Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Curious Questions

Sue Macy's post of 11/6/09, My Favorite Students, prompted me to think about some of the more surprising questions I've been asked during school visits--questions that had very little to do with the subjects of my books.

I was once speaking to a class of fourth graders about Clara Schumann: Piano Virtuoso, my biography of the 19th-century pianist and composer. Now granted, Clara's life was full of tragedy. Her husband, composer Robert Schumann, died when she was only thirty-seven, leaving her to support and raise their seven children. And several of those children pre-deceased her. But while these events are included in the book, the real focus is on the inspiring story of how music sustained Clara in the face of life's challenges.

When I talk to kids about Clara Schumann, they're usually interested in her relationship with her father (who was also her piano teacher and manager), and in her achievements as a child prodigy. Still, I suppose I shouldn't have been so surprised when one student peppered me with questions about death. "What did Robert die of?" "How did Clara die?" "How come so many of their children died?"

Clara's death was unremarkable--she passed away at the ripe old age (for the time) of seventy-six, following a series of strokes. But Robert suffered from bipolar illness and died of syphilis after spending the last two years of his life in a mental hospital. I hadn't come prepared to explain manic depression and venereal disease to fourth-graders, much less how those illnesses were understood and treated in the 19th century. But neither did I feel I should sidestep the questions.

So I did the only thing I could do--I improvised, based on the knowledge I had, sharing information in a simple, straightforward way and on a level that I thought nine-year-olds could understand. Which is, after all, what I strive to do when I write my books. The student seemed satisfied with my answers, and I later found out from the teacher that there had been a recent death in that student's family.

Another surprising--and much less serious--question came during a school visit for José! Born to Dance, my picture-book biography of the Mexican-American modern dancer and choreographer, José Limón. After leading a group of K-2 students through a dance/movement experience, sharing a slide show about my life as a dancer and writer, and holding up manuscripts in different phases of revising, editing, and production, I invited questions.

"Did you ever have a dirt bike?" a boy asked.

"No," I said, grinning. "But I bet dirt bikes are really fun."

At that, the boy beamed. It didn't matter to either of us that the question wasn't about José or dancing or books. A child had made a personal connection with an author. And isn't that why we visit schools in the first place?


Jennifer said...

I'm always fascinated when I visit schools for library promotions to hear what's going through kids' heads. Last year when we were talking about what people could do that was creative, a fifth grade boy told me he raced pigs. Me City Girl - You what? Him "I race pigs!" He then gave us a fascinating lecture on the art of pig-racing.

Loreen Leedy said...

A couple of decades ago a little boy asked me how much an original painting of mine would cost. At that point I had only sold a painting of a mountain to a neighbor for about $350... when I told him that, he gloated that his father’s paintings sold for a lot more. I congratulated him and avoided being too specific about dollar figures after that.

School for Us said...

What a wonderful post. My daughter (now 9), was fascinated by Sam Houston when she was 4. We live in Texas and went to visit his statue & the gift shop. The lady asked her if she had any questions about Sam Houston, and she just wanted to know how he died. Actually, this is a really big statue & I think she might have thought Sam Houston was really that big! What could 'kill' a man of that stature???