Showing posts with label school visits. Show all posts
Showing posts with label school visits. Show all posts

Monday, April 21, 2014

Ten Things I'd Have Done Differently

"With the benefit of hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all." 
Queen Elizabeth II 

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, b. 88 years ago today,
April 21, 1926, exactly, by the way, 90 years after Sam Houston,
that tough old buster, led forces of theRepublic of Texas, 
(yelling 'Remember the Alamo!') in their defeat of those led by
 General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, another tough old buster, at the decisive Battle of San Jacinto
What better time than a round-numbered anniversary (30 years ago this coming summer since I started my climb into the world of books for young readers), to ponder all those roads not taken? 

1. Don't we all have a drawer of file full of nonfiction book ideas, each of which at first seemed glorious? But we set them aside, figuring no editor with two market-savvy brain cells to rub together would ever buy the projects? Andrew Jackson? Too obscure!'  'Victoria, Teenaged Queen? Whose overdressed, over-privileged, eccentric grandchildren populated the thrones of Europe - and ended up blowing it up. Or, in the case of Russia's weird, shy last czarina, shot in a basement? Who cares?' 'Savvy, bosomy politician Dolley Madison? How many times do kids want to read about her saving GW's portrait?' In hindsight, I figure we humans are a story-loving species and there's always an appetite for a good story well told - and illustrated. Maybe I wish I'd followed through.  

2. Speaking of which, I should have followed through with all the wisdom offered by inspiring, INK colleague, author/teacher/blogger, Vicki Cobb and learned to do video conferencing/presentations and availing myself of the MANY technological means and opportunities to make my presence known in the world in this here 21st century. ['21st century? Bah! I could pick a better century out of a hat!' I paraphrase: a quote from the good version of Sabrina, i.e. the one with Humphrey Bogart in it, the one where he says, 'I wish I were dead with my back broken.' Jeez, I can't be the only one who gets movie lines stuck in her head, can I?]  You know who else has lots of good ideas on teaching/self-promotion? Katie Davis.  They all make me tired. I mean, when it comes to self-promotion, doing all there is to be done, it's like what Erma Bombeck said: "Housework, if you do it right, will kill you." So, I figure, pick a few things and do them well, huh? And stick with them.

3. In further hindsight, I wish I hadn't been born into a family with such a wide streak of melancholy, backward-looking nostalgia and everybody so danged sensitive. Speaking of which, do check out this LINK. It'll take you to a story about what wonderful author Natalie Kinsey-Warnock is doing up in Vermont, encouraging young Vermonters to learn and record their families' stories, thus learning the stories of their neighborhood, their Green Mountainous state, and their nation. Did I ever tell you that my great-aunt Rebecca Amelia Brown volunteered her time to work with her eastern Pennsylvania neighbors on the Underground Railroad? Or that ancestors of mine, in the mid-1700s, made it their business to skedaddle for shelter from furious Native American raiders, in a forest stockade known as Fort Harness? Well, they did.

4. I'd have overcome my shyness and solitary nature and made myself network with other authors and illustrators in the SCBWI. So. I've re-upped my membership and we'll see.

5. I'd have updated my website more often, like, once in a while even. Offered a really snappy school visit packet, for instance and taken the time to check out other authors' sites. What works? What doesn't, so much? I'd be thinking about getting it properly, professionally redesigned if it hasn't been done since, say, Bill Clinton was in office. By golly, this - or some of this – I'm moving to the top of my TBD list.

6. Had I had the sense God gave a cuckoo clock and the discipline of HE/SHE gave a Canada Goose (quite a lot, actually, flying all that way here and there), I'd have saved ALL of the addresses of the wonderful people I've met over the years.

7. I'd have educated myself more deeply, made myself more aware of the glorious art that is being done in our world of books for young readers, really, the last great showcase for the art and craft of illustration. Should you have time and wish to treat yourself to a journey, do pay a visit to the Mazza Collection, on the campus of the University of Findlay [OH].  It is, I believe, America's largest repository of original art done for children's books. 
  And another thing, I'd have put more pieces on my portfolio, worked harder and more sensibly to make those with choosing power SEE it. 

