This week’s Sunny Star is a tremendous inspiration to me. A published author before she graduated from high school, Dallas Woodburn not only loves to write, she also helps other young writers find their voice. She has been a mentor to me as well as to hundreds of other students. She graduated from USC in 2009 and she is now at Purdue for graduate school where she is studying creative writing. I hope you enjoy getting to know Dallas as much as I have and I hope she inspires you to pick up a pen and simply write!
1. Please tell us about your project Write On! and how you got started.
In a recent national assessment conducted by the National Literacy Institute (NLI) of fourth-grade students, 13% reported never reading for fun on their own; an additional 16% only read for fun once a month. I think this is a travesty. Reading has brought me so much excitement, confidence and has opened so many doors for me, including a tremendous college education and a career that I love. And writing, especially for young people, can greatly increase self-esteem, boost interest in learning, and create many amazing opportunities.
In fifth grade, when I published my first book, There’s a Huge Pimple On My Nose, the teachers in my elementary school asked me to talk to their classes, and then I spoke to other classes throughout the school district. I still enjoy talking to kids about writing. At the beginning of my talk, I ask the kids if any of them are interested in writing, and usually a few shy hands raise. In contrast, at the end of my talk when I ask the same question, nearly every hand in the class shoots up. Students tell me they didn’t know that kids could be writers. They thought they had to wait until they were adults.
I started “Write On! For Literacy” in 2001 to encourage kids to discover confidence, joy, a means of self-expression and connection through reading and writing. My website www.writeonbooks.org features writing contests, book reviews, fun writing prompts, and more. I also hold an annual Holiday Book Drive to collect and distribute new books to disadvantaged kids who don’t have many, if any, books of their own. We’ve donated more than 11,000 books the past eight years.
2. Please tell us about your success as an author and how this has affected your happiness.
I feel so blessed that I discovered what I love to do at such a young age. I have been writing for as long as I can remember and I published my first book, There’s a Huge Pimple on My Nose, when I was in fifth grade. Pimple is proof that with a lot of hard work, a lot of perseverance, and a lot of support, a small idea can snowball into something bigger than you ever dreamed. My snowball began as a snowflake when I applied for and received a $50 grant from my elementary school to write, publish and sell a collection of my short stories and poems. I proposed using the profits to repay my grant, so the school could offer an extra one the following year. My first printing, done at a Kinkos copy shop, was modest: twenty-five staple-bound forty-page books. Actually, they were more like thick pamphlets, but no matter – to me, they were the most beautiful books I had ever laid eyes upon. I swear, J.K. Rowling wasn’t more proud of her first Harry Potter hardcover edition.
My fellow students and teachers acted as if Pimple was at the top of the New York Times Best-Seller List. The first twenty-five copies promptly sold in a couple of days. Can you imagine what a turbo-boost this was to a fifth-grader’s self-esteem? I was pursuing my dream, but I wasn’t pursuing it alone – my family and friends and teachers were right there with me. So I went back to Kinkos, ordered twenty-five more books – and soon sold all those as well. After three more trips to Kinkos, I searched out a publishing business and ordered a few hundred glossy-covered, glue-bound, professional-looking Pimples. My little forty-page dream evolved from a snowball into a blizzard, with newspaper and radio interviews; appearances at literacy events all around California; even a “Dallas Woodburn Day” at the Santa Barbara Book Fair. I still have to pinch myself, but Pimple has sold more than 2,600 copies, enabling me to repay two school grants and found Write On! For Literacy.
Looking back, I was fortunate to dive into this career at such an early age because I wasn’t afraid or self-conscious about my writing. I think as we get older, we tend to lose that child-like pride and confidence in ourselves and our work. But I wasn’t afraid of rejection, so I sent my book out to anyone and everyone I thought might read it. Sure, I didn’t hear back from a lot of them. But I did score reviews in The Los Angeles Times, Girls’ Life Magazine, Cosmo Girl Magazine, and others. Many terrific doors were opened for me because I wasn’t afraid to hear the word “no.”
3. Please tell us about your experience teaching children about writing and how this had added to you and the children’s happiness.
Every year I teach a Summer Writing Camp in my hometown of Ventura, California, for kids ages 8-18. The goal is for students to have FUN while also learning how to improve central components of their writing, including dialogue, characterization, plot and setting, through various writing exercises. Many students are initially intimidated about writing and shy to share their work, but by the end of camp they are much more confident in not only their writing skills, but in all aspects of themselves. I look forward to Summer Writing Camp all year long! The students blow me away with their creativity, wisdom, and respect for each other. I am fortunate to have a handful of students who have been with me since the inaugural camp three years ago and have come back ever summer, and it has been such a joy to watch them grow.
