I was a freelancer who had been given a last-minute assignment. With no family nearby and no time to secure a sitter, I threw professionalism aside and improvised. I toured the site of a local literacy program and interviewed sources “wearing” my two-month-old daughter, leaving my hands free to shake hands and take notes. Zara wasn’t super-impressed; she slept through it all, until the very end when I was leaving.
But over the years, I have noticed that she has noticed what I do. That’s in no small thanks to a dad who shares the triumphs (“Look at Mommy’s name in The New York Times) and to the copies of Scholastic News that Zara and her brother bring home from school because they think I might enjoy reading them. (To me, they are still “Weekly Readers,” and of course I enjoy them.)
Once while I was re-reading William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” (as I periodically do with craft books, including “Telling True Stories” and “Bird by Bird”), Zara walked in and said, “Why are you reading that? You already write well.” Oh, sweet girl, you have no idea.
Though I have not made a pointed effort to explain my job, she shows a natural knack for writing about and to the world. She writes sympathy, get-well and other cards without any prompting. The neighborhood kids put on concerts using animal-related lyrics that she wrote. (My fave: a punk-rock chorus of “No hunters! No poachers! No! No! No!”)
Over the last three years, as she began reading and writing, I discovered she had inherited my love of journals. She has filled about a dozen with various themes: fashion ideas to make with her sewing machine, animal fun facts, and a novella about a spunky cheetah in a faux-fur-covered binding labeled with the word “FIERCE.”
Then earlier this year she announced she was going to start a newspaper called the 74th St. Paw Print News. It would include information about all the neighborhood pets which, as an animal lover, had become her obsession during these long, pandemic days at home.
She hand-wrote the stories that neighbors told her when she saw them on the sidewalk. She has been known to grab a notebook and pen and interview someone who said they had a story for her. A few of the older neighbors emailed or left notes in our mailbox explaining how they adopted their pets.
Every Sunday for the first five weeks of publication, Zara walked house to house on our street to drop off copies. The pages of Paw Print filled with the misadventures of Eucalyptus and Cranberry, the foster rabbits living with us, as well as her own twist on interviews, like when she wrote about the adventures of the wandering and beloved neighborhood cat, Weenie, from Weenie’s perspective. In keeping with aspirational journalism, in early March she decided to switch to a longer monthly publication so she could take more time with her articles and add two pages to the News, some of which have included book lists, games or mazes.
Her story list is long, but she does mention how sometimes it is difficult finding interesting enough items to fill the space. Yet as the school year comes to a close and time outdoors stretches into evening hours, she mentioned that she would find ideas just by being outside and observing the birds, a hawk, an owl or any other creature finding its way to our block.
She’s also finding ways to improvise on deadline, like when our home-office copier leaves off the words at the bottom or side of the page. and she has to pencil them in on each copy of Paw Print.
To be honest, the paper could use a copy editor. But she won’t let me see it until it is time to print — iffy grammar, spelling errors and all. None of that tarnishes my pride in watching her publication go from idea to delivery, or my amazement at how she thought to include a certain word or sentence. I find myself laughing out loud at her clear, compelling writing voice. One article, about a raccoon family that lived in an old tree a few years ago, ended like this: “Does anyone remember?”
I also find myself inspired. Watching her work, I am reminded of how it feels to write about something you care about and want desperately to share with others, hoping it will make a difference. I remember what it was like to have fun with stories and not always take the job so seriously. That gets lost sometimes in my writing, which seems to fight for attention amid the social-media noise.
- Write about something you are interested in or curious about. She loves animals and reads nonfiction and fiction books about them. The neighborhood kids are constantly rescuing mice or birds and looking for the neighborhood cat.
- Research your subject matter. Her bed and bed shelves are spilling with animal books.
- Free-write and make lists. She keeps journals and lists for things — fun facts about animals, ideas for fashion since she has learned how to sew, the beginnings of short stories and books, notes she pulls from books when she “researches.”
- Widen the net for story ideas. She receives story tips from our neighbors and through reading materials. She also searches out animal stories from family members or in books to pull in stories of interest.
- Find your audience. The name of the newspaper as well as all stories fit within her niche, and now her readers give her story ideas.
And because I’m a journalist, and even though I’m her mom, I didn’t want to assume. So I interviewed her. Here’s the edited version:
Why did you start the newspaper?
Because there were a lot of animal stories and most people didn’t know as many facts about animals.
How do you find story ideas?
I remember things from back in the past and I also have a lot of family members and neighbors who have animals that do a lot of funny and crazy things.
What is your favorite part of the newspaper?
Probably finding out the stories — reading about animals and looking around our block.
What are some of the challenges?
The printing, because our printer doesn’t print off the edge letters and we have to write the missing letters. And sometimes it’s hard to find that many stories.
How did you think of the name?
I tried to think of something that all animals have so I thought of a paw print and then it was the name of our street.
Do you read newspapers?
No, not really but I read National Geographic and Scholastic News at school.
How many subscribers do you have?
I have six or seven subscribers.
What is your goal for the newspaper?
I hope that people find out what is going on with animals and how they react to things and that they can help animals live in a better place.
Do you want to have a career as a writer?
I would like to write books but also help animals somehow and not just write about them but also make a difference.
Traci Angel is a freelance writer, editor and journalism teacher in Kansas City.