8. Had I to do all of this over again, I'd have begun earlier. Too soon old. Too late smart. 

9. Okay, seriously, I'd have spent less time at this computer and exercised more. Spent more time outside with my dog(s), as Queen Elizabeth does.
My dog, Mimi.
Spent time with people in person. As Marvin Gaye (I think), once said, 'As long as you're alive, you might as well live.'

10. Definitely, I'd have read more books, but unless I get pasted by a bus or run off the road on my way to school visits down in Pittsburg, KS, later this week, by some lovelorn, world-weary white-tailed deer, I figure I have time. 

As long as I do, I reckon I'll pull up my socks, make a list, and get down to work on all that remains to be done, taking care of that which I can control, saying 'never mind' to that which I cannot, and cultivating the wisdom to know the difference. I wish you all the same, Dear Readers.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Not JUST the facts, ma'am, but YES, the facts!

David wondering
about ice cream
This month, the INK Bloggers are writing about life-changing non-fiction. 
Some have featured non-fiction that changed their own lives. I cannot recollect any specific titles that molded my young mind so potently as to be "life-changing." Yet I think non-fiction did influence my childhood and the non-fiction I read as a child influenced my adulthood. In my author visits at schools, I show children how some of the books I now write are outgrowths of the questions I asked as a curious child, and the answers I found (or didn't find but tried). I tell them, "Wondering is wonderful."

For me, the process of seeking answers has usually involved books. I aspire to write books that spark children's imaginations yet the books I remember devouring to satisfy my curiosities were often mundane. Reference books. Even encyclopedias! Imagine!! If a reader told me now that a book I'd written reminded him of an encyclopedia, it would ruin my day. Yet, I have fond memories of poring over World Book Encyclopedia to immerse myself in facts that some might consider dry.

But are facts alone dry? In a way, this is an essential question of non-fiction. I would say this: if the reader has no previous investment in a subject, bushels full of facts are dry as dust. But if the subject already thrives in the mind of the reader, the facts can take on a life of their own and enrich the reader's life beyond measure. 
"If you scurried like a spider..."
from If You Hopped Like a Frog

I remember particularly well my fascination with facts about animals and stars. Once learned, the speed of a spider and the distance to Alpha Proxima lived vividly in my mind. Mentally armed with them, I could scurry down the field and rocket into space. Years later, they both figured into books I wrote. 

This is not a call to INKers to abandon our careers writing compelling non-fiction and apply for jobs at encyclopedia publishers. (Never mind that the internet has put most encyclopedias out of business!) In fact, one of my favorite quotes about non-fiction would seem to contradict what I've been saying:

"You can almost divide non-fiction into two categories: non-fiction that stuffs in facts, as if children were vases to be filled, and non-fiction that ignites the imagination, as if children were indeed fires to be lit." Jo Carr

I'm still in favor of lighting the fires but it is worth considering that sometimes the predisposition of the reader allows the facts alone to be the tinder for the blaze. I am seeing now that the question is: how does the reader get such a predisposition? Sometimes it is from books of the "ignites the imagination" category. Other times... who knows?

So, for readers, teachers and authors, I say we're not looking for "the facts, and just the facts, ma'am," but please, let's not forget the facts. They can be tinder for those fires.

