the joy of creation, the abundant joy, and the best any of us can do for a young writer is to nurture the joy.

Congratulations, Abby Cooper! Now it’s your turn to pass it on. I know you will.