Calling all writers, aspiring writers, and writing teachers out there! Rochelle Melander’s upcoming book Mightier Than the Sword will release on July 27th and is a collection of over 40 biographies of people whose written work have influenced our world. Middle Grade Mojo chatted with Rochelle about how she brought them all together in one book and why.
Middle Grade Mojo: In Mightier Than the Sword, you tell the stories of some famous people such as William Shakespeare and Martin Luther King, Jr., but you also include some obscure people such as the naturalist and scientific illustrator Maria Merian (1647-1717). How did you find out about the lesser- known writers that you profile?
Rochelle Melander: I’ve been collecting stories since 2008, when I came up with the idea for the book. When I was preparing to write the book proposal, I searched for people in anthologies, the New York Times Overlooked section, and biographies. I talked to history professors and other academics. I also did a lot of creative online searches. I was determined to include people from many disciplines, so I searched for writers of specific disciplines.
And then there was serendipity! I saw The Girl Who Loved Butterflies by Joyce Sidman on a library display, and that’s where I discovered Maria Merian’s amazing story.
MGM: You include a wide range of writers and types of writing. Why was that important to you?
RM: Yes—both for the young people who will read the book and the teachers who use it.
As an artist educator, I meet young people who love reading books but don’t want to write their own stories. Some students struggle with the writing process. Others want to go into the sciences or service professions, and don’t think they might need to write. I had these students in mind when I chose writers from different disciplines. I wanted young readers to see that scientists, politicians, and medical professionals need write as part of their jobs. I also wanted readers to see the many ways writing can change them and their communities.
I also wanted the book to be helpful to teachers of many subjects! I hope Mightier Than the Sword will function as a supplement to classroom work in science, social studies, and literature classes. Because the book includes many types of writing, it’s perfect for language studies. The exercises in the book demonstrate the skills that the common core requires young people to learn in their middle grade years: opinion pieces, argumentative essays, explanatory texts, narratives, and more.
Finally, I believe in the fun factor. And having different types of writing to play with is just plain fun!
MGM: You founded the Dream Keepers, a writing workshop for young people. Did your work with the young writers inspire Mightier Than the Sword, or did you have an idea for this book already and used the workshop as a way to start the research?
RM: The young people inspired the book. When I started Dream Keepers, I was working with a small group of girls at a Black church in the inner city of Milwaukee. I designed the workshop to include a mutual sharing of resources and wisdom. I asked the students to bring in their favorite literature as writing prompts and they shared songs they liked. They also introduced me to the Freedom Writer’s Diary. I brought in music, poetry, and essays from writers who I thought the young people might relate to, including Langston Hughes, Nina Simone, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
When I brought the Dream Keepers programs to the library and public schools, I developed more writing workshops around significant writers and their work. I lugged around a lot of books and wanted a resource that would bring together the artists we’d been studying.
As I started developing the book idea, I shared stories and exercises with groups to see if they found them engaging. For example, in 2019 I was part of a program called Urban Wildlife: Poetry in Your Backyard. In our workshops, we talked about local ecosystems. I shared the work of the naturalist Maria Merian and the poet Richard Wright as a springboard for writing Haiku.* That experience showed me how powerful these stories are!
*(NOTE: The project was a partnership between the Milwaukee Public Library, the Milwaukee Public Museum, and Poet’s House in New York. http://www.fieldworkmke.org/)
MGM: Of all the writers you profile, was there one or two that inspired you the most?
RM: Oh! So many! Octavia Butler continues to inspire me. She was a mildly dyslexic kid who loved to read and write stories. When she was young, she saw a bad science fiction movie on television and thought, “I can do that!” But she encountered lots of obstacles. Her family wasn’t supportive. Her college professor asked her, “Can’t you write anything normal?” She worked many tough jobs while she was building her career. But she persisted—and she finally landed a book contract. I have a biography and a book of her interviews that I turn to a lot. In one of them she says, “At last I began to say that my most important talent – or habit – was persistence. Without it, I would have given up writing long before I finished my first novel. It’s amazing what we can do if we simply refuse to give up.” I love that!
MGM: What’s next for you?
RM: I am working on a middle grade mystery novel and several picture books. And I’m putting together a book proposal for another nonfiction book.
Rochelle Melander wrote her first book at seven and has published 11 books for adults. Mightier Than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries Who Changed the World through Writing is her debut book for children. She’s a professional certified coach, an artist educator and the founder of Dream Keepers, a writing workshop for young people. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her husband, children, and two dogs. Visit her online at writenowcoach.com or rochellemelander.com
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