Here Comes the Judge: Naylor Nails the Best High School Writers

Photo | Submitted Gaithersburg author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor writes the first two drafts of every book by hand in this writing chair.

Photo | Submitted
Gaithersburg author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor writes the first two drafts of every book by hand in this writing chair.

Gaithersburg’s own prolific, celebrated and beloved author is this year’s judge for the Gaithersburg Book Festival’s (GBF) sixth annual High School Student Short Story Contest. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Newbery Medal winner and writer of more than 140 books—mostly for children and young adults—read the 12 finalists’ entries and determined the first- through third-place winners to be announced at the May 21 event. She also will appear at the festival to talk about “Going Where It’s Dark,” her latest novel for young teens.

The winning stories “were chosen based on their originality, creativity, writing style and the overall writing quality,” said the 83-year-old novelist. “I am always amazed at both the quality and depth of some stories by teen writers, far better than what I was writing at their age.”

A committee consisting of “a city staff member and individuals who write daily for work, who have graduate degrees in fiction writing and have had short stories published, and who are school librarians, read the hundreds of entries from public, private and homeschooled students who reside in 10 jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia,” GBF Vice Chair Robin Matarese said. “It’s clear that there are teachers throughout the region who use our contest as an assignment in their classes,” she said.

In addition to the three winners Naylor chose, the public voted for a fan favorite online. Johns Hopkins University’s Montgomery County Campus will provide the cash prizes. All the stories were inspired by artwork of county artists—Lindsey Levy (Churchill High School), Cameron Garland (Northwest High School) and Azalea Coste (Montgomery Blair High School alumna)—who took part in an exhibit at Hopkins.

The very busy Naylor, amid preparing to leave for New York City the next morning, graciously agreed to answer questions about reading, writing and judging.

Why did you choose to direct most of your work to writing for children and young adults?

I began writing stories for church magazines, when a former Sunday school teacher became an editor, so got my start writing for children and teens. Later, I added adult books and stories to my list.

Who most influenced your choice to become a writer?

Teachers influenced me, but other than my Sunday school teacher, hadn’t suggested I write for publication. I was most influenced by my parents who read aloud to us every night, almost until we were in high school. It was just a family thing, and one of the happiest parts of my childhood, especially hearing my dad read books by Mark Twain with great drama and voice changes.

You’ve said that you loved Mark Twain as a child. How does his storytelling factor into your own?

As I mentioned, my dad read many of his books to us aloud; my favorite (was) “Huckleberry Finn.” A number of people have commented on the similarities of “Huckleberry Finn” and my book “Shiloh”—going against society, or legality, to do what is perceived as the right thing.

Which of your characters is most like yourself?

Alice, in my “Alice” series, is probably most like me, and that 28-book series, written one book a year for 28 years, was concluded a year or so ago, to tears all around, and will be brought out this summer in one paperback collection, in three boxed sets.

Do you think the nature of children’s literature has changed since you started?

I don’t worry too much about changes in children’s literature, and don’t write with that in mind. I simply write whatever story really moves and excites me. If you try to write for trends rather than the book inside you, I doubt it will be very effective.

How would you suggest that parents and/or teachers encourage young children, even preschoolers, to write or create their own stories?

Read, read, read. Aloud. Every day or every night to your children. Never mind that they can read themselves. If you’re their teacher, reward them for good work during the school day by reading a chapter aloud from an exciting or funny book before they go home. If you’re the parent, let them stretch out on the rug or on their bed, and listen to a book you read to them with great drama. Let them get as caught up in a good story as we do with those wonderful Netflix serials we love, so they are begging for a story the following day. When the book is over, ask if they feel like writing a story about what happens next. Don’t push writing on them. It’s something fun to do.

Writing tends to be a solitary occupation. Are you a solitary person? Do you interact or socialize with other writers?

I’m both. I don’t at all mind being alone all day to write. But I was in a writer’s critique group that met on Monday nights for 26 years, reading chapters of our manuscripts aloud to each other and offering suggestions or praise. It was one of the happiest and most rewarding things I ever did. I love being with small groups of people just to discuss stuff. But the actual writing itself is a solitary occupation.

How long does it take you to write a book, from idea to revisions? Do you have a favorite place and time to write? Do you establish the story arc, including the ending, before you start writing, or does it evolve?

Anywhere from four months to four years. Some exist as three-ring notebooks beside my desk for a decade or more, as I slip paragraphs and photographs and maps and news clippings inside, waiting for the idea to grow, or the “pot to boil over” and excite me enough to put other things aside and begin writing in earnest. I write any time of day or evening, sitting in my most comfortable chair in the living room, writing on a clipboard in longhand. I do two drafts this way before I type it, a chapter at a time, on the computer, printing it out, editing and revising, printing it out, etc. I usually know the beginning, the climax, and the ending of a novel, and some of the big stepping stones or scenes along the way, but once I begin writing, all the little details come to me, and this is the fun part.

How many stories did you read for the Gaithersburg Book Festival? Have you done this kind of judging before?

This was the first time I was asked to judge stories for the Gaithersburg Book Festival, though I’ve been a judge for some other contests. I’m not sure how many manuscripts were received—over 100, I know—but these were thinned down to about a dozen that were given to me. It’s so hard to be the sole judge, because any judge has her own subjective opinions whether she intends to or not. But I tried to stick to the four qualities mentioned on which to judge each manuscript, and finally arrived at the three stories I thought best qualified to be winners. Many reflected something to do with one of the three photographs that each contestant was to use in some way for inspiration. This perhaps made some of the stories seem similar, though it may have helped other students get an idea on which to base a story.

What is your new book about?

My most recent book is “Going Where It’s Dark,” about a 13-year-old boy who stutters, is bullied by a group of older boys who finally go too far. Buck Anderson has to rely on his own expertise to survive. It’s a suspense book with a triumphant ending.

What are your writing plans for the future? Is there an idea that has stayed with you for some time that you haven’t attempted to write about yet?

My plans for future writing are more of the same—whatever comes to me—but there are currently nine three-ring notebooks on the floor beside my desk, each one silently pleading, “Choose me! Choose me!” So there are always stories to write and characters begging for a role onstage.

If you had it to do over again, what would you differently?

I probably would have majored in literature. I’ve never had a course in creative writing—it’s all been learned in the doing—but I just never thought that writing was something I could make my profession until I found I was able to pay for most of my college tuition by writing short stories (back when college tuition was realistic). Yet focusing on psychology—and in the psychology and sociology books I read on my own, in particular—I was preparing myself for writing, but didn’t know it. I think that writers really learn most by being good observers, listeners, drawing people out. Listening to my Mississippi grandparents telling stories on their screened porch was a “creative writing course” all its own.