A case in point might be what I wrote in this blog last May about a high school student named Alex Grant. He experienced a life change when he read a book called Birds of the World as a mere first-going-on-second grader! I have looked at all the books I can find with that title (there are a few and Alex doesn't remember which one it was) but none of them is what I'd call inspiring non-fiction. And even though I don't know which Birds of the World book turned Alex into a future ornithologist, it's almost certainly a book in the "fact stuffing" category. Yet it was enough to engage him powerfully. I'll close by repeating his story from my May, 2013, post under the title, "The Power of Non-Fiction":

Alex Grant, the young man pictured here, is the subject of this post. We met early on a chilly February morning on a footbridge in the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, 60 mile east of Phoenix. We were among a dozen or so birding enthusiasts who had gathered for the weekly guided bird walk sponsored by the Arboretum. Alex and I discussed two related birds, initially indistinguishable to my eyes. Both were wrens, small songbirds with barred tails and thin bills. Binoculars lifted, Alex pointed out the differences: the canyon wren had more distinct coloration  —  reddish brown wings and back, and a bright white throat, compared with the paler, grayish brown rock wren whose throat lacked the lustrous white. Alex spoke eagerly, with the facts at his command and a confidence that belied his age: 15. Very soon he might be leading walks like this, as his reputation had reached the Arboretum and a ranger had invited him to become a volunteer bird guide — the Arboretum's youngest by far. He and his parents had come on this walk while he considered the offer. 

Rock Wren
Canyon Wren
Later, as the sun finally warmed the air enough for us to shed an outer layer or two, I asked Alex’s mother, Sonja Grant, about her son’s zeal for birds. It had begun during the summer between first and second grade. The catalyst was a book called Birds of the World. Alex had checked it out of the library and it had changed his life. True, he had already shown a keen interest in nature, and he'd owned books about birds as well as sharks, insects and other taxa. He’d read some of them so many times that their pages had fallen out. But with its dazzling photos and engaging text, Birds of the World had taken Alex to a new level of interest that he calls “a deep passion.” Before long, the passion spread to both of his parents, and the family had a new hobby. School vacations became extended birding outings in Arizona, California, Texas and Maine, the trips oriented around an important statistic—the number of species seen between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 of the year. That number had reached 306 in 2012. Birders refer to a year in which they keep count as "a big year"; the Grants decided to do another big year in 2013, and by mid-May their list was up to 263 species.

Finishing his freshman year at Gilbert High School in Gilbert, AZ, Alex is homing in on a college education and career in ornithology. And it all started with a non-fiction book.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Ingredients for a Great School Visit

I know that summer vacation seems like the worst time to think about school visits, but maybe it's the best.  After a bit of rest from early mornings, long days and cafeteria duty, summer gives time to reflect upon the fun parts of teaching and the best ways to use authors in the classroom.  That's why on I.N.K. "reprint" month, I'm featuring my post on an inspirational school visit.

Before I do, let me take a moment to welcome my newest book into the world.  It will be published tomorrow, on July 9th.  How Do You Burp in Space? is a travel guide telling space tourists what to pack and expect on this not-so-distant future vacation.  Don't you wish you could go up there this year?  I'd do it in a heartbeat.
 * * * * *

Monday, December 10, 2012

Ingredients for a Great School Visit

I had another I.N.K. post just about finished when Kelly Milner Halls' plea for school librarians and a package pushed me in another direction.

The mailer came from Carol Sweny, the Henniker Community School librarian, in Henniker, NH, where I had recently talked to kids, K-8.  The disc of photos recording my two days there included all the ingredients of a great school visit and reminded me how often a school librarian is at its core.

In the school visit's section of my web site, I have a version of what most authors say on theirs: I find that when kids are prepared for a school visit, they get more out of it. So I ask that students have access to some of my books beforehand, and read (or are read) at least one of them.  I also have downloadable pictures of me and book covers to make a poster for your hallway.  These efforts alone will invoke kids’ interest and enthusiasm, making the visit more memorable for them.

Remember you can click on all these pictures to make them larger.

This statement isn't an ego thing or a plea to buy more of my books beforehand.  When kids know I'm coming, when they have read or heard some of my books, they are psyched to see me.  They have had time to think and wonder about things, they listen more attentively, they ask more questions.  They get more out of the experience.  It's not that I can't grab an uniformed class or auditorium's attention; I can.  But time after time, I notice that prepared kids have a better experience. 

Like Kelly, I know that classroom teachers and principals are overloaded.  Some may not even know an author is coming in time to prepare.  Besides they are trying to get through their curriculum and whatever enrichments they have planned, let alone teaching to whatever state test is coming up next. PTO parents work hard to raise money for author visits, but their role doesn't usually extend to the classroom or library.  The school librarian is the perfect person to rally the troops: to prepare the kids in library class, to suggest and facilitate related classroom exercises, to organize book order forms, to generate excitement.

The Henniker has one author come each year, and Carol Sweny makes the most of it. I'm not suggesting that every school or school librarian wants or needs to put in the time and effort she did.  Perhaps showing how she rallied her school, however, will remind people how important it is to have school librarians and how much their efforts, with school visits and everything else, help kids learn and grow.

Here is part of the flyer Carol made to pass around to the teachers.

As you saw, grades K through 4 saw a presentation based on my book On This Spot, which takes New York City back in time to when it was home to forests, glaciers, dinosaurs, towering mountains, even a tropical sea.  This presentation included, among other things, kids taking many different objects and sorting themselves into a timeline.

Carol asked the teachers to have their classes use timelines to supplement normal learning.  They did so in different and wonderful ways. The school's corridors were festooned with examples of this interesting way to think about time and history.

The kindergarteners made timelines of their days.   

First graders created a timeline that would record a whole year of learning month by month.

The 2nd graders made illustrated lifelines.
Third graders did their lifelines too.
Here's a new way for a 4th grade class to think about the making of the Statue of Library. 

The 5th grade concentrated on learning new computer skills while doing their personal timelines.

The 6th grades' timeline of our presidents was perfectly timed since my visit occurred shortly after the election in November.

The 7th graders learned research and computer skills creating a timeline of Henniker's history that took up an entire hallway.
The 8th grade's timeline cascading down the stairway brought their study of the Harlem Renaissance to life.

As Kelly so wisely said, school librarians (any librarians) are teachers. They build relationships, spark imagination.  We should fight for them.

I would fight for Carol Sweny.  Besides a great school visit, she gave me a moment of feeling like a rock star.  Check out what greeted me when I pulled into the school parking lot.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


This weekend I got a truly amazing package in the mail. It was jam-packed with 20 stories written by third graders, and they weren’t just any old stories either. Each one was eye-popping, unique, full of surprises, AND 100% TRUE; in short, the type of tales kids can hold onto for the rest of their lives.  So what’s the story behind these stories?

Back in the end of March, I did a live video conference with these budding authors via a Library of Congress grant.  Designed to get kids excited about using primary source material, the grant is linked directly to the CCSS.

As an example of the incredible stories you can uncover by exploring such sources, we had a wonderful time exploring the action-packed journals of Lewis and Clark from one of my books and also figuring out what other primary source material I used to make the pictures as accurate (and as much fun) as possible.

After that, we discussed several cool ways kids can write their own nonfiction stories by using primary sources, and one of my suggestions was for each kid to interview an older member of their family about their own adventures a long time ago.  We talked about methods news reporters use to ask hard questions, not just easy ones. (I said that their families would love to be interviewed this way.)  And I introduced them to my infamous “meat and salt” method of writing non-fiction, in which the meat = the facts (names, dates, places, etc.) and the salt = all the unusual or surprising or funny big and little things that bring a story to life and make you want to read more.

These are some very lucky kids.  They happen to have an outstanding Pennsylvania teacher named Amy Musone, and after our talk, she decided that the family interviews were worth pursuing.  With Skype support from Sue Sheffer, a retired teacher working with Amy and her class via a grant from the Library of Congress, the kids got on a roll and started brainstorming.  They decided which family members they wanted to interview and why, and each student focused on a particular time in that person’s life.

The results knocked everyone’s socks off, including Amy’s. So at the end of May, their school held a big after-school Celebration of Family Stories, replete with refreshments no less.  Family members from all over came to hear the students read their tales, and they laughed, cried and were simply captivated.  

