Finding Adventure With Rochelle Melander -- by Jane Kelley
What comes to mind when we think of going on adventures? Making discoveries? Facing challenges? Battling for justice? Wielding a sword???
Rochelle Melander writes about people who have done all those things––with the help of something more powerful than conventional weapons. Mightier than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries Who Changed the World is a middle grade, social-justice book that tells the stories of historical and contemporary writers, activists, scientists, and leaders who used writing to make a difference in their lives and the world. I asked Rochelle a few questions about her inspiring and fascinating book.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE THE BOOK?
When I started Dream Keepers, my writing program for young people in Milwaukee, I often used stories and poems as mentor texts and writing prompts. We began by reading Langston Hughes––our name is based on his poem by that name. The young people liked reading poetry and fiction, but they loved true stories of people just like them who had used writing to change their world. I looked for a book like Mightier than the Sword that would tell all these stories. I couldn't find one so I had to write it myself.
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE POWER OF WRITING?
Whenever I've gone through a tough time, I've used writing to figure it out. Turns out, for years, psychologists have been studying how writing can help people heal. Researchers have found that journaling improves memory and sleep, increases general feelings of well being, and supports people in achieving their goals. I incorporated those ideas into the work I do with young people, giving them fun exercises that help them reap the emotional and intellectual benefits of writing.
In my book, I created exercises to help readers use writing to explore ideas and protest injustice. For example, after readers learn about Sophie Cruz, a young girl who wrote a letter to the Pope asking for immigration reform, I invite readers to write their own letters to ask for change. I hope the book will inspire young writers to discover how writing can be their own superpower.
DOES YOUR BOOK HAVE ANY ADVENTURE WRITERS OR ADVENTUROUS WRITERS?
You bet! Many of the writers in Mightier than the Sword took amazing adventures. When he was just 21, Ibn Battuta set out on a pilgrimage to Mecca––and traveled for the next 30 years. He was kidnapped and robbed and left with only his pants. Once he got so sick, he had to tie himself to his donkey to keep traveling. The naturalist Maria Merian traveled to South America to study plants and insects. Her pictures and notes focused on the things which most of us walk right by. She discovered new species, including a bird-eating spider, which is named after her.
Other writers craved adventures. When they stepped out of their routines, they discovered incredible things. Charles Darwin took a five year journey and mined that research for the rest of his life. Nellie Bly went undercover and traveled around the world to find stories. Langston Hughes traveled to Africa and Cuba, writing about both. These stories inspired me to seek out novel experiences––even in my own hometown.
HOW WAS RESEARCHING AND WRITING THIS BOOK LIKE TAKING AN ADVENTURE?
I was writing during the pandemic. After I heard rumors that public places might shut down, I visited libraries and checked out about 100 books. When I got to the end of those books, I needed to get more. I also needed to read scholarly articles I had no access to. Solving those challenges became mini-adventures for me. (By the way, if you ask nicely, most librarians will let you exceed your borrowing limit.)
HOW DOES PLAY FIT INTO YOUR WRITING PRACTICE?
That's challenging for me. I do a lot of work on assignment and I need to make those deadlines. But play is necessary for being creative. I try out the exercises I teach the Dream Keepers. When I work on picture books, I try new ways to approach the story and play with words. Experimenting with other mediums also helps my writing, so I like to bake and do art journaling.
Rochelle Melander wrote her first book at seven and has published 11 books for adults. Mightier than the Sword is her debut book for children. She's a professional certified coach, an artist educator, and founder of Dream Keepers, a writing workshop for young people. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with her husband, children, and two dogs. She blogs about writing at writenowcoach.com and about teaching writing at rochellemelander.com Check out both blogs for opportunities to write a guest post.
And if you want to accompany some amazing people on their adventures, read Rochelle's book Mightier than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries Who Changed the World