The Staple: "Warmed an Old Publisher's Heart"

June 24, 2013 | 826 Blog Post

As we hope you’ve heard, we recently released our major publication for 2013 — All I Could Do Was Look Up: Anatomy of a Middle School.

There were many people involved in the creation of All I Could Do Was Look Up, and today we have one of their stories for you. Maria Bonn is a volunteer who has made an outsized impact in a short period of time, bringing her experience in the academic publishing world to the much different challenge of volunteering with us.

In this piece, Maria takes us through her involvement in the Scarlett Middle School publication project, from Traveling Editor to copyeditor to release-party attendee to mother reading a bedtime story to her son. Please enjoy this inside glimpse of what it’s like to work on an 826michigan publication project — we did.

Yours as ever,

Editors Amy

“Warmed An Old Publisher’s Heart”

I found myself standing in the Scarlett Middle School Media Center, blinking back tears as the roof nearly blew off the house when 826michigan Executive Director Amanda Uhle announced to the assembled masses, “You are now published authors.” Almost thirty years into a career spent with books as student, teacher, writer, librarian and publisher, and I had never seen such genuine love for the art and craft of writing. After those two decades considering “what is it all about?”, those cheering young people helped me know precisely what it is all about.


It’s not like I carefully plotted this path to my moment of enlightenment. In my circuitous case, I fell off a bike and did myself some serious damage, enough damage that I had medical reasons to retreat from my publishing job. Which left me with some time on my hands — time I thought should be partially spent on good work in the community.  And there was this 826michigan place where a couple of friends volunteered and that I heard was doing terrific work. Plus they seemed to like people who care about language. It seemed like maybe I could do that.

So when Frances Martin, our fearless Volunteer Coordinator, put out the call for Travelling editors for the Scarlett Middle School publication project, I said to myself, “Seventh graders! That could be a challenge. . .”

I got my visitor badge and my escort to the Media Center. “Be helpful! Get them writing!” Frances had said to me. So I parked myself at a table, waited for it to fill with four thirteen-year- olds and got tried to be helpful.

The first thing I found out was that seventh-grade teachers, or at least the two closest to this project, are awesome. Ellen Daniel and Sal Barrientes had turned out dozens of well-behaved and even motivated young people, first drafts earnestly clutched in their hands, who may have been skeptical about their ability to write better second drafts, but who were at least polite enough to humor the 826 volunteer and try.


They read aloud when I asked them to, and I watched with pleasure and satisfaction as they happened upon their own misconstructed sentences and awkward diction and scurried to pencil in corrections. And then we were done with that, and almost an hour remained. So I told them to pick a sentence from their draft and write from it for ten minutes. “Anyone can write for ten minutes.” They moaned, they groaned, they got stuck and then obeyed my merciless prodding to keep writing. They sighed with relief when my timer beeped them free and grumblingly agreed to read aloud again, commenting graciously on “the good parts” in each others’ writing.  We talked about the stories, about water parks, about the  terror of being lost and separated from one’s family, about the endlessly irritating ways of big sisters and about just how wonderful a grandma can be. I suggested some changes. And then they offered polite thanks and departed.

Two sessions of that, and I departed too, wondering: “Huh, did that have any effect at all?” And then forgot about them, in the usual whirl of 826 workshops and fieldtrips and even a poetry reading here and there. Until out came the call for copy-editors.


I settled down in the biggest chair in my house with a large mug of tea and my blue pencil and had at it. This is where the fun began. There were so many discoveries in those pages. First there was the pleasure of stumbling upon so many great stories. Sure, many of those great stories were were not by “my kids” (the ones I tormented at my table), but even better was coming across the ones that WERE by my students; I had forgotten their names but not their stories. Best of all was discovering this: they listened to me! And it worked! The stories were better. I sat back in my chair with my big tea mug and a bigger grin. My students, they rock. And so, so do I. I tweaked a comma here and there, but mostly just smiled.

Then it was time for the big event. The books had arrived and there would be a grand unveiling. Five minutes into the program, I realized that I was just as excited as the students were.

Then came that moment that warmed an old publisher’s heart, when the students broke into cheers as they joined the ranks of the published.  The drape was lifted, and there were the books! They were beautifully designed and printed, but even greater was the beauty of the students — bent over the books, running their fingers down the Table of Contents, looking for their names.


And what did I myself do as soon as I got my hands on a copy?  I looked for my name, and I was thrilled to find it. I was part of making this thing. I really was, and there was my name to prove it.

And now that copy has pride of place on my “friends and family bookshelf,” both because I was part of making it and because in a funny way, those students are my friends. Last night, as I went through the ritual with my seven-year-old son of choosing some bedtime reading, I grabbed All I Could Do Was Look Up and opened randomly to a story. After a moment of doubt, my boy leaned forward and clearly became engaged.  At the end he turned to me and said. “That was a really good story, Mom. Read another.”

He was right, and I did.

Maria Bonn holds a PhD in American Literature from SUNY Buffalo and a Masters in Information and Library Science from the University of Michigan. She is a gardener, a photographer, and an enthusiastic member of 826michigan’s volunteer book club, the Reading Robots. 


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