Don Woulffson (author)
Jack Botermans (author)
The festival, which sent 39 authors to 21 schools yesterday, reaches 16,000 students a year. It’s organized by the Friends of the Children’s Library in Huntington Beach, an oceanside town in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. This library is to die for: a huge two-story light-filled building with a luscious aquarium in the lobby and a volunteer bookstore that brings in $15,000 a month. (My neighborhood cash-strapped branch of LAPL is another story….)
The Authors Festival serves HB and parts of two less affluent towns, so we authors visit schools across a wide economic stratum. Sometimes I sell several dozen books at the school, sometimes barely any. But that’s not the point. One year I arrived to a red carpet laid out as the kindergartners greeted me with a big banner. I burst into tears. This year I had four handlers to carry my stuff, show me around the cool open plan school, and best of all -- give me a tour of their one acre farm complete with pigs, goats, sheep, geese, chickens, and rabbits!
Festival planning begins in May when one volunteer writes to elementary and middle schools – do they want one or two authors and illustrators, for lower or upper grades? In July another intrepid volunteer, Gail Page, applies for a grant from the Boeing Employee Community Fund, which has contributed $5000 for several years now. Come August, Gail contacts her authors. We send her a short bio and information on our presentations and books. The procrastinators get a nudge in October. Then in November school reps converge on the library to draw author names from a fishbowl. A bit of brokering goes on as trades are made, and in December authors and schools connect to coordinate the event.
Meanwhile the Friends of the Library are hard at work. With the Boeing grant money they buy authors’ books for the school libraries to prepare for their presenter; they organize a students’ writing and illustrating contest with $1000 worth of prizes, and they arrange for an after-school reception at the town library.
Posters, balloons, and a Barnes and Noble bookseller greet you in the library lobby. Each author displays his/her wares on a table to meet and greet the public – hundreds of children and parents from the four school districts served by the library. About forty intrepid Library Friends show up to make this all happen. We authors schmooze with each other, kids meet “their author” and many more, books are bought and signed, and contest winners receive their awards.
When it’s all over, the library volunteers sift through evaluations from the schools to determine which authors will be invited back. Authors also evaluate the event to help the coordinators improve logistics. Then, a couple of months later, it’s time to begin work on next year’s Children’s Author Festival.
Honorariums for the day are low. Schools pay $150 and the Friends add another $50. Some authors don’t participate for this reason, and I accept their decision. But for me, it’s a day to celebrate schools and books, my fellow authors, indefatigable school and community volunteers, and my birthday. I say good job, well done, Huntington Beach.
There are so many reasons I love my local public library, the Sherwood Regional Library. One of 23 branches in the Fairfax County, Virginia, Public Library System, it's only a couple of miles from my home. I can walk there in about 30 minutes, bike there in 10 minutes, and drive there in practically no time. Dogwood trees and oak-leaf hydrangeas are planted on either side of the entrance. There's a bustling children's section, where my children and I spent many happy hours when they were younger. And at the back of the library there's a quiet reading room with floor to ceiling windows. Over the years I've spent a lot of time there working on my books. Every Tuesday morning from May through November there's a farmers' market in the library parking lot. Can it get any better than that?
Actually, it can! Another reason I love my library? The wonderful librarians give prime real estate to new children's nonfiction. One of the first things you see when you enter the building is a bookcase with a big sign on top of it that says "Brand New Juvenile Nonfiction." The other day I asked a couple of the librarians why they had chosen to give these books such a desirable location. ("Brand New Fiction," by the way, is shelved on the back of this bookcase, away from the entrance.) "Well," one of them told me, "we’re proud of our nonfiction collection and we want to show it off. We want to attract readers for these books, and this is just about the only time they can stand out. Later on most of them will be shelved with the adult nonfiction, and unfortunately, it’s pretty easy for them to get lost back there." (Sigh...) The other librarian I spoke with told me that the books just fly off the "new nonfiction" shelves, and that they're especially popular with boys. "We have such a hard time keeping new titles on these shelves," she said, "that we sometimes have to put out older books." Then the older nonfiction books get snapped up. It's all good.
