Children's author Sam Swope decided he needed a challenge and did he ever find one. Swope "adopted" a group of Queens, New York, third graders, giving them writing lessons over the course of three years. In I Am a Pencil: A Teacher, His Kids, and Their World of Stories, Swope documents the successes and heartbreaks of teaching schoolchildren who hail from some truly challenging backgrounds. Some speak limited English, while others come from families struggling in a foreign country. Miguel's Ecuadorian father imposes his strict religious beliefs on his happy-go-lucky son. Fatma, by far the best writer in the class, stubbornly refuses to open herself up to Swope's writing assignments.

Swope's excitement is palpable when he discovers raw talent among his students, as is his disappointment when promising students give in to laziness or self-doubt. I Am a Pencil is a triumphant manual on both writing and life.

Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.

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