Although Shivani Ganeshan of Arlington Heights is only in seventh grade, she not only has her first fantasy novel published, but classmates are asking her for a sequel.
She’s something of a celebrity and role model to her classmates at Quest Academy in Palatine, having been interviewed last summer on Fox 32. Now she is seeing her book available online through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Target, as well as on the shelves of the Arlington Heights Memorial Library.
“I love to read, and fantasies are definitely my favorite,” Shivani says. “So, I was so excited to hear we’d be writing fantasy stories in fifth grade.”
Her book is called “The Sign in the Smoke,” and it follows four best friends, or the PowerSurge as they call themselves. These fifth graders accidentally discover their science teacher’s sinister plot to destroy their world, and they must find a way to stop her.
Shivani’s book came out of an assignment from her fifth grade teacher, Darrell Maskell, who has made it his mission to encourage writing among his students.
“The Sign in the Smoke” is a fantasy novel written by Quest Academy student Shivani Ganeshan when she was in fifth grade at the Palatine school. – Paul Valade | Staff Photographer by signing up you agree to our terms of service
He pushes them not just to write stories, but complex ones that come out of the entire writing process — including planning, writing, reviewing and editing, and ultimately publishing their stories.
Maskell is a native of Bath, England. He began his teaching career in England before coming to Illinois and ultimately teaching at schools for gifted students. Working with these motivated young people, he says, has pushed him to improve his method of teaching writing.
“The children would write as quickly as possible and say, ‘I’m done,'” Maskell says, “without any thought of reviewing and editing their work, and certainly no consideration of the reader.”
After extensive research into the writing process and attending workshops on the subject, Maskell devised a 16-week unit, leading students step by step in writing a fantasy story.
Right from the start, students are told to use a traditional fantasy formula of the story beginning in the real world before a strange initiating event sends two or three characters into a fantasy world.
Quest Academy teacher Darrell Maskell, left, and seventh grade student Shivani Ganeshan look over her book, “The Sign in the Smoke.” – Paul Valade | Staff Photographer
As examples, they review such classics as “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” “The Wizard of Oz” and the “Harry Potter” series, where they see how the writers began their stories, introduced and described their characters, and how they developed conflict and suspense.
Before these young writers get started, they spend two weeks exchanging their story ideas with their classmates.
“This process of discussing ideas with partners allows the students to clear their thoughts and receive feedback from their peers,” Maskell says.
Next, they start jotting down their ideas in a 12-page planner, where they describe their real-world setting as well as their fantasy setting, some of the magical items used in their story, and finally fleshing out their characters.
Ultimately, students outline each chapter before ever setting out to write. During the course of the unit, their stories are reviewed and edited at least 20 times after getting feedback from their peers and Maskell.
“I loved the entire writing process,” Shivani says, “but my favorite part was writing the climax. I just kept going and going.”
When Shivani came to the end of the writing unit, while still in fifth grade, she says it was her mother who encouraged her to take it further and look into getting it published. One year later, after working with a professional editor and making more revisions, her work was published.
“It’s crazy to see my name on a book,” Shivani says. “Sometimes I just look it up to see if anyone is buying it.”
Not that she’s pocketing any of the profits. Instead, Shivani decided that all proceeds from the book will be donated to the Malala Fund, started by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousufzai, in support of girls’ access to quality education.