Janae Marks

Award-Winning Author Mentors Fifth Graders

“I really like your writing,” fifth grader Eliza said to award-winning author Janae Marks, speaking directly to her through Zoom. “You inspire me. I wanted to ask you how you develop your characters.”

Marks shared her top tip with Eliza and her classmates: figure out what each character wants, what motivates them. “I come up with specifics about my characters—the small things that bring them to life—as I write, not ahead of time.”

The one-to-one mentoring was made possible by Marks’ virtual visit to all Katonah Elementary School fifth grade classes. The author spoke to the students about her writing process, and how she arrived at the winning combination of a quest for justice and baking fun which earned her debut novel, “From the Desk of Zoe Washington,” multiple awards.

Finding Inspiration for Writing

Life inspired the story of Zoe Washington.

Marks always loved to write, she told the fifth graders. When she was their age, she wrote letters to her favorite authors and to her camp friends. After getting her Masters in writing, she joined a writers’ group and went to writing conferences. She wrote three stories that were never published.

Then she learned two fact that startled her.

One in 27 children in America have a parent in prison, and innocent black people are more likely to be convicted of crimes than innocent white people.

Marks coupled those realities with her love of baking competition shows like “The Great British Bake Off” and “Kids Baking Championship.”

She crafted a story about a 12-year-old girl named Zoe whose father is in prison. At the same time Zoe works to uncover the truth about the crime that her father said he didn’t commit, she’s also interning at a bakery and hoping to audition for the Food Network’s Kids Bake Challenge.

Not only do Katonah Elementary fifth graders love the book, Marks told the students that Disney is turning it into a movie.

Discussing the Ingredients of a Good Story

Nurturing Students' love of writing

“There are a ton of aspiring writers in my class,” said fifth grade teacher Lynn Garofolo. “When we have free time, most students choose to write.” Her students had just completed a writing survey which indicated that they wanted to work on stretching their stories to make them more interesting and building up conflict.

Marks encouraged their enthusiasm for writing.

“No matter what it is you want to do, remember it takes time,” she said to students. “Success is not a straight line. Keep going, keep persevering.”