Sunday, October 23, 2016


Awesome educator Mason Roulston and his movie makers
I'm probably going to regret sharing this, but for many years now I've sent complete strangers books in the mail. 

It usually happens after I've gone down an Internet rabbit hole and have found myself reading about a book group or family or librarian or track team or scout troop or school or blogger know, random reader who has done something special or touching or even all around amazing with one of my books. 

I dissolve into oohs, or tears or laughter, and after I make Mark read or watch or listen, I fire up my Sammy Keyes skills and start sniffing out a mailing address. 

Sometimes that's easy. Sometimes it takes a while. Sometimes I get completely blocked and (yes) give up. 

But if I do land an address, I write a note, sign a book, and put a package in the mail. It's like reverse Hope in the Mail, and I may like it more than actual Hope in the Mail because there's no expectation of getting anything back. I'm motivated by the mental picture I conjure of the recipient opening the box and doing a little squee. That imagined squee makes me happy for days.

Anyway, that was a long preamble to a happy little story about a school project based on my book Swear to Howdy. For those of you who haven't read it, Swear to Howdy is about two boys--Rusty and Joey--and their wild antics. It's really, really funny, but also serious. It explores the power and boundaries of friendship and what it means to be a true friend.

The happy little story begins with a link sent to my website email address. It was from a teacher in Ohio. His students had made a movie that he wanted to share with me. 

Student movie. Unknown teacher. And I couldn't open the file.

New cover, still starring Tank the bullfrog!
Yes, there was the temptation to disregard the e-mail and just move on. Like everyone, my inbox is a ravenous beast and I've got a lot to do! But I wrote back and said Uh, can't open the file. That started a back and forth over opening the file.  It was a little frustrating for both of us, but finally I got to view the movie. 

It had me in stitches from the get-go. Two sixth grade girls played the parts of Joey and Rusty, and another girl played three or four other characters. It was just...funny. I swear to howdy, my jaw was a'danglin' the whole time. 

And then came the car crash scene.

I will not give further spoilers, but yes, there's a crash.

It's serious, life-changing stuff.

But in their movie, the car is one of those pink motorized Barbie cars, and the actor putt-putts it right into a tree.

It's hysterical!

If you know me at all, you know why this did me in. (Let's just say the whole idea of young girls imprinting on Barbies drives me nuts.) The crash scene from the book and that same scene from the movie yielded opposite reactions in me. With both there were tears, but with the movie it was from laughter.

"What's so funny?" Mark asked from across the office where he was trying to work.

"You've got to watch this!"

It took him a moment to adjust to the shift in casting. Yes, two girls are Joey and Rusty. The old clunker is now a pink Barbie car. 

A Barbie car!

When he was done watching it I said, "I have to send them books."

He grinned and went back to his desk. "Of course you do."

So I got to work. 

Opening the box
I started with a book for each of the three girls, but then I got to thinking...who else from the class was involved? Who wrote the script? What about the camera crew? Who built the props? Were there grips? What awesome child was willing to have her Barbie car bite wood? 

And the teacher! Yes! This incredible teacher had to get a book!

So, yeah. I went overboard. Mark just rolled his eyes, like, what else is new? And then he listened patiently as I complained about how I had to wait in line at the post office. (The line was, as usual, loooong and slooooow.) And how after nearly 20 years of mailing books through this post office, once again, I got the clerk who always interrogates me about the contents of my apparently suspicious package. "Books, just books," I assured her again with my hands up. "Swear." 

About a week after I sent the box, I heard back from the teacher. (I will paste in the article that ran in their local paper about it at the bottom of this post.) The funny thing is, I sent them a surprise to make them happy, but the pictures he sent back made me squee.

I didn't have to just imagine.

I got to feel it, way down deep in my heart. 


