An Exquisite Conversation in Cambridge

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When you think of a conversation, you probably think of something to participate in rather than watch, but “watching a conversation” is exactly what I did on Saturday afternoon. It could be dull to watch others talking (imagine the possibilities), but the people involved here were a children’s book lover’s Dream Team. This is who was on stage: M.T. Anderson, Natalie Babbitt, Katherine Paterson, Steven Kellogg, James Ransome, Patricia MacLachlan, Timothy Basil Ering, and Mary Brigid Barrett.  To be honest, sometimes I lost the conversation thread and just sat marveled at the fact that the creators of Tuck Everlasting, Feed, The Bridge to Terabithia, Sarah Plain and  Tall, and The Dark is Rising were all in one place.

The authors and illustrators spent their Saturday in Cambridge, Massachusetts to have a conversation about their recently published serial novel: The Exquisite Corpse Adventure. A joint project of the National Children’s Book Alliance and the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, The Exquisite Corpse Adventure brings together 20 authors and illustrators to create 27 episodes in a literary game of, as M.T. Anderson, called it – a game of hot potato.

The book is necessarily filled with cliffhanger endings because each author wanted to give the next writer an exciting starting point. I haven’t finished the book yet, but can tell you that this is a good novel for an active ten or eleven year old. It moves quickly, has lots of action, and is lots of fun. The characters include a top secret robot, an evil narcoleptic clown, and a magical pirate – to name just a few.

One of the highlights of yesterday’s conversation was to hear M.T. Anderson describe the two approaches to collaborative writing – the spinners and the rationalizers. The spinners, of course, throw stuff out there and see what sticks. They make up a new character and create obstacles in the plot. The rationalizers are the backfillers. They have to make sure the story is organized and provide explanations when they are necessary.

The best part of a collaborative novel is what it may inspire. I can imagine teachers using The Exquisite Corpse Conversation as an introduction to a class writing project. I’ve done this kind of thing with 6th grade students with predictably hilarious results. I recall ridiculously large animals and ice cream sundaes playing central parts in the story! 

Yesterday’s conference also inspired a little post-even web surfing. I had never visited M.T. Anderson’s website before, and it is really awesome. In a section dedicated to his speeches, I found his 2009 Printz Honor Award Acceptance Speech.  The title is: On the Intelligence of Teens. It’s worth a read so here’s the link:

For more information on The Exquisite Corpse Adventure, it’s linked here:

One final thing: I want to thank Nancy Perry, the Children’s Librarian at the Norwell Public Library,  for inviting me to join her on this “exquisite adventure.”


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