The fourth grade critique group

I should have asked them sooner.

The fourth-grade class hustled to pack up their bags and sit on the floor around my chair, more motivated than they had been all day.

I hadn’t served as a substitute in ages (although last time had been memorable), but their teacher had taught my daughter, and personally asked for my help. I tucked the pink hair away as best I could and at the last minute tossed my middle grade manuscript Jinnie Wishmaker into my bag.

The students had worked quickly and quietly in order to get a chance to hear a story no one had ever read. I told them I needed help editing my book, because something was wrong with it, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. This happens, I explained, when you edit your own work.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I began reading aloud. The class had been antsy all day. But the idea that they were doing something “for real,” not just as an assignment, really motivated them to finish their work and pile onto the carpet to listen.

I reminded them what was important to the beginning of a novel: a character that interests you enough to read a whole book about. And a story that doesn’t just sit there, but moves forward, and makes you worry about what will happen next.

So they settled in, twenty nine-year-olds curled around backpacks and lunchboxes, more riveted than I ever expected. The opening scene unfurled, a girl and her younger bother plotting to run away rather than to be taken to live with their snobby rich aunt and uncle, characters taken from a page of Roald Dahl, where the grown ups are hyperbolic and the kids represent the voice of reason.

At the end of first chapter, I asked them what they thought.

“Is Jinnie going to be mean the whole time?” a boy asked. “She seems mean.”

“Yeah,” a girl said. “She’s angry.”

I couldn’t believe it. Why hadn’t I seen it? The Jinnie I knew was sensitive and fairly shy, but in this first impression, with just her little brother to tug around, they were right. She was mischaracterized in the opening scene.

The story had been through four critique group grillings, read by five or six other writers, and even several agents had nurtured it though some revisions, and yet still, I hadn’t seen it until now. No one had been able to just say it.

We lined up by the door, my head buzzing. I knew I could fix it. And I couldn’t wait.

One of the boys tapped my arm. “Ms. Roy? Will you be back tomorrow?”

I had no idea. “Not unless your teacher still needs me. Hopefully she’s better.”

“If you come back tomorrow, will you read some more? I want to know what happens.”

Are you kidding? “You can count on it.”

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