For Ages
9 to 12

Call it six degrees of separation. The kids in 8th Grade Writer’s Workshop are awestruck when their teacher announces that through her husband’s cousin, she’s met rock superstar Nick Thompson and has invited him to their class. He’s come to talk about writing and he’s even cooler than they imagined. Nick, known for his music as well as his lyrics, tells the kids his secret: A song is just a bowl of fruit–one must figure out how to paint it. Words are to a writer what paint is to a painter. How many ways can one arrange the fruit? An infinite number. There’s style, voice, genre, and much more to consider. Nick gives the kids two weeks to complete the assignment using seven seemingly ordinary elements. Each student must tell an interesting story, reflecting his or her style. And so The Fruit Bowl Project begins. Rap, poetry, monologue, screenplay, haiku, fairy tale–and more.

An Excerpt fromThe Fruit Bowl Project


No one ever thought of Ms. Vallis as being particularly hip. But she was the newest teacher at West Side Middle, which gave her a certain freshness factor, and her enthusiasm hadn’t been pounded out of her by too many years of Eighth-Grade Attitude yet. She was even known to stick up for this or that kid with very bad attitude, in that way of petite female teachers who are secretly thrilled that someone who probably would’ve smashed them into a locker back when they were thirteen now actually needs them. (Lion, mouse, thorn, paw.) Her dark hair was unfussy and longish, and she was an admitted “dork,” which helped the kids suspect she really wasn’t, and she taught the eighth grade Lit class and Writers’Workshop. On this hot September morning, when the sun was still taunting everybody that it was summer somewhere, her 8:45
class sat like caged puppies.
“Good morning, happy young people!” Ms. Vallis singsonged.
Seb Harris groaned from the back of the room, his shaggy head in his arms. Katie Parker, Jenna Bromberg, and Emily McGee did their usual jokey, suck-uppy echo of “Good morniiiiing, Ms. Valliiiiiiiis!” Their skirts were all extremely short, all the color of breath mints, all expensive.
“Who wants good news?” Ms. Vallis teased. “Who wants great news?”
“Me,” Rob Bellevance said morosely. “The Yankees are sucking.”
“Go, Mets!” shouted Fish Koenig, jabbing his fist.
“Mets bite!” Amir Azzam threw in.
“Gee, guess what, guys? It’s not about sports! ” she continued.
“Yay,” said Jenna, eye-rolling.
“Thank God,” said Katie.
“Thank GOD,” agreed Emily.
“Shut UP!” growled Pearl Richardson, the Girl in Black. All obeyed the Girl in Black. Pearl was beautiful, with lunar skin and long coppery hair and a flair for dark comments that made Daria look almost perky. But anyone calling Pearl “goth” was met with fury, because she hated categories. “It’s about my cousin’s husband,” Ms. Vallis announced. Incomplete, attention-grabbing statements were her specialty. Jenna yelped “Woo!” knowingly. Everyone else waited. “I know who he is,” said Jenna, “but I didn’t wanna tell everybody because my mom said you probably want to respect his privacy.”
“Except she did tell me and Katie and Carly,” Emily clarified.
“But we didn’t tell anybody either.”
“Thanks,” said Ms. Vallis. “I so appreciate that. But it’s okay, this is a good time to tell everybody. Go ahead, Jenna. Tell everybody who my cousin’s husband is.” Jenna paused for dramatic effect. This was how she tended to say nearly everything, as in, “She was wearing a bathing suit with . . .” pause . . . “UGG BOOTS! ” But this time the drama was extreme even for Jenna. Her eyes looked like a huge close-up in a mascara ad.
“Her cousin . . . is married . . . to NICK THOMPSON!” The room exploded with a mixture of appreciative whoops and demands for explanation. Most people knew who Nick Thompson was–he was too famous to miss–but a few kids who were new to the U.S. or who were rock-’n’-roll-and-Tvdeprived weren’t quite sure.
“Nick Thompson is a musical icon!” raved Katie. “He’s a god!”
“Well, I think he’d be quick to dismiss the god comparison,” Ms. Vallis smiled.
“He’s right up there with Steven Tyler!” exclaimed Fish.
“Who’s Steven Tyler?” said Yun Li.
“Liv Tyler’s dad,” Emily said helpfully.
“Who’s Liv Tyler?”
Yun was widely thought to be the coolest kid in school because he didn’t care even slightly about being cool. His cello case had been duct-taped together, not in a cool way but by necessity, until Mr. Holst, the part-time music teacher, bought him a new one with his own money.
“Okay,” Fish tried again, “Nick Thompson is practically as famous as Bob Dylan.” Yun shrugged. “Don’t know him either.” Ms. Vallis, to everyone’s acute distress, took this as her cue to start swaying and singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” in a folky PBS voice. Yun’s eyes lit up with awestruck recognition.
“Your cousin’s husband wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’?” She looked a little deflated. “No.”
“Oh,” said Yun.
Everyone burst out laughing, even Ms.Vallis. She screwed up her face, reached back into the seventies, and rattled off a list.
“But he did write ‘Plastic Soldiers’. . . ‘Gimme Strength’. . . ‘My Very High Priestess’. . .” Corey Lewis couldn’t resist singing “My Very High Priestess” in Nick Thompson’s famous growl:
“Mah very high priestess
High priestess of quirks
She opens your mind
Just to see how it works
Assesses your messes
and blesses your soul
Then climbs to her throne
While you crawl in a hole–”
Tionna Chapman cut him off. “That song is wack. I always hated that song. And it makes no sense.”
“It’s poetry,Tionna,” said Jenna condescendingly.
“It doesn’t have to make sense.”
“It’s rock!” said Fish. “It doesn’t have to . . . anything.”
“It’s cool but it ain’t rap, dawg,” said David Edelman. David had come back to school this year trying so hard to be gangsta, he’d even convinced his dentist father to make him a gold tooth.
“And you can’t dance to it! Gimme hip-hop any day,” chimed Tionna.
“I’m down witcha, girl,” David nodded his do-rag. “But he’s a genius! I bet ‘high’ is a drug reference. I didn’t get that when I was little but it’s, like, soooo obvious now,”
chirped Emily.
“Ohmigod, definitely, like ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’!” added Jenna. Pearl moaned and squished her pale face between her hands.
“Can we please hear the great news before I twist my own head off and run screaming from the room?”
“Okay,” Ms. Vallis refereed. She sat on the edge of her desk in a failed effort to look casual. Her anchorwoman hornrims were meant to give her round young face some gravity, but no one was fooled. She was always prone to plain old cheesy youthful excitement, even about certain passages of Tortilla Flats. Now her excitement was popping off her like sparks. How often does a teacher get to set the dogs loose? She took a deep breath.
“He’s visiting tomorrow. Here. Nick Thompson is coming to your Writers’Workshop.” These kids were not easy to impress. They were sophisticated New York City kids, pretty used to spotting celebrities in their midst. Jerry Seinfeld at Starbucks. Gwyneth Paltrow in the park with Apple. Mary-Kate and Ashley all over the place. But . . .Nick Thompson? Coming to their school?? Ms. Vallis’s Lit class went nuts.