One more reason I love my library? One of the librarians told me that their copy of Helen's Eyes has been checked out so many times that it's starting to fall apart. She's had to tape it back together. Music to this author's ears.
In case you're interested in what's considered new in this neck of the woods, here are some of the titles I found today on the Sherwood Library's "Brand New Juvenile Nonfiction" shelves:
Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland
1776: A New Look at Revolutionary Williamsburg
Chile: Enchantment of the World
Ecuador: Enchantment of the World
A Den Is a Bed for a Bear: A Book about Hibernation
Albert Einstein: Universal Genius
Attila the Hun (A Wicked History)
Thunderstorms (A True Book)
Stars (A True Book)
A Savage Thunder: Antietam and the Bloody Road to Freedom
For the Duration: The War Years (Tomie DePaola biography)
The Story of the Washington Redskins (These librarians know their audience!)
Sharon McElroy was worried. Was I suggesting that, as a science project, kids should sit in the mall food court observing families to see which of two siblings got the most parental attention?That could be a problem, she told me. Just as any social science research must be approved by a Scientific Review Committee (SRC), a student doing a science fair project must get clearance from their Internal Review Board (IRB) prior to doing any work involving human subjects, any living subjects actually, and the reason is to keep anyone – or any living thing – from coming to harm. And here I was, suggesting that they spy? What if…?
Sharon is the teacher adviser to my series Science Fair Winners, published by National Geographic Children’s Books. She’s an esteemed high school teacher from Indiana, and the winner of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching and the Intel Excellence in Education Award. National Geographic picked her because her success in science competitions and her work on national and international science fair committees prepares her to offer advice regarding the projects in my books.
Sharon’s role was to make sure the projects made it simple for kids to do science work that was interesting, that was safe, that met science standards, and that wouldn’t violate the rules. And here she was, suggesting that my projects might get kids kicked out of science fair? As if!
Our NG editor did the rational thing. She pulled us out of the boxing ring, sat us down in our corners, had us pour ourselves a cup of coffee, and set up a conference call.
Putting together Family Science (due out in May) hasn’t been easy. YOU try coming up with 20 science workshops that involve family members – your own or someone else’s -- including those with four legs and two legs, the old and the young, the quick and the dead.
Make sure the science is good (meaning that the observations are measurable, the experiments can be replicated, and the conclusions are based on real data).
Make sure the science is current, that it relates to work actually being done in the field, and that the questions it raises promote further knowledge and understanding of concepts and processes.
Focus on fields that kids don’t typically get into in middle school, such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, or genetics. Consult scientists for their thoughts on how kids can do a version of the studies the scientists really do, and include advice for young scientists on how to get into their fields.
Keep it exciting, simple, sincere, safe, and legal.
And, most of all, keep it on the middle school level. Hit ‘em where they live: sibling rivalry, babysitting, afterschool activities, and hangouts like the park and mall.
Why bother? That’s the question that brings Sharon and me out of our corners shouting. There we are, in the middle of the mat, shouting about what lights kids up, about stupid science non-experiments that run rampant in science fair halls, about the problems inherent in putting anything under stress. We’re under stress. And then we realize we’re both saying the same thing:
The purpose of these books is to give middle schoolers guidelines to being a scientist at a young age.
Sharon tells me a story about one of her former students, a boy named Paul Lynch. Paul’s younger brother used to lose at video games and get up and yell and kick. Paul asked Sharon what she thought the cause was: was his brother mad at losing? Or did the video game make him more violent? How could he find out? Sharon helped him get started.
These days, Paul Lynch has contributed loads of research to the question of violence and video games. He is now an M.D. (You can google him.) And he began his work by considering a situation that he observed in his own home.
I wish every student could have a teacher like Sharon McElroy to help him or her figure out a way to study social science. And I’m grateful to have her helping me navigate the rules of science fair committees so that the projects in my books can potentially light the fire inside more social scientists.
P.S. The photo shows Sharon with a student. The book cover is for Bug Science, the first book in the Science Fair Winners series. The cover for Family Science is still underway