Alcott fifth-graders draft alternate ending, sequel to children’s novel

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The Adventurers reading group in Becky Burky’s fifth-grade class at Alcott Elementary were hooked on their latest novel, “Heartbeat” by Sharon Creech.

The six students embraced the drama, the descriptive free-verse passages and the pace of the story that could have been about a friend or classmate. In the book, 12-year-old Annie ponders the many rhythms of life when her mother becomes pregnant, her grandfather begins faltering, and Max, her best friend and running partner, becomes distant.

When Evelyn Barnhart, Camaryn Burns, Taylor Knepp, Sophia Michels, Emma Shonkwiler and Madison Skuldt came to the novel’s final pages with Burky, they were stunned.

“The ending left us with nothing,” Shonkwiler said. 

Following a group discussion filled with questions and frustration, the girls approached Burky with a proposal: They’d like to write their own ending. Now, what started as a way to bring closure to Annie’s story has evolved into a 29-page-and-growing sequel they’d like to share with the author.

“We decided that we’re having fun with this and as soon as we start with one thing, then we’re bursting with all these ideas so it’s starting to become more of a book,” Shonkwiler said. “We’ve gone with it and we’re going to keep doing it until our ideas are gone.”

For several weeks, the fifth-graders connected during their reading group time to discuss ideas, draft storylines and review each other's work. Shonkwiler serves as the group’s editor, helping manage their work and weaving in their sections in one shared document. They all have composed passages after school and on the weekends, writing in Creech’s free-verse style prose and adding their own dramatic flair to the story’s alternate ending and sequel.

Among their ideas: a cancer diagnosis, a love triangle that ends in betrayal and Grandpa’s death. 

“We wanted to add more drama,” Skuldt said. “But the final copy will be happy but bittersweet.”

The students said they were inspired to write because of Creech, whose books, “Love That Dog” and “Walk Two Moons,” are part of the district’s fourth-grade language arts Wit and Wisdom curriculum.

Burky had a different activity for the reading group once they finished “Heartbeat” but altered plans after they approached her with their proposal.

“This group has taken ownership of their learning throughout the reading of this book so it only made sense to continue with what they wanted to do,” she said. “It's hard to ignore their passion especially since it's important for students to make learning relevant and applicable to real life. These girls did that all on their own.”

Once the girls complete their draft, Burky plans to send their works to Creech. While they are hopeful she reads their thoughts on what happened to Annie, her family and best friend, the Adventurers want her to know how much her stories mean to them.

“The fact that the book is so inspiring to us that we’re writing the ending, it shows that she’s such an amazing author,” Burns said. “It would be so cool if someone as cool and famous as her would look at and read our book, something that we just wrote that inspired us from her book.”

For the reading group, the project has deepened their appreciation for story-telling, writing and each other.

“A lot of times I try to write a book but have never finished them,” Burns said. “But with this one, I have a passion to do it because I feel like I have so many friends to support me. I don’t feel so overwhelmed because I have people to help me.”