The John Hancock Club
Why I Wrote the Book
Handwriting and signatures have always fascinated me… perhaps this is because I'm a writer and love the look of words on a page. Every person in the world, once they can write their own name, has a unique written voice whether in signing a signature on a sandy beach with a stick, or using pen and paper in the Oval Office of the White House.
I've visited hundreds of schools and seen thousands of handwritten lines by students. Along the way I began to gather some research notes, asking second and third graders and their teachers, about the cursive lessons in their classrooms.
"Someday," I said to myself, "I will put this into a book…" But turning pages just about handwriting could be quite a snooze to young readers. I wanted to create their story… I wanted to give it emotion and heart. And I wanted kids to love handwriting as much as I do.
How I Wrote the Book
Whenever I use classroom settings to frame some of my books (as in The A+ Custodian) I know that I can bring the story into the familiar and daily lives of my readers.
I often tell new writers that stories need more than just one idea.
This is how I built The John Hancock Club from a stack of blank pages:
I jotted down a rough list from which to grow the book…
A wonderful teacher.
Maybe a teacher like my friend M.K. Kroeger. (When she was teaching third grade, she created a club to motivate her students to learn cursive and called it The John Hancock Club.)
Maybe that's my title. The John Hancock Club.
O.K. I'll have a teacher like M.K. Kroeger.
I'll name a boy… Ben? Ethan? Ian? Sam?
I think for a few quiet minutes and look out my window.
How about Sean? Yes, I like that name. A strong name. Now what sounds just right with Sean?
(There are a lot of Hmm's in writing a book.)
McFerrin is an old name in my mother's family… and wouldn't that name be fun to write in cursive?
OK. Sean McFerrin.
Yes, I like the sound of that name.
Now . . . John Hancock. I love history. And biography. And tiny interesting details. I also lived near Boston for a few years, long ago. And wrote a book calle Sleds on Boston Common.
As a writer, what do I know about Mr. John Hancock?
What do I want my readers to know about Mr. John Hancock? How will they be told about the club by the teacher in my story?
Another layer to this book that I'm creating.
Maybe I'll include a class pet. And since I did see a baby mouse run across the floor of my writing room one winter morning (I nicknamed him Matisse, a favorite artist of mine… I often study, and am inspried by, the lives of artists. This gives me courage as a writer) maybe that pet in my cursive story can be a mouse and I'll use Matisse as the name.
I've found yet another layer for my story.
But . . . (this is the hard part) how to connect all of this in a fun and meaningful way?
A wonderful Mrs. . . . Mrs. . . . Mrs. Tovani! and her special third grade club.
Uppercase letters. Lowercase letters.
Matisse (the mouse).
I type away and type away and print out the pages from my computer. I'm making a book!
I spend a lot of my time thinking. I try different pictures in my head. Shuffle them around. Then I do the same on paper.
Five revisions. Maybe ten. Maybe twenty.
I pretend that I am in that third grade classroom. Mrs. Tovani's classroom. I'm a student learning cursive. I have a pencil in my hand. I live the school life. There are other kids in my classroom and we all learn about J. Hancock.
Huzzah! Just one word, but I can use it to add yet another layer to my story. Writers need more than just one idea.
A principal. I'll call him Mr. Meeker. Then maybe… maybe… maybe there's a surprise when Sean joins the club.
Then another surprise to tie the story together.
I sit at my desk and think some more. I sip my cup of tea. Maybe I'll add a cook as part of Sean's surprise. All students know and love their school cooks. A celebration! A cake! And Sean McFerrin's happiness in signing his name in cursive.
I love to read epilogues in stories. (When I wrote The Greatest Skating Race, librarians thought it was true, and that the story was true, but it was all fiction, made up from my own thinking and my own imagination.)
Well, maybe I'll write a one page epilogue for this book because I really do want to tell my readers not only about JH and his famous signature but also about Henri Matisse.
I ask you: Don't you think a class pet should be able to join a third grade club?
P.S. After I'd revised the book (ten or twenty times), and gone over the words with my editor, we decided to show kids just how big JH's famous signature really is. On the back of the book jacket you'll find a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
Huzzah! Huzzah! to any librarian or teacher or parent who is reading this.
Thank you for your important work with young readers.
Thank you for each time that you've shared books with kids.
And thank you for giving to the world your own special signatures.