A Fifth Grade Teacher—and One Inspired Project—Influenced the Life and Career of Newbery Winner Dave Eggers

Sally Dunn, and her picture book assignment, left an indelible mark on the author of 2024 Newbery winner, The Eyes and the Impossible.

Dave Eggers's fifth grade teacher Sally Dunn and her dog Cedar.
"We’ve had dogs for over fifty years," says Dunn. "They have been our 'Keepers of the Equilibrium,' just like Johannes [in The Eyes and the Impossible] was." 
Photo courtesy of Sally Dunn

It has been more than 40 years since Dave Eggers sat in Sally Dunn’s fifth grade classroom at Deer Path Middle School in Lake Forest, IL, but Dunn has never forgotten him. She still has a painting he made for her when he was her student. The framed fading picture moved with her to Michigan and back to Illinois.

“You didn't forget Dave,” she says, noting that the 2024 Newbery Medal winner for The Eyes and the Impossible had a "quiet manner and respect for everyone. Besides being brilliant, he just had this quiet, little bit of humor. He was a cool kid. He was not outgoing. He wasn't pushy. He was filled with so much that he wanted to learn, that he wanted to share. And not only was he a great writer, he was a great artist.”

What Dunn didn’t know was that Eggers never forgot her either. In a November interview with Kelly Corrigan on PBS, he was asked to "shout-out someone who has been instrumental in your thinking or well being." Eggers spoke of Dunn.

“I just remember exactly what her eyes look like when she saw something in you, or saw you do something that was pretty good,” he says in the interview. “And how much she expected of me. I haven’t been able to find her, but I’d love to reach out and tell her what she meant to me and us all. If you have that gift for teaching and you have that gift of seeing kids, really as they are and what they can be, that’s extraordinary.”

Just after Thanksgiving, a friend told Dunn to watch the interview. She didn’t know he was going to mention her as she sat with her husband watching the show.

“I almost had tears coming down my face, what he had to say to me at the end of the interview,” says Dunn. “It's just really touching, it's really sweet. To know that that made a difference in what he did, maybe. As a teacher, you’re trying to do that with all of your kids. It really struck a nerve, so to speak.”

She had followed his life and career, read his books, and bought some for her five grandchildren. She was not surprised at his success, but shocked that she may have played a part in it. After seeing the interview, Dunn attempted to reach out to Eggers through his independent nonprofit publishing company, McSweeney’s. She did not know that a mutual friend had shared her information with Eggers. Before she reached him, Eggers contacted her and explained how she shined a light on him with one specific assignment.

For a few years before she had Eggers as a student, Dunn had been having fifth graders write a picture book, which could then be entered in a statewide competition.

“What you're trying to do is have them choose something they care about, something that means a lot to them,” she says.

It was the project’s process and high standards that stuck with Eggers, who discussed that and Dunn in his interview with SLJ after winning the Newbery.

“We spent months on it, because she really wanted us to make it perfect,” says Eggers, who still has his book, Gleeble.

“You look back at these books, and there's no typos in them—and we were fifth graders—because she made us do draft after draft,” he says.

To make that work with a class of 25 to 30 students, Dunn says she had parents come in and help.

“Some teachers didn't want parents in their room,” she says. “I didn't mind that at all.”

As a matter of fact, it was the only way to really get it done the way she wanted. Parent volunteers helped read the drafts and assisted students in revision. When the books were finished, Dunn selected Eggers’s for a statewide competition. As part of that, he traveled to a college for a conference where hundreds of other young authors were gathered.

“Gwendolyn Brooks was the keynote speaker,” Eggers says of the Pulitzer Prize winner. “I think at the time, she was the Poet Laureate of the US. We knew her from anthologies, and just legend, but there she was in front of us, recognizing us as fellow authors. That was just an indelible moment in my life.”

It didn’t just inform his career as an author, but also his work with the nonprofit he co-founded, 826Valencia, which helps under-resourced students ages 6-18 with creative and expository writing and publishes and sells some of their work.

“We make sure that the kids are treated like professionals, that they're held to a high standard, that they have an authentic outside audience, and that they get these opportunities to meet living, practicing writers,” he says. “All of that was baked into Dunn's fifth grade program, so I can't thank her enough.”

It was his spotlighting of the books by his 826Valencia students—not the pile of his own work that was also sitting next to him—that really moved Dunn.

“The pile he’s using and bringing out and listing are from the kids in his program, the ones that aren’t famous that he just wants to highlight,” she says. “And he said, ‘They have ISBN numbers, too.’ I’ll never forget that. That’s just who he is. It inspires me.”

Eggers also founded ScholarMatch, which assists first generation college students not only with scholarships but also advising in high school and mentors throughout college to help keep the students in school despite challenges that may arise.

Now, of course, Eggers is a member of the children’s literature elite. The Eyes and the Impossible has entered the Newbery canon, the title added to the list of books that Dunn once read aloud to her students before retiring 14 years ago.

In December, Dunn went to her local library branch and, through an interlibrary loan, checked out a copy of The Eyes and the Impossible.

“It was amazing,” she says. “It was just a gem.”

To her, it was about “how we just need to take care of one another.”

Now that Eggers and Dunn are back in touch, they hope to meet up in person this spring when Eggers expects to be in Illinois. She has only one request—bring Gleeble.

“I would love to see it,” she says.

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