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?