An article in Tuesday's Style Plus included a poem titled "Morning," which had been submitted as a child's work to a new publication of local children's writing. The poem, with three word changes, actually was written and published more than 20 years ago by Eve Merriam under the title "Metaphor" and appeared first in her 1964 book "It Doesn't Always Have to Rhyme." It has since been reprinted in numerous textbooks and anthologies.
Puffs of whimsy amid jagged truths. Thoughts caught and pinned together, still wriggling, on the page.
In voices shy and knowing, they offer glimpses of an innocent landscape destined to be left behind.
The voices are those of D.C. schoolchildren. And they're all about to get wide circulation in the premier issue of District Lines Magazine, the first major showplace for area children's literary efforts, scheduled for publication at the end of the month.
The subjects are both lofty and mundane. There's nature, and love; divorce, the loss of a friend, the painful uprooting from a country at war. But there's also breakdancing, and choosing a career.
Mothers ("Magnificent in a way, but/ Otherwise they can be/ The biggest hypocrits sic that ever walked the face of the Earth") don't escape comment; neither does nuclear war, poetry, vomiting or violin practice ("I did not look forward to/ the long hour ahead/ with my tormentor . . .").
The magazine's debut, cheered by local educators, is being read as one of a number of quiet signs of deepening national commitment to the development of children's creative writing -- too often stifled, say many researchers, by traditional school emphasis on form: punctuation, spelling and grammar.
Publication, say experts, is vital to the process of making writing exciting rather than fearsome to children.
"In any market, you have to test your stuff with audiences . . . particularly with audiences of your peers," says Donald Graves, 55, education professor at the University of New Hampshire and a leading proponent of a more imaginative approach to the teaching of writing.
The prospect of publication teaches kids to revise their work beyond the first draft, he says. There are subtler lessons too, points out Graves, whose latest research is contained in Write From the Start: Tapping Your Child's Natural Writing Ability (E.P. Dutton, $16.95), which he coauthored with Virginia Stuart.
"When you go for publication, you sort of transcend yourself in time and space. Kids realize, 'Hey. People can read my stuff when I'm not present.' That's a shock to people at any age . . . A kid will think, 'You know, people are going to read this. I'd better work at this.' It's not just going to go to someone who'll put a pile of red marks on it."
In fact, the durability conferred on the works of District Lines authors is just hitting them. "A few years from now, I'll probably look back and say, 'Gee, I was in 7th grade when I wrote that,' " muses Sally Grant, an articulate 14-year-old with braces, whose poem about her Aunt Hally appears in the first issue. Karen Rogers, the soft-voiced 10-year-old author of the poem "Morning," is more reserved. "It's exciting," she says.
There are other subtle signs of an increased interest in children's writing. School writing workshops, such as those offered by the Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York or the Northern Virginia Writing Project in Fairfax, are in demand. And outlets for children's publication are growing in other cities, too.
Not all the news is good: Ebony Jr!, a major outlet for aspiring young black writers, will cease publication after October, a victim of declining circulation. But meanwhile, in Rhode Island, the slick new Merlyn's Pen has just entered the children's national literary magazine market, which has been dominated until now by the acclaimed Stone Soup, for pre-teens, and by Scholastic Voice and Scope, for teens. The new magazine, whose editors include several Washington area English teachers, is intended primarily for classroom use.
District Lines, a more modest venture, will initially carry the best works of fourth- through ninth-graders who live or attend school in the District. The 65-plus page magazine is being launched on a shoestring and a prayer by two teachers who were impressed by the work they saw as judges in the private Parkmont School's annual children's poetry contest.
Laurie Stroblas, 36, of the District, and Nan Fry, 40, of Bethesda, say they hope wide distribution of the first issue's planned 1,000-copy run will spark donations, ads, sales ($3 a copy) and subscriptions ($6 a year) to support what has thus far been a labor of love -- and Stroblas' personal savings.
They've had help along the way from a sympathetic graphic designer, printer and members of the Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts, which handled the incorporation process for a nominal fee. Several local poets and educators have volunteered as manuscript readers. Morning
Morning is a new sheet of paper
for you to write on. Whatever
you want to say, all day, until
night folds up and flies away.
The bright words and the dark
words are gone until dawn and
a new day to write on. -- Karen Rogers, then Grade 4, Walker-Jones Elementary School
Works selected for publication receive light handling from Stroblas, in keeping with her practice as writing teacher at the Fillmore Arts Center, which serves five D.C. public schools. Fry, who has taught in the Maryland Poets-in-the-Schools program and is currently assistant professor in the academic studies department at the Corcoran School of Art, follows the same policy.
"We deliberately did not correct their spelling errors," says Stroblas. "It reminds people of the age of the writers. It also reminds people to proofread their own work."
Particularly in poetry, there is also the question of whether a misspelling is deliberate. ". . . Night falls, day brakes," wrote one child in a poem that appears in the first issue. The writer was unable to tell Stroblas if the spelling was intentional.
Stroblas defends her decision to let it stand: "It has a double meaning and it works. It adds resonance to the work . . . I don't feel comfortable doing heavy editing. No poet wants his work edited. The way they break their lines is the way they're printed." My Aunt Hally
When I was very young,
Before my brother was born,
I used to come and stay with you.
Don't you remember?
You lived in that house where you
still live now.
You had no children.
Just you, Uncle Miles, and me.
About once a month
I would come.
I made you laugh,
I made you cry,
In the summer,
When Carolyn and Robby came back
To visit you and Uncle Miles,
You took us camping.
We slept in tents
And cooked on a grill
And smelled like bug repellant.
Do you? -- Sally Grant, then Grade 7, Sheridan School
Of the stories, essays and poems that made it into District Lines, some were wholly private creations, and others the results of school assignments.
Sally Grant's "My Aunt Hally" was the result of a seventh-grade English assignment based on a suggestion in poet Kenneth Koch's classic Wishes Lies and Dreams on teaching children to write.
Write about a person who was influential in your growing up, the children were told. Sally Grant hit quickly on her mother's younger sister, who welcomed the child as an occasional weekend guest when her parents needed a break.
Sally Grant credits Pamela Raymont-Simpson, the teacher who made the assignment, with whetting her appetite for poetry.
"She devoted so much time to it. She loved poetry. She felt it was something that should really be read and studied. Before that, I had learned about meter. I was taught the mechanics of it. She talked about different poets and how they conveyed different ideas" -- and in the process, says Sally, made it a subject of wonder and excitement.
District Lines, in concept at least, has already received endorsements from prominent Washington writers. "Children are always interested in the work of other children," says award-winning children's author Sharon Bell Mathis. "If a classmate is able to have his or her creative endeavor validated by having it appear in print, the other youngsters may feel they, too, have something to say . . ."
Adult audiences may also be impressed. Says fellow award-winning children's writer Eloise Greenfield, "I think it would come as a surprise to many people, the kind of work children are doing in the schools."
But it's talent, she acknowledges, that needs developing. "The reason I'm emphasizing that is that I've run into so many people who feel all you need is talent, and that if you have it, you should be able to write just like that and not work at it."
For District Lines, the truth will be in the reading . . . and writing to come. When I Grow Up
When I grow up --
I want to have --
*A nice job.
*Plenty of friends.
*A mansion, a car.
*And my own little Spa.
-- Thaddious Latta, then Grade 5, Payne School