I admit I’m a literacy junkie. I love all things related to the teaching of reading and writing—from cutting-edge pedagogies, to best practices, to literature circles, to inspiring reluctant readers. No doubt this is a natural result of being a writer/teacher, but it also comes from decades spent working as a writer-in-the-schools. Put me in any K-12 classroom and I’ll want to know what books those teachers teach, what those kids are writing. For me, the relationship between literature and writing is such a natural connection, I can’t even write my own books without imagining how they could be taught.
All this to say, when my first novel for young readers, Sparrow Road, won the International Reading Association (IRA) Award for Intermediate Fiction, I was honored in a way that transcended the award. To be recognized by those very professionals I’d admired for so long, those teachers and librarians I’d worked beside in schools, was the realization of a dream. Not that I’d actually dreamt of winning the IRA Award, I hadn’t, but I had dared to hope—during the years of writing Sparrow Road—that it would win the respect of educators, and maybe even make its way into the hands of kids. After all, I’d begun Sparrow Road the week I’d officially retired from my work as a writer-in-the-schools, motivated by a deep desire to pass on to future children the power of imagination and creativity, and the promise of good grown-ups to guide them in their lives.
When my publisher asked if I wanted to go to 57th Annual IRA Convention in Chicago, my answer was a quick and easy yes. In addition to the school visits and signings, the fabulous award lunch, I had in mind taking in some of the conference sessions, learning once again from all the educators and librarians gathered in one place.
In reality (which is often a hard place for a fiction writer to land), I didn’t have time to fit in a single session. Still, that didn’t stop the IRA Convention from being three straight days of literacy immersion. In the flurry of IRA I met teachers and librarians, book buyers and book sellers, publishers and editors, and generous fellow authors, all of whom cared deeply about the power of the book. I asked teachers what they taught and librarians what kids were reading. I was shuttled between schools and bookstores by one of Penguin’s passionate sales reps, a great soul committed to spreading the good news about kids’ books. For one perfect hour, in the company of hundreds of kindred spirits, I had the privilege of hearing Jacqueline Woodson speak. And in a happy accident, I got to steal a visit with a Minnesota teacher, a literacy specialist from Northfield whose work with kids and teachers has inspired me for decades.
Going home from IRA, I couldn’t help but feel my career had come full circle. I’d spent my adult life immersed in the world of children’s literacy, fostering relationships between reading and writing, creating curriculum and lesson plans, sharing my great belief in the power of poems and books and stories–the need to learn from others, the need to tell our own. And here I was being honored by teachers and librarians, those same gracious educators who’d welcomed me into their classrooms, who’d put good books into my hands, who’d taught me to care what kids were reading. And here was Sparrow Road making its own way through that world.
Sheila O’Connor is the author of four novels: Sparrow Road, Where No Gods Came, Tokens of Grace. Where No Gods Came and the forthcoming Keeping Safe the Stars. She teaches fiction in the MFA program at Hamline University where she also serves as editor of Water~Stone Review. A long-time poet with the Writer-in-the-Schools program, Sheila has taught writing to thousands of young people. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
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