Author surprises River Valley Middle School students

The old adage goes, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.”  The sixth graders at River Valley Middle School found out the other 20 percent is simply trying.
Trying, in the case of three students who put together a movie based on the novel read by the class, "Swear to Howdy." Their effort attracted the attention of the book's author, Wendelin Van Draanen.  “It was one of the best projects ever submitted in my class,” teacher Mason Roulston said.  “The thought, attention to detail, and creativity was absolutely amazing. I just knew I had to somehow show it to Van Draanen.”
After several email attempts, the movie ended up in Van Draanen's hands in California. The response Roulston received from the author was awesome, he said.  Van Draanen, a teacher for 15 years, wanted the names of the student-actresses so she could send signed and inscribed copies of the book to them. Three books turned into about 20 as Van Draanen stuffed a box full of books and other goodies for Roulston’s class. “It’s just small things like this that bring us closer together,” said Macie Snyder, one of the three moviemakers, along with Gabriele Cametti and Kayleigh Morgan.
Van Draanen knows something about trying too.  It took her ten years to get published.  She never gave up and kept writing, in fact, she wrote the first four books of the now widely popular Sammy Keyes series while waiting for her big break!  Roulston hopes that tenacity, will rub off on his own students who begin class every day with an activity aptly named, Sacred Writing Time.  “We’re a month in and already the students are coming up with some amazing stories, observations, and poems,” Roulston said.  “Who knows, maybe some of these kiddos will be published someday.  It seems like a more obtainable goal after connecting with Van Draanen. Through her act of kindness, she made the whole profession feel real and accessible.”
The package arrived adorned with the same frog found on the "Swear to Howdy" cover.  “It took everything I had not to spill the beans to Gabby, Kayleigh, and Macie,” Roulston said.  Van Draanen said in her email, “I hope it’s a party” when the books arrive.  Indeed it was:  First, Roulston replayed their movie then, with much fanfare and hype, produced the package.  The class went crazy when they saw the telltale frog on the address label and practically smothered Roulston as he opened it.  Gabby, Kayleigh, and Macie were presented with their personally inscribed and autographed copies to the delight and squeals of the class. “It really and truly meant the world to me,” Kayleigh said.  “Van Draanen is my favorite author!  I was shaking with anticipation as Mr. Roulston opened the box.”
“I seriously teared up,” Roulston recounted, “it was one of those moments that will be forever engrained in my teacher mind, it was that special and touching.
"Every day, my kiddos show up and try, to me, that’s what life and learning is all about.  Now, thanks to Van Draanen, we have confirmation and validation of our efforts,” Roulston stated.  Gabby summed it up best when she said, “Our goal was one thing, to create the best project we can, but it lead to so many other amazing things.”
This goes hand in hand with our Principal Don Gliebe’s favorite saying, "It all matters at River Valley Middle School," Roulston said. “Everything we work on and produce here might just lead to something extraordinary. I know for Gabby, Kayleigh, and Macie it’s true.  I could tell just by how they held their new treasures how much this whole experience meant to them and the best part is, we’re just getting started.”
Van Draanen’s website is and her story project  allows individuals to submit their own stories. 


Shaina said...

I love how you love doing these little things to make a few individuals happy! These days with internet and fast worldwide communication, it's easy to get lost in the homogenized masses online and forget about the importance of each individual person. Thanks for your example of using your influence where it counts!

Wendelin Van Draanen said...

Thanks, Shaina! What struck me most about this experience is what a difference a good teacher can make.I'm sure his students love being at school!

wsnyder said...

Thank you for sharing this! One of those amazing girls is actually my daughter. She is the girl who played multiple roles, and also drove the infamous Barbie car into the tree.
Thank you for inspiring young people, and encouraging their love for reading and creativity.

Wendi Snyder

wsnyder said...

You said it perfectly.....a wonderful teacher who goes above and beyond for his students! He is definitely one of a kind!

Marsha said...

Hello I am the mother of Gabby. I wanted to say thank you for taking the time to acknowledge the girls and all their hard work. The girls came to my house and spent about 15 hours practicing, filming and reshooting some scenes. Thanks to you and Mr Roulston it has made this project a fun and rewarding experience.
PS. You made Gabby see when she saw that you were following their SMAC project on Instagram.

Wendelin Van Draanen said...

Wendi -- your daughter is a hoot! It must be very entertaining having her in the house. Thanks for the comment...and for allowing that Barbie car to crash the party :-)

Marsha -- Thank you, too! I could tell they spent a lot of time putting that project together. It's been a wonderful experience for me to get a peek at the girls' personalities and see Mr. Roulston's classroom in action.