NEWBURYPORT — Everything that happens in our lives can form the basis of an interesting story. That's what author Ralph Fletcher told students of the Molin Upper Elementary School yesterday, as he met with fourth- and fifth-grade classes to teach them about finding their voice and telling the stories only they can tell.
In Fletcher's case, for instance, many of the funny, offbeat things that happened to him growing up in a family of nine children ended up filling the pages of the nearly 40 books he's written. And his trip to the Molin yesterday was aimed at showing kids how to similarly mine their family and school experiences to produce interesting fiction and poetry projects of their own.
Timed to help kids contribute their own works to this year's upcoming Literary Festival, the artist in residence gave students plenty to think about.
His advice to students was to pick an incident, a relative or a surprising event that's stuck with them and use details and pacing to turn the event into a great story.
"A lot of the stories I've written come from growing up in a big family," Fletcher told them.
In one of his books, "Fig Pudding," Fletcher said he drew a character similar to his colorful brother, Tommy, who had a tendency as a child to eat flowers, grass and discarded gum peeled off the street. With a chapter heading "When my brother started eating the world," he was able to write about how his brother's interesting habit and an ensuing trip to the hospital for a dose of ipecac stayed with him for a lifetime.
Fletcher told the kids how a chapter heading he named "The Headless Peeps" referred to his mother's tradition of adorning her best china with a single marshmallow Peep, and how one year the family was unnerved to find his sister had bitten the heads off each and every one.
"She would not admit it then, and she still won't admit it," he said with a laugh.
But not all the stories we remember and might think to retell are funny ones, he said. He told of a shiny new red tackle box he received on his 10th birthday as an example.
"I loved this thing," he said, describing for students in great detail how the transparent top allowed glimpses of the beautiful assorted bobbers, hooks and lures that lay within.
He loved it so much that when his father asked him to loan his equipment to his brothers and sisters for a fishing outing, he removed the contents of the box and replaced them with kitchen rags and recycled cotton diapers.
"I removed all the hooks, lures and bobbers and hid them all under my mattress," he said. "I'm not proud of this, but I did it."
His father headed off with the box, giving his son a dollar just as he drove off to thank him for so generously allowing them use of the shiny new fishing equipment. He left before young Fletcher could clear his conscience.
"You can imagine how I felt," he told the kids. "I felt about this big."
The rest of the story, as Fletcher told it, unraveled ever so slowly, with him attempting to replace the dollar bill in his father's dresser drawer before he arrived home, hearing the sound of his father's truck on the gravel driveway and the sound of his dad's voice when he stepped through the door.
In the end, the tackle box taught Fletcher one of his greatest life lessons. In his retelling, he slowed the action down in order to illustrate to the reader how seconds felt like years, and how every step down the stairs to greet his father was excruciating. "You slow down the suspenseful parts," he advised.
Fletcher met with students in workshops throughout the day, reading excerpts from two books, "A Writing Kind of Day" and "Poems for Young Poets." The Institution for Savings and Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank teamed up to donate copies of both books to each of the school's 367 students.
Using the books and Fletcher's workshops as a guide, fifth-grade students are creating a memoir and fourth-grade students are creating their own book of poetry, which, when finished, will decorate the entrance of the Newburyport Public Library — the principal venue for all child-centered Literary Festival events later this month.
"Two hundred books will go up a week before the festival and stay up for a week afterward," fourth-grade teacher Pat Levitt said. "They'll write a Ralph Fletcher-style poem or use a poem from our poetry unit."
With at least six of his books focused on giving teachers the tools to teach writing in the classroom, Fletcher also spent time yesterday working with teachers on useful methods for helping kids learn to write.
His day in residence was meant to help teachers and students come up with some great material to exhibit at this year's Literary Festival, librarian Ellen Menesale said. In the world of children's literature, there are few authors more sought after for school workshops than Fletcher, who worked for many years at the Teachers Writing College in New York City, she said.
"Ralph just fit in so nicely," Menesale said. "He's pretty well known."