There’s many a successful author whose writing career kicked off with—or has been rejuvenated by—National Novel Writing Month. To name a few: Elizabeth Acevedo, Marissa Meyer, Erin Morgenstern, and Rainbow Rowell. This fall, as novice writers and published authors alike sit down to write, kids and teens will be joining them in the creative challenge through the Young Writers Program.
For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is a nonprofit writing project that began in 1999 in the San Francisco area. Taking place each November, NaNoWriMo invites writers to craft 50,000 word novels within the limited space of a month. Through the NaNoWriMo website, writers can track their individual progress and set goals for themselves, while finding encouragement through a community of fellow writers.
Participants in the Young Writers Program, which launched in 2012, have the same goal as their adult counterparts, but the writers find much of their primary support through their peers in classroom settings. According to Grant Faulkner, author and executive director of the nonprofit, the program emerged from the collective enthusiasm of teachers who had themselves taken part in NaNoWriMo. Marya Brennan, who currently serves as director of the YWP, observes the many ways that the Young Writers Program benefits participants. “Different kids and teens take different things away from the program,” she says. “It’s like a novel itself that way; it means different things to different people. Some young people come to the program feeling like they hate English, hate writing, hate books even, and they walk away feeling empowered.” Brennan believes that kids particularly respond to the program because it allows them the freedom to write the stories that they want to tell. “For some young people, it’s the first time in school where they actually get to let their imaginations run wild,” she says.
For Faulkner, imagination isn’t only about creating stories—it’s also about seeing possibilities in the world. “Creating on the page can lead to creating in other realms, whether it’s the business world or the laboratory,” he says. “Writing is a powerful imaginative tool and perhaps our best tool for critical thinking, because to write is to explore the nuances and counterpoints of thought.”
In this age of social media and digital communication, Faulkner believes that kids are writing more than ever before, and that it’s especially critical for children to convey their ideas effectively. “It’s vital to teach kids not to be just consumers of text, but to be producers, creators, and makers,” he says. “Only those who master writing in its multifarious forms will be able to be effective participants in the academic world, the work world, and online social spaces. To be a writer is to be an engaged member of the community.”
Educators whose students take part in the program have witnessed transformations first-hand. Teachers frequently Faulkner that students’ investment in their own novels results in their developing a more meaningful understanding of figurative language, grammar, word choice, and other aspects of the mechanics of writing. Gaining a sense of audience also broadens students’ awareness of the world. Many educators have observed an uncommon phenomenon. “Teachers tell me that they hear kids talking about their novels during recess, asking about each other’s word-count progress and story,” Faulkner says.
In many classrooms, teachers seek out additional opportunities for the young writers to share their work—and even to connect to self-publishers to have their books printed and bound. They are in good company. Faulkner feels that the program is a natural fit for indie authors. “So many of our participants self-publish because they have a DIY mindset—hence their inclination to learn to write a novel by writing a novel,” Faulkner says.
NaNoWriMo programming has broadened to include additional community outreach. The Come Write In program supports 1,200 libraries as they host NaNoWriMo gatherings. NaNoWriMo is also forming a partnership with PEN’s prison program, which provides writing resources and mentorships for incarcerated individuals. Additionally, NaNoWriMo is in talks with Macmillan’s Swoon Reads imprint to offer a writing scholarship to a writer of color each year.
A New Page
As student writers get the chance to see their own words in print, the NaNoWriMo Young Writers program itself has expanded from classrooms to bookstore shelves. Brave the Page, to be published by Viking in late August, is the first guide to NaNoWriMo’s style of writing for young people. According to Rebecca Stern, the book’s lead author, “The program proves that when young people are given tools and resources along with permission to be themselves, they fall in love with writing and write more than they’ve ever written before—which in turn makes them more confident and strengthens their writing skills.”
The book includes writing tips from an illustrious roster of YA authors, including John Green, Marissa Meyer, Jennifer Niven, Daniel José Older, Danielle Paige, Celia C. Pérez, and Scott Westerfeld. All of the proceeds from sales of the book will in turn support additional NaNoWriMo programming. That means more kids are being given the freedom to take ownership over a creative project, to share it with their community, and to form connections through words and stories. “With Brave the Page, we’ll broaden our reach, allowing more kids to see themselves as authors, and further support our mission of helping everyone tell the stories that are important to them,” Stern says.
Parents often offer the most powerful testaments to the impact of NaNoWriMo on their children’s academic and emotional growth. Amy Reardon, the parent of a NaNoWriMo writer, saw her son flourish as he wrote his story: "My son has always had a million ideas, but he used to dread having to write them down for school. Then his sixth grade class did NaNoWriMo. He had two weeks to write a 15,000-word novel. As he sat down to type every day, the goal seemed impossible. He finished the last night of a Thanksgiving break neither of us will ever forget. For every tough writing assignment since, he would say no problem; he knew he could do it because of NaNoWriMo."
According to Faulkner, “Kids just need to escape sometimes, to find a different kind of shelter, a different kind of home, in the words on the page. There’s a solace to be found in stories that can’t be found anywhere else.” And with 300,000 adults participating in NaNoWriMo each November, it’s clear that the need for stories persists long past childhood.