Laura Shovan is the author of the new children's book The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. She also has written the poetry collection Mountain, Log, Salt, and Stone, and edited the poetry collection Life in Me Like Grass on Fire. She is a poet-in-the-schools for the Maryland State Arts Council's Artist-in-Education Program, and she lives in Maryland.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, and for the 18 kids in the class?
A: The idea for The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary grew out of my experiences as a poet-in-the-schools. Being a visiting teacher for my state arts council gives me an unusual opportunity – to see what classrooms are like in different neighborhoods and areas of Maryland.
What I observed is that classrooms become their own small communities over time. Each class of students develops traditions, interests, and a history unique to them. I thought a novel-in-verse in the voices of fifth grade students might help me understand how a group of individual children becomes a cohesive class.
Q: You use many different kinds of poetry in the book. How did you pick which forms to use?
A: This is a great question. I love to play with poetic form because I like the way that form can reflect the subject matter or voice of the poem.
For instance, all three of the sonnets in the book--"At the Movies" in the voice of Shoshanna Berg, "Field Trip" by Edgar Lee Jones, and "Raj's Rant" by Rajesh Rao--come at moments when a character feels boxed in or constrained by the expectations of others.
The “rules” of the form echo the rules these characters -- Shoshanna, Edgar Lee, and Rajesh -- feel that others have placed upon them.
Here’s “Field Trip”:
Why did my mom sign up to chaperone?
I’ll have to answer questions like “Who’s she?”
“Your mom is white?” Well, should I be a clone
with her light hair and skin, not brown like me?
I’ll slide down in my seat and read a book,
so kids won’t stare at us the whole bus ride.
I hate when they’re pretending not to look.
My mom is cool. Why should I have to hide?
So what if I am black and also white?
Who cares that I don’t look just like my mom?
My family is different, but we’re tight.
Get over it, because there’s nothing wrong.
If someone gets up in my face today,
at least that’s what I think I’m going to say.
Free verse is often used in verse novels, and makes up the majority of the poems in The Last Fifth Grade. Some people think of free verse poems as having no rules, but that’s not exactly true.
Free verse poems tend to have cadence and diction consistent to themselves, just like a person’s speaking voice. That’s why free verse poems are such a good way to write first-person point of view.
Q: Did you know what would happen throughout the book when you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: It is an understatement to say that I had no idea what was going to happen with the book when I started it. My initial concept was a short collection of persona poems, not a novel at all.
The book and the characters developed over several years. At one point, I threw out the entire narrative arc, including a young Ms. Hill, and started over with a completely new plot and a veteran 5th grade teacher.
Q: Why did you pick fifth graders as opposed to some other age?
A: Where I live, fifth grade marks the end of elementary school. If the characters had been older, I would have lost the small classroom community that forms the core of the book. That doesn’t exist in middle school.
I also chose fifth grade because it’s a transitional year, which highlights all of the personal changes that my characters are going through.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on another contemporary middle grade novel for Wendy Lamb Books. It’s about two young wrestlers, a boy and a girl. This one is in prose, though I may sneak in a little bit of verse.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: A) There are poetry prompts in the back of the book. Kids can send me their poems (with permission from an adult) and I’ll post them on my website. I’m excited to see what everyone comes up with!
B) I’d love to see some fan art from young readers, whether it’s character designs or the continuing flip-art adventures of Stick Guy and Other Stick Guy.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb