by Myra Saturen, photo by Patricia Canavan
October 10, 2013
A long row of lovingly worn books faced the audience at Paul Acampora's College Colloquium talk on October 10 at Northampton Community College (NCC). Amid Charlotte's Web, Franny and Zooey and Catcher in the Rye, stood Acampora's own creations-- Defining Dulcie (Dial Books for Young Readers/2006), Rachel Spinelli Punched Me in the Face (Roaring Book Press/2011) , I Kill the Mockingbird (Roaring Book Press/spring 2014.) He is also the author of short stories, "Baseball Stories," in Baseball Crazy: Ten Short Stories that Cover All the Bases,(Dial/ 2008) "No More Birds will Die Today," in Every Man for Himself: Ten Original Stories about Being a Guy (Dial/2005), "How to Save a Baby Dragon" in Scholastic Storyworks Magazine and "Science Fair Creatures Attack" in Scholastic Storyworks Magazine.
Acampora is the director of development and student scholarships at NCC.
Growing up in Bristol, Connecticut, Acampora treasured books and reading. Later, as a kindergarten teacher in an inner-city school in Oakland, California, he started each school day with a 30-second period of silent reading. Soon the 30 seconds became 40 and 50 and at last 20 minutes. "Books matter. They always work," Acampora thought, observing his students' growing appetite for reading.
Now, at his kitchen table, Acampora writes his own books for children generally grades 7-9. At the colloquium, he talked about why and how he writes, what he writes, and what he learned from his own studies, which he describes as a "do-it-yourself" master's degree in fine arts (MFA). Setting about to learn the craft, he immersed himself in fiction, rereading books he had loved in his youth-Walter Farley's The Black Stallion, Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators and the Hardy Boys' series. As MFA students do, he also wrote a lot. He discovered that books for children differ from those written for adults. "Children have had less time on this planet than adults," he said. As a result, they perceive time and events from a child's point of view. The world to them is "horrible, scary, wonderful." Acampora hopes to captures the "humor and love that bring you through childhood." He said that children's authors-unlike writers for adults -are writing books that are about readers, not about the author.
The stories make the child the hero, he said. There is a reason why children's novels are often about orphans: these plot starters give protagonists opportunities to have adventures without a safety net. He gave an example: "Children are fascinated with loss and freedom and how do they get freedom. Kids fall in love with Harry Potter. They want to be him." To do so in their imaginations, children have to invest themselves in the book.
Acampora believes that writing for children is a learnable craft. "My job is to look around and pay attention so that I can share the world with children," he said. "The world is full of moments for someone who wants to tell stories." Listening to young people chatting outside a McDonald's, at a prom, at his own family dinner table, Acampora picks up twists of dialogue, sometimes funny and always in an authentic voice.
Acampora's stories are about relationships, written for people in early life, when they are learning how to interact with the world. He writes in scenes, frames in which joy and horror live together comfortably. "I write these scenes, and I know who the characters are," he says. "I begin with two characters who are talking to each other. Then I add action, showing characters' emotions through their actions to make the story come alive."
His latest book, I Kill the Mockingbird, tells the tale of middle school students who subvert their summer reading list, with unanticipated, chaotic results.
"Writing is my chance to change the world," Acampora said. "When I write, I want to create the opportunity for kids to be heroes and to learn about the world."
Visit Acampora's website here.
The next College Colloquium will be presented by Professor of Geography and Geology Douglas Heath, about changes to the Vietnam War-era maps of Vietnam. The talk will be on Tuesday, October 29, 11:00 a.m. - 12:15 p.m. in College Center, Room 161.
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