Monday, January 28, 2013

Flying Solo: Correspondence with a teacher

Many 4th and 5th grade teachers read my book Flying Solo with their students. I recently received an interesting letter from Robert Degnan, who teaches 5th grade in Rhode Island. Here's what he wrote to me, in part:

          One of my reading groups is currently devouring your book Flying Solo.  We absolutely love it!  As serendipity would have it, one of my children in that group is an extremely shy talker; certainly not a selective mute like Rachel, but she is timid and barely audible when communicating.  Therefore, I feel at times she is almost empowered by her ability to at least speak compared to Rachel's complete inability (or lack of desire) to communicate verbally.

          During group, we have been using a lot of text dependent questions, trying hard to state why you as the author wrote something in the book to honor your craft and give evidence to prove it.  For instance, I may ask them why you wrote the chapters from varying points of view or why on page 46 did you list out Mr. Fabiano's story list instead of just writing it into a paragraph. These questions help them become better writers, while also respecting your hard work. Too many times, speculation tears away at the heart of a story, leaving the initial meaning or purpose scattered about.  I want my kids to see not only what they can infer, but also what you did and why.

          So, all of this is leading up to a big, overarching question I have for you—what would you consider to be the main theme of this book? Or are there several themes that carry equal weight in your eyes? To be honest I am kind of stumped and I don't want to lead them astray. It seems responsibility is a theme as they are taking responsibility for the classroom, but at the same point in time being irresponsible by not reporting it. Also another theme is change, as many characters seem to be dealing with major life changes. Or is it something along the lines of Independence?  If you could please throw me some kind of a bone here that would be greatly appreciated.  :)

         The questions in the last paragraph fascinated me, and really made me think. Here's how I answered his letter.

         Very nice to hear from you, Robert. And thanks for your thoughtful questions. I'm happy to be part of the conversation but, at the same time, I feel awkward doing so. A book like Flying Solo really takes on it's own life after it's been published. Most of the time I stand back and let it speak for itself.

        I am not really "thinking theme" when I write a novel like Flying Solo. Rather, I'm trying to create a strong, engaging story with believable characters. I put those characters into a situation that tries them almost to the breaking point.

        To me Flying Solo contains many themes including independence, as you say, and also tolerating difference. And responsibility: how are you going to act in this world? What choices will you make, and what will be the implications of those choices?  Most of the time teachers are the ones who make all the important decisions in the classroom. I thought it would be intriguing to see what a bunch of regular kids would do if they suddenly found themselves with no adult in charge of making those choices.

        I hope that helps. 

        Ralph Fletcher


  1. As a writer, I am happy with your answer. I worry that when I am writing a story that I am not thinking about theme enough. I should, however, write the compelling story and theme will fall into place. As a teacher, I totally relate to Robert. Theme is something we have to teach, kids have to find, and it can be so elusive sometimes. There really isn't always one right answer.

  2. Agreed, Margaret. Elusive! I think the important thing is that these books are written from the ground up (starting with characters rooted in particular jobs and places) rather than top-down.


  3. Let's not forget the theme of forgiveness. Forgiveness of self is sometimes most challenging...


  5. It got solved by the teacher coming back