On long car rides, my teenage son Christopher and I typically discuss topics like these:
*How would you reconcile the contradictory timelines in the Star Trek universe that now exist because of J. J. Abram’s first Star Trek movie?
*If you had to create a prequel to the Buffy series, what would it be like?
*If you had to create a sequel to the Harry Potter series, what would it be like?
*What is your favorite Greek myth, and how would you retell it as a contemporary novel?
The ensuing conversations often sound like Hollywood pitch meetings or editorial phone calls, except not stressful. Instead, they’re incredibly fun and interesting, and they challenge our creativity in the most unexpected ways.
Likewise, when I talk to teens about being an author, whether in the schools or elsewhere, I tend to steer the conversation to the art of creating. I tell them about how I came up with the ideas for my novels Beauty and Always, Forever, which are both retellings (of the Snow White story and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, respectively). I explain to them that with Beauty, I asked myself: What if Snow White craved her mother’s love so much that she was willing to make herself ugly in order to appease her? With Always, Forever, I asked myself: What if the dead ex-girlfriend isn’t really dead, and she’s super not-happy that her boyfriend has moved on with someone else?
When I speak to teachers, I encourage them to employ retellings, prequels, sequels, alternate endings, and the like as educational tools. And I don’t mean just reading my works or other people’s works—I mean, having the students brainstorm their own.
Here are the kinds of prompts that teachers might use in the classroom:
*How would you set Frankenstein in modern-day New York City?
*Imagine a sequel to “Romeo and Juliet” in which Romeo and Juliet are still alive.
*How would you retell George Orwell’s 1984 as 2084?
*Can you come up with an alternate ending for The Great Gatsby?
And so on.
All of which is to say: I believe a big part of getting young people excited about reading is to get them excited about writing. And this approach isn’t limited to teens. At a recent book signing in Houston for my early grade novels, I asked each child in my line if they were writers, too. Almost all of them said “yes”; they absolutely lit up at the question, and some of them even suggested plot ideas for my characters. Likewise, when I did a graphic novel writing workshop in my daughter Clara’s kindergarten class a couple of weeks ago, the children could not have been happier or prouder with the end result. They especially loved the “written and illustrated by” list with their names. At home, Clara has been producing graphic novels non-stop since then.
By the way, if you’ve written (or know of) a retelling that teachers might add to their reading lists, please share them here! Ditto any creative brainstorming prompts. I promise to test-drive them on my next long car ride with Christopher.
P.S. He and I did manage to reconcile the Star Trek timeline while driving through New Jersey recently. Now, all we need is that meeting with J. J. Abrams.