I have found that often when students are more receptive to exploring the world through reading and writing, they become more passionate about learning as a whole. Throughout the year, I frequently volunteer at schools to teach writing activities to kids. This is one of the most fulfilling things to me. Whenever I am feeling discouraged or creatively drained, going to schools and speaking to students inevitably recharges my batteries and gets me excited about writing again. So much energy and enthusiasm! It’s contagious!
4. What has been your proudest accomplishment with Write On! and how has this affected your happiness?
I am so proud of how Write On! has grown and am grateful to everyone who has gotten involved and offered support and guidance. I think I am most proud of my latest endeavor, which is starting a publishing company called Write On! Books that publishes anthologies of stories, poems and essays written by young writers for young audiences. The goal is to give young people a much-needed outlet for expression and connection, while also hopefully inspiring a love of reading in youth. As a young writer, sometimes it can be difficult to get people to take you seriously and get editors to even read your work. I believe that young people have a voice and opinions and a life perspective that just as important as the voice of adults. Moreover, there are so many books for young people that are written by adults – but who knows what its like to be a kid better than a kid herself?
The first Write On! Books anthology, Dancing With The Pen, will be released this fall and features the work of more than 65 young writers in elementary school, middle school and high school, from all across the U.S. and even abroad: Canada, Singapore, New Zealand. It was a true honor to read their work – such imaginative, daring, thought-provoking pieces, exploring everything from travel to friendship, love to loss, fear to hope. While putting together an anthology such as this was even more work than I ever could have imagined, I greatly enjoyed the journey and I could not be prouder of all our young contributing writers. I truly believe this is a necessary book that will inspire young people to pursue their dreams and their education.
5. What has been the biggest challenge with Write On! and how has this affected your happiness?
I think my biggest challenge has been focusing my attentions and efforts rather than getting too far ahead of myself or trying to take on too much at once. I think one of the challenges of having passion for something is getting so excited about all the possibilities and opportunities and projects you want to do that you can overwhelm yourself – and then not be able to give anything the attention it deserves. I have received marvelous guidance in this arena from Jeanne Finestone, a mentor I was connected with through Ashoka Youth Venture, who helped me write a mission statement for Write On! and set goals with a realistic timeline. I now feel more excited than ever about the future!
Another challenge has been a sidelining or dismissal of the importance of the arts in our educational system today. Many teachers have shared with me that due to increased standardized testing and requirements, they do not have time to integrate fun creative activities into their regular curriculum. Their students do not think of writing as something that can be fun or empowering; rather, many students have an antagonistic attitude towards writing. When I visit schools, I see this challenge as an opportunity: I try to open students’ minds to the marvelous possibilities of writing and reading. After I visit a class, I often receive letters and emails from students telling me that they feel inspired to write and pursue their dreams. I treasure these notes – I have saved every one.
6. How do you think your book donations have added to the happiness of the children who receive these books?
After volunteering as a reading tutor for elementary school students, I was shocked to find that all of the books they had were tattered and torn – sometimes pages were even ripped out. So I began holding an annual Holiday Book Drive to collect new books for underprivileged kids. Our motto is: “Toys are broken and clothing is outgrown, but the magic of books lasts a lifetime.” Unlike a new toy that breaks or grows boring, a book can be read again and again. A book can be a comfort during a hard time. A book can inspire you to positive action and stick with you the rest of your life.
I have been told that, for many of the young recipients, these books are the only Christmas presents they receive. Furthermore, the books we collect and donate are often the first books these kids have ever owned. Libraries are wonderful resources, but it is different to have a new book for your very own, a book you can keep – you can write in the margins, dog-ear the pages, take it with you everywhere. We do not only give books to disadvantaged youth – we give them hope, and the knowledge that someone cares about them. We help foster within them an ownership over reading – and, in turn, a sense of empowerment over their education and life as a whole. When critics say that kids today don’t care about books, that they only care about video games and computers and TV, I challenge them to donate a box of books to their local Boys & Girls Club and see if they walk away the same cynicism. Books are irreplaceable. When we walk in with the donated books, the kids swarm the boxes of books as if they were filled with candy. All year, I look forward to seeing the kids’ excited smiles when they receive new books they can keep.
If anyone is interested in starting a Holiday Book Drive chapter, I would love to hear from you! It is a great project for schools, and can be as large or small of an effort as you have the time and energy for. We currently have chapters in Los Angeles and San Francisco, California; Dallas, Texas; Secane, Pennsylvania; and Toronto, Canada. Many chapter leaders begin book drives by inviting friends and relatives to get involved, and then broaden their efforts to area schools, churches and community groups. I have found in my own efforts that often people in the community want to get involved with literacy endeavors, but aren’t sure how – when they hear about the Holiday Book Drive, they are very excited to help out. If you are interested in starting a chapter in your area, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will add you to our chapter list. I can also send you flyers to help spread the word and get the ball rolling!