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Thalia Book Club Camp offers up-close interaction with renowned children's book authors and illustrators, book discussions, and book-related field trips around the city. This blog follows the camp's activities.

Thalia Book Club Camp Week 4 Day 3

Published on August 2, 2017

Wednesday already? We had a great hour in the Thalia Theater playing some new games: a version of the game Telephone, only in this one you have to pantomime the word. How would you act out “lighthouse?” Then we played something that we’ll call “Sound and Movement” (and memory!) The first person makes a sound and a movement. The next person does that person’s sound and movement and adds their own, etc. etc.  Being at the end of the circle was HARD!  But fun! Finally, in the spirit of the harsh division of classes and status we found in the book of the day, These Shallow Graves, we played a game where each person was given a playing card with a value of 2 through King.  You could see all the cards but your own which you held to your forehead with your finger. By the way others greeted you, you guessed your status. The goal was to get in a line in perfect order: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K. And we did it!

We returned to the camp room to meet Jennifer Donnelly. She told us that her first experience with stories was from her mother, who had been a girl in Hitler’s Germany during WWII. All her stories were scary, but fascinating.  Since that time, Jennifer has been obsessed with history and with writing. Her ideas come from “ghosts from the past.” Characters appear to her – sometimes in the form of newspaper articles, legends passed down through the generations, or old photographs. And then she has to find out what happened to them, which she does through writing. For Jennifer, there are four building blocks to writing: inspiration, imagination, research, and emotion. She shared some of the research she has found and used for a number of her historical novels: an old school autograph book, an antique algebra textbook, a boy’s neatly-written notebook on agriculture, an old photo album, and a corset. All these things are both primary documents and inspiration for creating a historically accurate world for the book. But always it is the emotion of the characters and of the readers that is of greatest importance to her.  She wants us to not rest easy in our comfortable life, but to be inspired to make things better in the world.

For a writing assignment, she showed us a painting of the Astor family – the parents, two daughters, a son, and a dog – in a grand salon. She asked us to be detectives and look for clues in the painting that could tell us things about these people. Then she asked us to choose one of the characters and write what was going on in their head at the moment captured in the painting. We heard about a bride-to-be who was marrying a rich nobody because “no one would miss him when she killed him.” There was a bored and entitled father who couldn’t wait for this pain-in-the-neck painting to be done, and more.

After the book signing and the group picture, we had a quick lunch in the Thalia Cafe before heading down to the South Street Seaport Museum to meet William Roka, our tour guide for the “Wickedest Ward in NYC” tour. Dodging a few raindrops, we learned where the original coast of the East River was – several hundred yards inland from the water’s edge today. But the bulk of the fascinating, if slightly horrifying tour focused on the lawless, filthy, and, frankly, disgusting way of life that went on in the 4th Ward. Rats figured prominently in various historical characters’ way of earning a living. Murders were non-stop. Piracy was rampant, as was kidnapping (of adults) for the purpose of manning a ship. Although we were all cringing and groaning, it was not only an engaging and eye-opening history lesson, but it really made the experiences that Jo had in These Shallow Graves seem that much more real.

Back at Symphony Space, we ended the day reading and playing a few rounds of Apples to Apples.  Tomorrow is our big Shakespeare day!


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