Steinbeck’s Young Authors

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This week, “The Other Side of the Peso—Mexican Success Stories” looks at the Salinas, California National Steinbeck Center’s Young Authors program and how it’s motivating a lot of young people, many the children of Mexican immigrants, to write better. (Photos courtesy of The National Steinbeck Center and Richard Green.)

Salinas lettuce fieldThe city of Salinas, population 150,000, is, at heart, a farming and ranching community. The annual July Rodeo (pronounced ro-DAY-o), now a hundred years old, is the largest rodeo in California. The Salinas Valley, or “The Salad Bowl of the World,” produces vast quantities of lettuce, broccoli, strawberries and other crops. Dole, Fresh Express (a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands) and Tanimura & Antle are major employers. Salinas is the land of Steinbeck and 1930’s Dustbowl Okies, of César Chávez and 1970’s lettuce picker strikes.   

While there were thriving communities of Filipinos and Chinese in Steinbeck’s day, the 2010 U.S. Census shows the city as 75% Latino. Many are immigrants from Mexico employed in the fields or companies related to agriculture. Some are legal, many are not. Field work is hard, the hours long and the pay low. Workers coming home dirty, tired and hungry, who may not have studied beyond elementary school, don’t have a lot of energy to help kids with homework in a language they often don’t speak.      

National Steinbeck Center facadeNow visualize the National Steinbeck Center at One Main Street in Salinas and the 11th Young Authors Day of Writing on March 13, 2014. The overwhelming majority of the 110 students in grades six through eight appeared to be Latinos. They arrived early and sat down to their task: a 55-minute essay on a prompt about the first story in Steinbeck’s The Red Pony which they had all read in class. While the students were writing, we volunteer coaches arrived and got our instructions.

We heard that our students might be shy, nervous, intimidated and how our job was to put our student at ease as we got to know each other over lunch. Afterwards, we were to discuss strengths in the student’s essay, consulting the prompt and a rubric. We should then make suggestions for improving the essay.  

Steinbeck Center LobbyFinally students and mentors met. “Graciela” and I waited in a long line to have our photo taken and then proceeded to a second line for the lunch buffet. In perfect seventh-grade English, Graciela chatted about her family, her activities and the soccer practice bag hanging off her shoulder. Her parents were born in Mexico; she was born in the U.S. Thanks to her two older sisters, Graciela was fairly fluent in English by kindergarten. No lag in the conversation with this very poised twelve-year-old who comfortably asked questions about my background.

Steinbeck Center TourAfter lunch, she opened her blue book and began to read her essay aloud. I spent eleven summers as an Advanced Placement reader for AP Spanish language compositions and five years as a College Board consultant advising Advanced Placement teachers. I listened and read along, fully prepared for misspellings, punctuation errors, parts of the prompt that hadn’t been addressed. By the end of the five-page essay, I was astounded. Not only were there no misspellings, this young woman had addressed every aspect of the prompt and topped out on every point on the rubric.

Steinbeck Center HorseProviding the requisite positive praise was easy. Addressing the weaknesses was almost ridiculous. We moved into a higher-level discussion of writer’s discretion and logic in punctuation and paragraphing. I pointed out the one missing comma and explained that without it, there were two complete sentences which meant a run-on. Later, I noted a comma Graciela had used correctly and asked why. “I think I need it because of the conjunction,” she replied.

You can bet that the next time I hear someone complain about the lousy state of our public schools, I’ll tell the conjunction story. We ended talking about how good writing sticks with the reader, often moving him or her emotionally. Our conversation was just that; a give and take; a let’s bounce ideas off each other.

Next, a panel of judges will read the students’ essays. The winners in three categories at each grade level will be recognized in a May 4 ceremony.

Steinbeck Center exhibitsLike millions of immigrants and first-generation citizens before her, Graciela is an American in the best sense—aware of the opportunities she has and working hard to become a successful adult. I hope she read this and understands how much she inspired me.  

Read more about the Steinbeck Center’s Young Authors Program and see a video from the Salinas Californian at .


  1. Good morning, Leslie,
    Yesterday on the bus I traveled through Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico, which has a population of 140,800 – close to that of Salinas, California. I saw young Latinos such as Graciela congregated in a school yard, smartly dressed in tan and white uniforms, male and female. They, too, appeared to be sharp and aware, similar to the young people you mention. Good to see! Although there are many lower income areas in Navojoa, I hear it’s an up and coming, very prosperous agricultural center, again, similar to Salinas.

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