An interview with Catholic author A.J. Cattapan about her dual roles as teacher and writer.
By Lori Ann Watson
Have you noticed your students reading Angelhood? Have you read it together as a class? This month, we visited with the book’s author, A.J. Cattapan, to talk about writing, teaching, and kids. Read on to see how teaching and writing work together to shape this energetic writer’s service.
You have something in common with many of our readers: in your “day job” you’re a middle-school teacher. Was your decision to start writing for kids motivated by your classroom experiences?
My original motivation was simply because I love good stories! I still have a short story I wrote in third grade about a girl named Amy (big surprise!) who fell in love with a boy named Jimmy (there might have been a Jimmy in my class!), so I guess I’ve always used my own life for inspiration.
One of my books in particular comes from my experiences as a teacher. A number of years ago, I taught at a Catholic school that closed after my fourth year there. It was a heart-breaking experience. As an author, I get to take real-life experiences, flip them upside down, and turn them into stories. My middle grade mystery 7 Riddles to Nowhere was inspired by the Catholic school that closed. It’s about a seventh-grade boy who wants to save his financially distressed Catholic school from closing by winning a riddle-solving competition.
How do you find that writing and teaching work together?
After many years, I’ve finally come to the realization that my life is all about books and kids—and, I guess, books for kids! I like working with children, and I love stories, so I get to combine both of those as a middle-grade English teacher. As I read and reread books with my students, I study what makes great writing, and as I learn more and more about what it takes to write great books, I improve my strategies for teaching writing. The two definitely go hand-in-hand!
Your debut novel, Angelhood, has a strong pro-life theme and has been dubbed “13 Reasons Why Not”. Can you talk a little bit about the power of literature and other media to influence the decisions our young people make—and about Angelhood’s positive influence?
I’ve heard priests say, “God meets us where we are,” and in my doctorate classes in curriculum and instruction, we talk a great deal about meeting our students where they are. Generally, this means meeting students where they are academically and lifting them up to the next phase of their education, but I think we also have to think about where are students are in the physical sense. Whether we like it or not, our young people spend a lot of time on their phones and other mobile devices. This is why I’ve tried to have a strong presence on Instagram with my own author account and with the Books for Catholic Teens Instagram account. We have to meet these young people where they are spending most of their time, and social media is definitely a part of it.
Sometimes it can be hard to get teens to read, but there are definitely still teens out there who are devouring books, and these can be a positive influence. When Angelhood came out, I prayed that God would use it as he saw fit, even if that meant it only helped one teen. Well, only a month after its release, I was sent a link to a blog post from a girl in the Philippines who had read Angelhood and gushed about how much it meant to her. I left her a comment on her blog, and she was thrilled to have me respond to her post. She replied to me that I would never know just how much my story had “saved” her. I have no idea what troubling times this young woman was going through, but clearly Angelhood meant something positive to her. I hope God will continue to find ways to reach young people through the books I write.
In your second novel, 7 Riddles to Nowhere, a seventh-grader with selective mutism finds a note that gives him a mission and sends him on a scavenger hunt through the churches of Chicago. What did you enjoy most about writing this novel?
I absolutely love visiting different Catholic churches, whether it’s in my hometown of Chicago, around the U.S., or abroad. (Those who follow me on Instagram have seen my pictures of churches in Italy!) It was great fun to incorporate Chicago’s beautiful places of worship into a story that also had really fun characters. The four seventh-graders at the heart of 7 Riddles are “composite characters”; that is, I’ve taken qualities and traits of other students I’ve known and mixed them together to create a new set of characters. These kids are a blast. In fact, I’ve written a short story about them that readers can download for free on my website, and I hope one day to write a sequel as well. So I guess once again … it’s all about the kids!
How do you work writing into your busy teacher’s schedule?
I won’t lie. It’s not easy! Most of my writing is accomplished in the summer, especially now that I’m in a doctorate program. Hopefully, in a few years, I’ll finish my dissertation and have more time for writing, but right now, it’s mostly contained to winter break, spring break, and summer break!
You’re a public speaker, too — where can our readers book you for speaking engagements?
I have a link on my website specifically for school visits (AJCattapan.com/School-Visits/). I do both in-person visits and “virtual visits” using Skype or Google Hangouts. I’ve been blessed to have my books picked up as part of the reading curriculum in Catholic schools throughout the U.S. and even in Australia! Schools can receive discounts when ordering a class set, and I offer free ebook copies to Catholic-school teachers who want to preview the book before ordering. For more information on using my books in the classroom, teachers can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I have free discussion guides for the books, too!
You can keep up with A.J. by following her on social media:
On Instagram: Instagram.com/a.j.cattapan/
On Facebook: Facebook.com/ACattapan/
On Twitter: Twitter.com/ajcattapan
On Pinterest: Pinterest.com/AJCattapan/
Books for Catholic Teens on Instagram: Deskgram.org/Books_For_Catholic_Teens
A.J. also teaches one-week online summer writing camps for students! Learn how kids can sign up.
Lori Ann Watson teaches, homeschools, blogs about Catholicism, and almost never gets caught up on laundry. She writes from North Central Florida.