March is Reading Month, and thanks to a wonderful partnership with West Bloomfield Township Library, West Hills Middle School had the distinct pleasure of hosting authors and married couple, Chris and JJ Grabenstein. Chris Grabenstein is the author of 64 books, and has an expansive background in advertising as well as movie and television writing. JJ Grabenstein is a voice actor of many audio books, has performed in musicals in New York and across the country, is the first editor of Chris’ many books, and co-wrote Shine with Chris. Perhaps most interestingly to local families, JJ Grabenstein attended West Hills and Andover; local families may remember the name Jenny Myers! Jenny graduated in 1974 from West Hills, and 1977 from Andover High School.
All West Hills students had the pleasure of seeing Chris and JJ in the cafe-torium, the same space that JJ recalls fondly: “I was involved in the Choir, so I remember doing Choir performances, and I was also in theater, so we did plays, in this very same room. And I remember my music room and where my locker was. I even remember my locker combination, which I’m going to try to open!”
The Grabensteins’ assembly shared information about their fascinating history in advertising and theater, their experiences with entering the world of writing fiction, the writing process, and how collaboration can be the key to success. Among the fun facts that students learned is that Chris worked with best-selling author James Patterson, when they were both working in advertising; Chris received inspiration from Patterson to leave advertising to try writing fiction instead!
Students from all grade levels participated in the process of creating a story, during which students’ ideas were incorporated seamlessly into Chris’ impromptu story-telling. 8th grade student Wei Lin Zhou shares, “I think the collaboration portion of the presentation was really great. They managed to get a lot of students in, and a lot of voices from the crowd.”
The Grabensteins explained that saying “yes” to every idea leads to more ideas and a more open mind about how a story can unfold. The main takeaway from the presentation that 8th grade student Reid Smith shared is, “it’s easier to think of ideas for writing and to come up with things, if you have an open mind. Don’t think about what others would think of it. Just keep your mind open. I liked the presentation - they kept it really fun and energetic!”
The Grabensteins’ presentation was inspirational in many regards. Chris shared a story about how it took years, after leaving the world of advertising, to get a book published. It took four books and four years, but through persistence, and inspiration from a fortune cookie that read, “Fall down seven times, stand up eighth time,” Grabenstein never gave up on the dream of publishing a novel. 8th grader Grace Main reflects, “I like how Mr. Grabenstein engaged the audience, and really made us excited about writing, and excited about the opportunities that the future holds.”
Starting back in November, and leading up to this month of March, West Hills students annually participate in a reading challenge, in which they read “West Hills Reads!” book titles. The West Bloomfield Township Library creates the book list, and students who read a certain number of books can be entered into a raffle to see the featured author at the library. This year’s book list features multiple titles by Grabenstein, including Shine!, which Chris and JJ co-wrote. A display on the West Hills Media Center window displays the many book titles, and shows how the most well-liked books are whittling down to become the “Book of the Year.” Media Center Specialist Laura Amatulli explains, “Each year we’ll have a display that features the Book of the Year over the years. Last year, the book was Refugee for the middle grade students, and Because of Mr. Terupt for the upper elementary grades. Anybody can read it and love it. This is a neat build in where students are recommending the books. We started with 18 books in the middle grade and YA (Young Adult) sections, then we narrowed it down to the Elite 8, and now we’re to the Final Four. We’ll have the Book of the Year by the end of March. That one book will stand for years, representing that these are the qualities we look for in a book, and reflecting our needs as readers as a community. We’ll also do a Book Swap, during which students can bring in books to exchange.”
Celebrate March is Reading Month, by sharing some books with your family, and reading some titles off of the “West Hills Reads!” list, courtesy of the West Bloomfield Township Library. A special thanks to the West Bloomfield Library and our West Hills Media Center for collaborating to bring the Grabensteins to West Hills this March!