This gently evocative study of change in all its glory and terror would make a terrific read-aloud or introduction to a poetry unit. A most impressive debut.
— School Library Journal
Please tell us about your book.
Imagine walking into school on the last first day of elementary school. Finally, your class is the big kids, fifth graders! But instead of gabbing about graduation ceremonies and middle school, everyone is talking about a rumor. The Board of Education wants to tear the school down in June. In THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY, Ms. Hill’s class decides to take action and save their school. Told in the voices of Ms. Hill’s 18 students, the book is a novel-in-verse, covering one memorable school year.
What inspired you to write this story?
I have worked as a poet-in-the-schools for the Maryland State Arts Council for fifteen years. All of my experiences writing poetry with elementary and middle schoolers are part of the inspiration for this book. When I began writing, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE was modeled after a classic American verse novel, Spoon River Anthology. I love the complicated, interwoven storylines in Edgar Lee Masters’ book of persona poems. I began with the idea that an elementary school classroom is a community, much like Masters’ town of Spoon River. Sharon Creech’s verse novel LOVE THAT DOG was also a big inspiration.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
Many of the poems were pulled from real life experiences, my own, my children’s, and my students’. There are little moments, such as Mark reading the Stargrams after the school play. That was from my daughter, who was stage manager at her middle school. Jason’s science project (described in the poem “Hammy Power”) is lifted right out of my son’s life. I also did research. Norah’s mixed feelings about wearing a shihab was inspired by an interview I heard on National Public Radio. The most formal research I did was reading articles about food deserts in our area. Of course, I had to brush up on literary definitions and poetic forms for the book’s backmatter.
What are some special challenges associated with writing in verse?
There are definitely some special challenges when writing a novel in verse. On the design-end, putting the book together is labor intensive. Every poem has to be individually laid out on the page. I’m so appreciative of the work that Random House’s art director Kate Garner and senior designer Trish Parcell did to make the book feel as cozy and inviting as it is. For the writer, revising a verse novel is especially challenging. There were many times when I literally pulled the book apart, spacing individual poems out on the floor of our family room so that I could reexamine their order and content. That meant it all had to be put back together again. My family got sick of hearing me describe the manuscript as a jigsaw puzzle.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
I could go on for pages about this, because THE LAST FIFTH GRADE is set in a classroom. What would I love to see? Students and readers writing science poems, math and art poems, trying new forms of poetry. Teachers borrowing Ms. Hill’s idea and putting a writing prompt jar in their classrooms. (There are some prompts to get started with at the back of the book.) Most of all, I’d like to see classrooms where writing and reading poetry is seen as fun and exciting instead of scary and intimidating. Poetry is made of language, and all of us—children too—use language every day. We’re experts! Poetry is a way of getting that language down on the page, playing with the words, polishing them up, and giving them the extra attention they deserve.
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