$14.99, ages 9-12, 128 pages
When an author in feather earrings and wild hair comes to talk to a fourth-grade class about writing, the students half expect her to fly around the room, depositing words on them like bird droppings.
Ms. Mirabel isn't like any teacher they've known. She tells them in a soft, hushed voice that words are magical things. They come to you when the time is right, whispering "word after word after word."
In this lovely little book, Newbery Award-winning MacLachlan (Sarah, Plain & Tall) goes to the heart of what she feels about writing -- that words are amazing things that can help you discover how you feel and what you need.
As the class's regular teacher sits quietly in the back of the room, Ms. Mirabel tells the students that everyone has powerful words to write and that words can change their lives.
Over the course of six weeks, five friends in the class learn to express what they couldn't before -- feelings welling up inside of them or moments that are meaningful to them but they've never shared.
Lucy, Evie, Henry, May and Russell meet everyday after class under a lilac bush in Henry's yard, as the sweet smell of pie drifts from the kitchen where his mother Junie is cooking. There they can lower their guard, lean on each other and think back on the strange and wonderful things Ms. Mirabel's has said.
At first the friends are mystified by Ms. Mirabel's frankness and her unconventional way of looking at writing. She says that what is real and unreal are the same and dismisses story outlines as "silly."
A story can't be laid out in advance, she tells them. "You write to participate…to find out what is going to happen."
At one point, Ms. Mirabel pours dirt from the prairie where she grew up on Miss Cash's desk to express the importance of setting to a story, what she calls, "landscape." Miss Cash's eyes widen with surprise but she doesn't say anything.
"The soft, silver feel of the dirt under my feet will always be there," Ms. Mirabel tells the class. "-- in the wrinkles of my skin, in the beating of my heart, in every single word I ever say."
As Ms. Mirabel reads aloud excerpts from famous books (including one from MacLachlan's Baby), words swirl around the students like breezes and the children begin to think about what words can do. Soon, like the buds in the lilac bush, their thoughts will blossom.
Henry, who already loved to write before Ms. Mirabel came, immediately connects with what she's saying. Writing has been his way to hold onto things he wants to save, and in his first poem, he reflects her enthusiasm for writing.
"Hollow boned / Birds / Sing! / Until the sun falls down. / They tuck themselves under the / Green leaves of trees / And sleep until the sun calls / them to / Sing again!"
Russell too gets what she's saying. He likes that Ms. Mirabel doesn't sigh at his questions like Miss Cash does and right away Russell hears the whisper of words.
It's Russell's dog Everett saying farewell to the life he loved just before he died. "…I liked running with you," Everett tells Everett in the poem. "And chasing balls / And sleeping under your quilt / But now / I'll fly away."
The other friends are distracted by pain in their lives and struggle to come up with something to write about, even though words are already starting to trickle out.
Lucy feels lost in the sadness of her mother's illness, and wishes she could write something to make her life turn out the way she wants. But instead she writes about sadness, not yet aware that in writing about it, she is finding her way out of it.
"Sadness is / Steam rising, / Tears falling. / A breath you take in / But can't let out / As hard as you try," Lucy writes.
Evie is unsettled by her parents' breakup and in her first poem, tries to figure out how to fix things that she can't control.
Since her mother abruptly moved out, Evie's been desperate to save her father from loneliness and decides all she needs to do is get him a new woman. She tries to act like she's in control even though she trembles inside.
May, the youngest of four sisters, is struggling with feelings of insecurity after her parents decide to adopt a baby. She confuses her worries at being replaced as the youngest with anger toward her new brother.
As each shows their vulnerability to the others, they begin to hear the words that wouldn't come. Even Miss Cash relaxes and becomes less rigid about writing.
But now it's time to be brave and share their writing. But how will their parents react to what they have to say?
Spare and lovely, MacLachlan's story makes you believe you can write even if you never felt you could, and makes you long to know yourself better -- poke around inside your thoughts and see what you might find.
I know I can't wait to go back to the yard of my childhood and bottle a little of the dirt to bring back home.