Today we're talking with Sherry L. Meinberg, author of The Cockroach Invasion
FQ: In your years of teaching, did you just teach third grade, or other grades as well?
MEINBERG: Although my favorite grade to teach was the third grade, in my 50 years as an educator (teaching in public schools for 34 years, and later as a core university adjunct professor for 16 years), I taught all grade levels. For instance, during a number of semesters, I taught elementary school in the daytime, and high school at night (for previous drop outs, or for those students who had been expelled, and wanted to return and finish their education). After retiring for the second time, I began teaching creative writing to senior citizens. So I have taught all age groups.
FQ: How did you decide what facts to put in your book, so it could be understood by young children, but also interesting for adults?
MEINBERG: Since this story actually happened in my third grade classroom, years ago, I tried to record what I remembered, as close as possible. For those older students and adults who might want to explore more information, I included two sections at the tail end of the book: More Interesting Facts About Cockroaches, and What’s Good About Cockroaches. Although I found some scientist’s experiments very interesting, I didn’t include them, because the book would have been way too long.
FQ: Was including the diagrams and sketches by the students something you intended from the beginning?
MEINBERG: Absolutely not! When adult professional artists refused to draw cockroaches, I assured them that only a few cockroach sketches were needed, and the rest of the sketches would be other images (a ship, a grasshopper, a dinosaur, etc.), but no one wanted to be involved with cockroaches. It was very frustrating! At long last, I finally conducted an art contest for third and fourth graders, and was so pleased with the result. The 16 winners of the contest are from different schools in different cities. I think the book is much better with the children’s sketches, even though it took eight more weeks to get all of the parental signatures on permission slips. Some parents didn’t believe their children, when they said they won an art contest. “Okay. Yeah. Sure,” they responded, and thought their kids were making up wild stories. The crushed and wrinkled pages were finally found squished in the bottom of the children’s backpacks, which were then hastily signed and returned.
FQ: Pictures and diagrams are always a great way to grab children’s attention, but what do you do to get them to pay attention to the written word as well?
MEINBERG: I just wrote the story in the exciting way in which it happened. The subject matter is what holds the readers’ focus. Oddly, a couple of adults suggested that I should add or omit certain items, which I refused to do. They didn’t get the message that the book is nonfiction.
FQ: What have you found that children most enjoyed about your books?
MEINBERG: One father told me that his soon-to-be 4th grade daughter wouldn’t put the book down, until she read it clear through, cover to cover! (Bedtime had to wait.) That’s what I like to hear! A woman told me that after her 3rd grade granddaughter read the book to herself, she wanted to read it aloud, to her. She began by leaning over and patting her grandmother’s arm, and said, “You will have questions, Grandma, but don’t worry. I have all the answers!” (Wow! A budding teacher in the works!) I think the yuck factor is what interests children the most. Many young readers saw themselves interacting in Room 8. Others wished they could have actually been in Room 8, when they were in the third grade. One letter from Hawaii said that the writer had always been afraid of cockroaches, but now she had a newfound respect for them. A letter from California said: “If I had discovered such a book when I was nine, perhaps my motto would not be: If a bug comes into my house, it gets zapped!” Those are the kind of responses I was hoping for: a change of attitude toward the “unhuggable” and “unlovable” critters of our world. Young readers seem more accepting of all living creatures, which is what I was aiming for.
FQ: Reactions of both boys and girls were included, but have you found that one gender is more attracted to your book than the other, or is it about the same?
MEINBERG: At this point, I don’t see a clear division. Readers seem to be of both genders equally, as they all have had cockroach experiences of their own, and can relate. The great thing for me to see is that many reluctant readers find the topic fascinating enough for them to want to read the book.
FQ: The character of Diego presented a shy personality. Was he based on an actual student of yours?
MEINBERG: Yes, but his shyness was more from a language barrier. Once Diego felt he had a handle on his new language skills, his true personality shone through. For example, I once had a second grade girl, who checked into school late in the year. She relied on her body language, nodding her head, and pointing with her fingers, and such, while listening intently to conversations. She was extremely quiet, seemingly fading into the woodwork, just observing. It later became clear that she understood much more than she let on, but she was simply unsure of using the new vocabulary. I’m sure that she didn’t want to be laughed at. She spent that year soaking up the language sounds and meaning. In the third grade, she felt comfortable and confident with English, and was a total and constant chatterbox. Her conversations, comments, and whispered asides, just wouldn’t stop! She was a waterfall of words. The change was simply amazing.
FQ: Do you have plans to continue writing these books?
MEINBERG: I could definitely have a Room 8 series. On page 116 of The Cockroach Invasion, I ask the readers to choose the next book that they would like to read. I have listed seven other titles, of unusual and unexpected oddball experiences, that actually happened in my third grade classroom. But if children show no further interest, then I will return focus again on adult nonfiction books.