________________ CM . . . . Volume VIII Number 20 . . . . June 6, 2002

cover When I Grow Up, I Want to be a Writer. (Millennium Generation Series).

Cynthia MacGregor.
Montreal, PQ: Lobster Press (Distributed in Canada by Raincoast Books), 2001.
83 pp., pbk., $14.95.
ISBN 1-894222-42-3.

Subject Headings:
English language-Composition and exercises-Juvenile literature.
Authorship-Vocational guidance-Juvenile literature.

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Deborah L. Begoray.

*** /4

What happens when a published writer is asked to teach a junior high school creative writing class in her daughter's school? She takes the job, of course, and then turns her class notes into a marketable book. Cynthia MacGregor has done a credible job of capturing the basics of writing for a middle school audience. While this slim volume will be a useful title for a teacher of language arts or a student interested in writing, readers will want to be aware of a few shortcomings.

     When I Grow Up, I Want to be a Writer offers 83 pages of lessons and assignments on writing everything from catchy titles to fables, technical writing to beginning a writing career. It is divided by topic into an introduction ("What makes a good writer?") and three parts. Part One, called "Some of the Basics," has 16 lessons including much of the advice given to writers of any age, but packaged for a junior high school audience. For example, the lesson entitled "Jane is Boring" considers the job of reconstructing sentences so that they do not always begin with the subject. Another lesson addresses the 5 W's of newspaper reporting (Who, What, Where, When, Why), and bears the title "Just the Facts, Ma'am." (There is a gloss to help the young reader make sense of MacGregor's lapse into a rather dated allusion.) Part Two has 15 more lessons on what MacGregor judges to be less common genres, such as slogans, menus, and greeting cards. Finally, Part Three urges young writers in four brief lessons to persist with writing, to polish pieces, to seek publication and to keep revising to learn their craft.

     MacGregor definitely walks the talk. Her titles are clever, her sentences are varied, and her prose is polished to a bright sheen. My hesitation in recommending this book more wholeheartedly lies in two areas: an occasional oversimplification of the writing art, beyond what is appropriate for middle school writers, and the presence of many references to American culture.

     My experience with middle years students, especially those who choose a writing option, is that they are keenly aware of what writing and writers can accomplish, but they want to write in areas that appeal to them, develop their growing understanding of people's unique qualities and receive specific assistance. MacGregor does not venture into written genres especially appealing for today's young adolescent, such as writing for a web site or composing a screen play. She also offers some misleading advice on the topics she does cover. For example, she states that "'I ain't got none of them new books yet' is a sentence that's in a lot of trouble. As is the person who said it." So much for the use of realistic dialogue (and for that matter, a sensitivity to other dialects of English). Sometimes her advice is far too brief to be helpful. The lesson on Speeches, in fact, consists of two questions, followed by an assignment which encourages young readers to "say what has to be said quickly, and wrap up with a memorable finish"-- not very helpful for a beginner. More examples throughout the book would add to its value for schools.

     American content is an on-going problem in books written by American authors. Readers will not see any references to Canada or indeed to any country other than the United States. American references include the American Revolution, Eisenhower, and even the yellow rose of Texas. Names reflect only the mainstream culture (Rob, Mikey, Jeff, Judy), and, as mentioned above, where real people are mentioned, they tend to be members of the author's generation ('Weird' Al Yankovitch, Michael Jackson) or classical writers (Nathaniel Hawthorne) rather than any of those more current and familiar to middle school students.

     Nevertheless, a teacher or student of writing will find much to enjoy and learn from in When I Grow Up, I Want to be a Writer. Teachers might use selected lessons or offer the book to students who are especially interested in improving their writing. In fact, I have a nephew in a grade six advanced writing program who would probably love to read this book. MacGregor's style is clever, engaging, often humourous and her advice is usually accurate. This book deserves a place on the reference shelf of a school library.

Recommended with reservations.

Deborah L. Begoray is an associate professor of language and literacy at the University of Victoria. Besides her research work in visual literacy, and her teaching in the secondary English education program, she is currently involved in helping to revise the language arts curriculum for British Columbia.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364