John Grisham didn't drop by Turnrow last week only to sign copies of his new legal thriller, The Confession — read our review here — he also came to deliver on a promise to take lunch with a group of school kids who entered our Theodore Boone essay writing contest. The contest, announced during the summer, was an attempt to get kids to read Grisham's new novel for young readers and to inspire them to write their own stories. We asked students to write a mystery in which they put themselves as the hero, solving the case using their own unique talents and interests.
Out of the pile of entries we chose three from a variety of ages that showed the most promise. The winners, pictured with Grisham at left, were (l. to r.) Jasmine Murphy, Steele Robbins, and Baylor Pillow. The students, joined by their teachers, were invited to take a break from class and eat with Grisham in the Turnrow Cafe. The event brought out some curious onlookers and doting parents. It was quite a scene.
Thanks to Andrea Hall of the Greenwood Commonwealth, who was there to cover the winner's lunch. Her article appeared in the local paper last week and captured the kids' enthusiasm:
"I enjoyed meeting him very much," said Robbins, 9. "I loved that he took precious time out of his schedule to eat with us."
A third-grader at Pillow Academy, Robbins wrote about what he knows best — his life at school. But instead of writing about a typical day, he wrote about something he thought "would be cool if it happened."
The result: His teacher, Gina Hutson, was the suspected murderer in his story, "Something Smells Fishy."
"It was a lot of effort," said Robbins. "I love writing, and meeting Mr. Grisham inspired me."
Grisham's words also inspired Murphy to keep writing and keep pushing even when no one seems to be listening, or, in a writer’s case, reading.
"His first book was rejected by multiple publishers," said the Leflore County High School freshman. "This is the first time I have ever really been recognized for what I love to do. So I think I am having some of the same feelings he did."
Murphy, 14, entered the contest on a whim after she saw one of her friends writing a story. "She told me she was writing a story called 'Nightmare on Elmo Street' for a contest," Murphy said.
Murphy approached her friend's English teacher, Jamie Doak, to find out more about the competition. "I entered the contest because I have always been amazing at English," said Murphy. "Writing is my life."
She sees it as a form of expression and an opportunity to live in a different world for a while.
"I'm always spacing out," said Murphy. "I'm always thinking about ideas for stories. Mr. Grisham had a lot of good advice about finding stories and that sometimes they just hit him."
Although Murphy was ecstatic to join the author for lunch, she didn't say much.
"I wanted to hear what he had to say," said Murphy. "He told us we need to listen to what our teachers are saying because it will improve our writing. He also said there is a story in everything."
Murphy is already working on her next piece. This time it's something a little closer to home.
"For the contest, I wanted to create a story that was kind of a dreamy and far from my ordinary life," she said. "I want my next one to be about a shy girl's days in high school. It is what I know."
Baylor Pillow, 10, also wrote about what he knows in his story, "The Super Car Story," about a Chrysler that looks like a Bentley.
"I've always loved cars," said Pillow, who's a fifth-grader at Pillow Academy.
He even talked about his interest in cars with Grisham during lunch.
"It was an amazing experience to meet someone people all over America recognize and read," he said. "He talked about how he writes and just asked us questions about ourselves to get to know us."
Pillow says he learned that writers have to capture and audience from the beginning.
"I think now I know how to write better," he said.
Grisham said the essays were diverse, creative and enjoyable to read.
"I asked myself if I could have written that when I was 8," he said, laughing a little.
Although Grisham says most authors aren't published before 25 or 30 years old, he hopes writing opportunities like this competition will inspire them to keep practicing their skills and, of course, to get them reading.
"I don't know any writer who doesn't love to read," said Grisham.
Before publishing his children's book, Grisham neither had time nor really wanted to read a collection of children's books, so he consulted the fifth-grade class in Raleigh, N.C. that his daughter teaches.
"Back in January I read several chapters to her class to get their response," he said. "It was terrifying reading to kids because they will say anything or ask anything."
In Greenwood, however, the hardest questions Grisham faced from the students were about where he gets his ideas and some of his tips and techniques.
Grisham plans to turn his kid lawyer Theo Boone into a series and is already working on the second installment.
"It is a diversion for me," he said. "I've learned a lot about children's literature. I hope each Theo will educate kids a little bit about the law."
Among the lunch highlights was a conversation between Grisham and Pillow in which the author tried to convince the 10-year-old car enthusiast to reconsider his dream of driving a Rolls Royce. "You just don't want that kind of attention in a small town," he advised the unflappable Pillow good-naturedly. "You'd be better off with a Mercedes or Jaguar."
Grisham, who drives an Audi, expects to be back in Greenwood in the spring when the second Theodore Boone novel is due.