Author shares road to becoming published with students at middle school

Published 4:59 pm Friday, March 10, 2023

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Southwest Middle School had a special guest Friday, as children’s author Abby Cooper stopped by to talk about writing and revising her book “Sticks & Stones,” a book every student was required to read.

After her presentations, Cooper worked with about 50 students interested in becoming an author about the writing and publishing process.

“I just always enjoyed writing growing up,” she said. “It was something that was fun for me, it was what I wanted to do in my free time.”
Cooper, who originally started her career as a kindergarten through eighth-grade school librarian, hadn’t initially considered a career as a full-time author, and said getting something published seemed like a far-off idea and something that wouldn’t actually occur.

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“I saw students of every grade level, and I was really inspired by those students because I noticed the ways that they would speak to each other and the ways they would speak to themselves,” she said. “That whole concept of words and how they really stay with us and impact us really stuck with me because I saw it firsthand day after day.”

So Cooper took the concept of words and started imagining what it would look like to have words physically appear on the body and what that would be like. And that was when she started writing what became “Sticks & Stones.”

“I really like writing because there’s not a right or wrong way to do it — you sort of figure out what works well for you,” she said. “As long as you get a result you’re proud of and you enjoy the process, you’re doing it right.”

The book tells the story of a 12-year-old girl with a condition wherein the words other people call her — good and bad — physically manifest themselves on her arms and legs like temporary tattoos.

“She soon discovers that things she thinks about herself start appearing as well,” she said. “The story is about coping with name-calling from others, but it’s also about self-esteem and the importance of speaking kindly to yourself.”

She drew inspiration from observing students and noticing them both being kind and rude to each other.

“Mostly I noticed the ways they would speak about themselves, and that really … struck me the most,” she said. “I would have students in the library saying, ‘I want to check-out this book, I want to read this book, but I’m not smart enough to read this book.’ Or, ‘I’m too dumb to read something like this,’ and that made me very sad.”

And that was a message she wanted to drive home: kindness towards yourself.

“Sticks and Stones” was published in 2016, and was initially written in 2013 as a response to a challenge for National Writing Month, which is in November.

“It was a terrible first draft, but I always tell students that’s OK,” she said. “Your first draft does not need to be perfect, it does not even need to be good. It just needs to exist because then you give yourself something to go back and work with and improve.”

Cooper was originally scheduled for a visit in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled plans.

“It was very exciting to be asked to come back this year,” she said.

“Some of our ELA or reading teachers were here when the initial visit was going to happen,” said Southwest Middle School Principal Tyler Johnson. “This year they brought it up like, ‘Hey, do you think it would be possible for Abby to come down this year because none of the students were a part of that first reading.’”

Cooper said she loves connecting with the students reading her book.

“I love hearing their thoughts and questions,” she said. “Oftentimes students will notice things in my books that I haven’t even noticed myself.”

Alana Attig, a sixth-grader at Southwest, was initially skeptical about “Sticks & Stones,” and admitted she wasn’t sure if she’d like it.

But she liked Cav, the fictional condition where words appear on the body.

She also participated in the workshop and was excited to meet Cooper.

“I like using your imagination,” she said.

Brooklyn Hullopeter said she was excited to read the book, but admitted she was confused at the beginning and didn’t like it initially.

“At first, it didn’t seem like there was much going on,” she said. “It just wasn’t … exciting.”

But most chapters left with a cliffhanger, a fact that made her want to continue reading.

She also came away with the idea it was important to listen to yourself in making decisions.

Hullopeter also participated in the workshop, and admitted she thought it would be fun to write books.

Norah Peterson’s class finished the book this week.

“My favorite part was probably when they visited Minnesota,” she said. “That’s where we live and I think it was a nice experience [for the characters].”

And like Hullopeter, she came away with the message of not caring about what other people thought.

She called Cooper a good writer and said she was helping ease student concerns over school life.

Cooper’s advice for students interested in pursuing a career in any type of communications: read and write a lot.

“Both of those things make you better at reading and writing, but they also make you more intelligent and empathetic,” she said. “And those are two great qualities to have.”