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The Comedy and Drama of Fifth Grade
About a decade ago, Marquin Parks was a young teacher just trying to connect with his room of fourth and fifth graders. More than anything, he wanted students to read independently. So Parks made a pact with his students: If they read quietly for an hour, he would use that time to write a book. Then, when the session was up, he would read his work to students and let them offer their critiques.
This was the genesis for the Wrinkles Wallace books, a series whose main character is sent back to fifth grade (at age 28!) after finding out that he had failed due to not turning in enough homework. The characters tackle plenty of tween-year issues along with their 11-year-old teacher named Mr. Sittin’ B. Quiet.
Parks’ first two Wrinkles Wallace books have been published and a third is on the way. In his new series, Annie Ruth, slated for later this year, the lead character attends a school field trip and suddenly becomes a key player in solving a bank robbery.
Parks found his career path at the age of 14, when he helped at an after-school program, but becoming an author was never part of the plan. “I was always a writer but I would keep it to myself,” said Parks, ’02 BS Elementary Education. “When I wrote the first book, I didn’t see myself becoming a professional author. I was just trying to help my students from an academic standpoint.”
A Publishing Journey
Parks’ students — and their families — nudged him into the publishing world. His students would talk about Wrinkles Wallace at the dinner table, and soon those parents became some of his biggest fans. “They challenged me to get it published. So, I entered it into a contest run by the Michigan Elementary and Middle Schools Principals Association in 2009,” he said.
The story didn’t take the top prize, but it finished in the top four and led to a job offer and a raise. “It ended up putting me in a better position financially, and I felt I could focus on the book and take it to different levels,” he added.
Parks eventually caught the attention of Cleveland-based publisher Meridian, to whom he sent his first and fifth books in the series. The first book, Wrinkles Wallace: Knights of Night School, was published in 2012, about a year-and-a-half after his first meeting with Meridian. The follow-up, Wrinkles Wallace: Fighters of Foreclosure, was published in 2014. He wrote it to help kids around the country understand what can happen when a financial change forces a move.
Parks shared, “Foreclosure hit states like Michigan and Nevada really hard. I had students who had to move due to their loved ones losing their jobs. Sometimes it’s hard for a parent to tell their child why they had to move. I wanted to write a book to help explain the situation.”
Parks wasn’t warm to the idea of revising and editing his original work, but learned to embrace it. One late edit in the first book came only two months before publishing, and it created one of his best comic moments in the story — where a porta-potty ends up in a school classroom.
“I hated revisions — even as a kid, I just wanted to be done — but it allowed us to create something new and it made it better,” he added.
Parks also attended the Eastern Michigan Writing Project in 2011. It was there that he learned about not keeping his writing bottled up inside of him, an issue that plagues many would-be authors. “They talked a lot about how you can’t just keep your talent to yourself and be whimsical about it. It was about me learning how to give what they perceived as my greatness to the world,” he added.
With a decade of classroom teaching under his belt, Parks now serves as a behavior intervention specialist with the Ann Arbor School District. He works with seventh- and eighth-graders who require extra mentoring. On any given day, he may meet with teachers to help match instruction with learning styles or be that parent-like voice reminding a student of their responsibilities. Sometimes helping a kid’s academic performance requires more than teaching: He’s bought students plenty of lunches, either as a reward for good work or just because a kid is hungry.
“These are just students who would benefit from an extra set of eyes and hands,” he explained, while eschewing the at-risk label.
Parks received a his own “extra set of eyes” at UNLV. His first college try at Eastern Michigan University lacked academic focus but after a short time away from school, he enrolled at UNLV.
“It was the best decision I made. Some professors saw something in me,” he said. “They wanted to see me successful and would take the time, whether it was office hours or after class and even during class, to make sure I was OK, that I was understanding things and going on the path I wanted to go on.”
Literacy and Diversity
Growing up, Judy Blume and the Choose Your Own Adventure series drew Parks into reading. Young readers today, he said, need to be afforded the time and flexibility to find their own reading interests.
“Reading is like food. We all don’t have the same taste buds,” he noted. But encouraging kids to talk to each other about the stories they like and why helps inspire nonreaders to pick up a book.
Parks also advocates for more diversity in young adult literature. With Annie Ruth, he developed an African American protagonist, and he was focused on making diversity an important part of the narrative.
“Wrinkles Wallace doesn’t have culture — it’s all about topics we tackle in society,” he said. “My goal with Annie Ruth was to introduce more culture to reading, especially for youth. There isn’t enough out there for them.”
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