Danticat offers writing tips to fourth graders

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A report by Lois K. Solomon for the Sun-Sentinel.

Award-winning author Edwidge Danticat is accustomed to sharing her insights into Haitian-American life with an international audience.

But on Thursday, she was before a smaller group — the fourth-graders at Barton Elementary School in Lake Worth. She offered tips as they prepared for their own writing challenge, the Florida Standards Assessment.

“This is the age when they have a glimpse of the possibility of the future,” said Danticat, 48, a mother of two who lives in Miami. “Every single one of them has a story to tell. We want to nurture their creativity at the same time they’re preparing for these tests.”

About half of Barton’s students or their parents were born in Haiti, teachers said, while the other half comes mostly from Spanish-speaking countries, including Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras.

“It’s so good for them to see a Haitian role model,” said fifth-grade teacher Kerline Boursiquot, also a native of Haiti.

Danticat, who won a National Book Critics Circle award, an American Book Award, and an Oprah Book Club selection, came to the United States from Haiti at 12 and published her first novel at 25.

She was invited to Barton by Boursiquot, who met her at a book-signing two years ago.

“I took a risk; I figured what did I have to lose?” Boursiquot said. “I emailed her and she responded two days later.”

Danticat asked the students to spend 10 minutes writing what they will be when they grow up, or anything else they chose to share, as an essay or a poem.

She suggested they begin with an appealing first line, and make sure they not get lost in the “muddy middle,” when they want to maintain interest but not get mired in details. As for the ending, she recommended returning to their early points or finishing with a question.

“A question leaves room for interpretation,” she said.

Students said they relished hearing about the importance of emotion and voice even as they work to write highly structured essays for their standardized exams.

Mercienka Camilus, 11, said she aspires to write with the feeling and empathy Danticat expresses in her novels. She said she treasures Danticat’s book, “Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation,” because her family had a similar experience. The book tells the story of Saya, whose mother is imprisoned in an immigration detention center.

“My grandpa was deported back to Haiti because he didn’t have the right papers, but he’s back now,” she said.

Danticat said she soon will release a memoir, “The Art of Death: Writing The Final Story,” in which she will explore the end of her mother’s life, how writers have faced death, and share additional writing tips, this time for adults.