Where the story comes from: Author Janet Lee Carey pays a visit to McClure

Middle schoolers understand metaphor. In "Wenny Has Wings," for example, a boy has an out-of-body experience. Another character, Igor, is a female tarantula who molts. "Shedding her exoskeleton is a metaphor," says author Janet Lee Carey. Both boy and spider step out of their bodies. Kids get the connection.

Will, the boy in "Wenny Has Wings," has a near-death experience in the accident that kills his younger sister, Wenny. His parents aren't ready to talk about the accident yet, so he finds another way to deal with it.

"The book is a series of letters," says Carey. "I've paired heavy letters with more humorous ones, so kids can go in and out of different emotions," making the book accessible even to reluctant readers.

Last month, Carey, a local author, talked about her writing at McClure Middle School with about 50 sixth-graders who are reading "Wenny Has Wings." The McClure presentation was arranged by Suzanne Perry, events coordinator at Secret Garden Bookstore, and by school librarian Kristan Gale.

Carey began by talking about the writing life.

"Who wants to be a writer?" she asked. A few hands were raised, so she gave some advice. "It's really important to keep your imagination alive," she said, prompting the students to come up with different ways to do that.

A love of reading is also essential to writers. "Where can you find stories?" asked Carey. Students thought of many sources of inspiration.

Finally, it takes persistence to be a writer. Carey wrote for 10 years and was rejected hundreds of times before she succeeded in publishing a book. As evidence, she brought an early rejection letter from Harcourt & Brace, which eventually published "Wenny Has Wings."

"You have to believe, if not in yourself, in your story," she said.

"So, why do you write?" asked student Miranda Cooper.

"Sometimes I can't find a book I want to read," replied Carey, so she writes a book she'd want to read. Plus, she loves writing. "I lose myself in the story," she said, and she loses track of time.

Published in 2002, "Wenny Has Wings" is the second of Carey's five books. It won the Mark Twain Award in 2005 and has been translated into many languages. The book is such a hit in Japan that it will be made into a movie there.

Student Kourtney Li wanted to know what inspired Carey to write this particular book.

"It's partly based on a true story," said Carey. Years ago, one of her three sons was hospitalized repeatedly. Around that time, she heard about a family whose two children were hit by a car; only one survived. "I knew then I had to write about my unspoken fear of losing a child," she said. But she couldn't write a totally sad story.

Then she read "Closer to the Light: Learning from the Near-Death Experiences of Children" by Dr. Melvin Morse. "I'd found a way to bring joy into the book," she said.

She also brought in humor, through the character of Gallagher (who's nuts about Godzilla), Bullwinkle the dog and, of course, Igor the female tarantula.

"How many of you are afraid of spiders?" Carey asked. Many hands shot up. "Me, too," she said. "Stories put a framework around things that frighten us," said Carey. "They are a way of making sense of the unknown." By facing her fears, of spiders and of losing a child, she gained a bit of courage, and so can the reader.

Carey's most recent book, due out in April, is "Dragon's Keep," a medieval fantasy about a girl born with a dragon's claw. The metaphor in that book is that the girl has to deal with a part of herself that she'd rather not.

"Why do you use so much mythology in your books?" asked student Andrew Studyvin.

"Because I love where story comes from, the history of story," said Carey. "Mythology is cool and strange."

Student Nikita Craig wondered about Bullwinkle, the "monster dog" who goes through a tunnel in "Wenny Has Wings." Bullwinkle is modeled after Carey's own dog Frodo, but also Cerberus, a three-headed dog in Greek mythology.

The protagonist in each of Carey's books is a child. "There are two simple rules authors must follow when creating a child hero," she says. "The first is to provide a plot that tests the child's mettle. The second is to remove the adult." The child must face a problem on his or her own and solve it without the help of a grown-up.

"Many children need to know a hero," says Carey. Not an adult, but "an ordinary child hero who discovers courage by overcoming a difficult situation. Children feel this need because they are facing a great journey, and they know it."

Carey may be a grown-up, but she helps fill this need, and the sixth-graders at McClure let her know that.

To learn more about the author and her other books, visit www.janetleecarey.com. And check out www.readergirlz.com, a Web site that will be launched on March 1. Created by Carey and three other female authors, readergirlz is "an online book salon where teen girls can gather to gab about young adult books with the authors themselves."[[In-content Ad]]