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"Author: A True Story" -- Of Frustration and Triumph!

Popular children's author Helen Lester serves as a role model for young writers. In "Author: A True Story" Lester reflects with humor on the lessons learned from her own writing experiences.

BOOK IT Logo Helen Lester -- best known as the author of children's books such as Tacky the Penguin, A Porcupine Named Fluffy, Me First, and It Wasn't My Fault -- turns her attention to the trials and tribulations of authorship in her latest book, Author: A True Story, published by Houghton Mifflin.

Lester offers her own writing experiences, not always joyful, in a book that encourages children everywhere not to give up in the face of writer's block!

The story opens with Lester's early writing triumphs:

"A long time ago there lived a three-year-old author. Me. I was the best grocery-list writer in the worldWhen I wrote a word I knew exactly what it said. And the best part was that I could turn each list upside down and the words said the same thing."

But Lester's writings didn't always win such rave reviews as those bestowed on her grocery lists by her mother! In Author, Lester profiles her writing frustrations, from an early bout with a form of dyslexia to a time in her elementary years when

"Often I couldn't come up with a single idea and my stories got stuck in the middle, and I couldn't think of a title, and I had trouble making the changes my teacher wanted me to make, and I lost my pencils, and I wondered why I was doing this, and I got very, very, VERY frustrated."

Most youngsters will recognize Lester's feelings of frustration over early misfires. Indeed, Lester offers children her story as a tale of encouragement. Her words are carefully chosen to model the importance of not giving up when things seem to be worst.

Lester even illustrates this book on her own. Throughout the book she wears the same playful expressions, the same spiky blonde hair, and the same clothing -- which grows with her as she grows from childhood to teacher-hood (when writing was her favorite subject to teach to second graders) to author-hood.

We trail Lester as she submits her first manuscript -- "the best book I had ever written" -- to a publisher. The book was "rejected." Six rejections later, Lester finally became a published author. And therein lies one of the many lessons for writers of all ages everywhere.

Even today, as a well-known published author, Lester has to work at her craft. She writes and rewrites, each time improving on her story. She keeps a Fizzle Box of ideas that don't quite work. But still --

"Sometimes writing is so HARD for me. I can't come up with a single idea, and my stories get stuck in the middle, and I can't think of a title, and... I get very, very, VERY frustrated."

Today, Lester's storybook ideas come to her anywhere and at anytime. She scrawls illegible notes on paper at her bedside in the dark. She scrawls ideas on scrap paper. She's even scrawls ideas on old grocery lists!

Kids will enjoy Lester's story of frustration and triumph. They'll enjoy a little glimpse into the life of a real author!

Indeed, it'd be fun to share Lester's latest book with your students some Monday morning as a preview to reading a few of her popular storybooks. Read a different Lester book each day that week. Invite students to look for connections in those stories to ideas explored in Author: A True Story. Talk about where Lester's ideas for each story might have come from and what other titles she might have considered for each story. Then, on Friday, reread Author. It's the perfect "bookends" to an author study.

Author: A True Story will entertain while reinforcing a message that teachers are always trying to convey to their students. It's a message that -- even today -- Lester has to remind herself of: Writing is hard work!

Author: A True Story is available at bookstores nationwide. If you can't find a copy, ask your local bookseller to order one for you. The book was published this year (1997) by Houghton Mifflin Company.


  • A Porcupine Named Fluffy (by Helen Lester). A porcupine named Fluffy is happier with his name after he meets a rhinoceros named -- Hippo! Kids will laugh at the silly things Fluffy does to try to "earn" his name.
  • It Wasn't My Fault (by Helen Lester). Everything is poor Murdley Gurdson's fault, and young listeners will love the way the blame for his lost shoe passes from animal to animal -- with a surprise ending!
  • Tacky the Penguin (by Helen Lester, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger). Tacky the penguin does not fit in with his sleek and graceful companions, but his odd behavior -- his individuality -- comes in handy when hunters come with maps and traps.
  • Listen Buddy (by Helen Lester, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger). A lop-eared rabbit named Buddy finds himself in trouble with the "Scruffy Varmint" because, despite having big ears, he never listens.
  • Me First (by Helen Lester, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger). Pinkerton Pig always manages to be first until he rushes for a sandwich and it turns out to be not the edible kind.
  • Princess Penelope's Parrot (by Helen Lester, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger). An arrogant and greedy princess's chances with a handsome prince are ruined when her parrot repeats to him all the rude comments the princess has made.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 1997 Education World