Every story is compelling, to say the least. There are tales about bombing Nagasaki, playing the ancient game of Pac Man, taking knitting classes in Ecuadorian schools, blowing up an abandoned building with a tank, scrubbing floors in Marine barracks with a toothbrush and saluting every time you wanted a drink of water, and what life is like without technology.   It’s impossible to know which story to put first, but here are a few tiny abridged excerpts written by third graders in their own words—mere hints about the whole shebang.  Check 'em out:


“dad was such a dare devil that he went car surfing with his friends. His friend tried to throw him off!, but my dad was good at staying on.  He only fell off a couple of times! dad thinks cliff jumping is the most fun stunt because he loves the rush of falling through the air!”  (the author includes lots more stunts his dad’s mom didn’t know about plus a photo of Christopher Reeve as Superman.)

“My brave, amazing Uncle was in the Army….he and his team had to go through this confidence course….there was a building that was 40’ tall and they had to repel down the building.  The 40’ tall building would sway.  My Uncle said this was the most scariest time for him in the Army….[now] My Uncle is looking forward to becoming a Fire Chief. [He] is a wonderful Uncle because he risks hi life for others and everyday helps somebody that needs help.”


“During the first year of medical school, my mom had to dissect a human body.  It was a smelly task and after they were done for the day, they would be smelly too.  Something that she thought was pretty funny was the comments that people would say and the funny faces they would make when they would smell the anatomy students.”


“When my Great Grandma was a little girl…she felt sad because when a white person threw a rock at a black person, a black person couldn’t throw a rock back…..She went to the March on Washington in 1963. The Civil Rights Leaders talked about how it wasn’t right how African Americans were being treated.  In the South, police had dogs bite African Americans….” 

“There was the time in China when all people no matter you are men, women, or kids, would wear blue shirts and pants. My dad was born during this time in 1978 with no brothers or sisters… that time there were not much toys so they would go out and play in the nature.  My dad and his friend would catch tadpoles and watch them grow up…They…would feed their tadpoles leftover rice….He didn’t have any black and white TV until he was 10.  He had his first small single door refrigerator at 12 years old.” 

“Back in the year 1904, the war between Russia and Japan began.  In addition my great great great grandpa was born.  Even though he lived in Russia he didn’t like it very much.  There was a massive war going on.  This meant that once he was old enough, he would be forced to be in the Russian army…It was then that he decided to save enough money to buy a ticket and move to the United States…..” (and his further adventures once he arrived) “I hope that one day I will follow in the footsteps of my great great great grandpa and be as courageous as [he] was (except that I’d like to play football too)."

“My grandma just turned 79 years old. Abuela used to sow tobacco plants on the farm she grew up on….Abuela’s ancestors are a mix of African slaves, Spaniards from Spain and Taino Indians, the first inhabitants of Puerto Rico. Abuela’s education lasted only until the 4th grade because Abuela had to work on the farm... They traveled on horseback…and there was no technology….it was a beautiful place, surrounded by palm trees, mountainsides and the songs of frogs.” And this:  “Back when my grandma was a child all she was allowed to wear were dresses and skirts, no pants or shorts which sounds TERRIBLE to me.”

You gotta love these kids (and their school too), right? Now every one of them is an author, a researcher, an historian, and an open-minded, creative thinker who's learning to use his or her noggin to uncover the facts.  

Monday, May 20, 2013

Telling Stories

So, for one thing, Ann Bausum's splendid post this past Friday, inspires me to show you all my 5th grade picture. It's inspired giggles from many an audience of tactless schoolchildren, bless their hearts. 

For another, I'm compelled to inform you that on this day in A.D. 526, a big whacking earthquake in Syria ended the lives of some 300,000 people, about 230K more than have died in the current troubles, since the Arab Spring arrived in that ancient land. Over how many borders the troubles will spill, how many more will suffer, have their lives extinguished, taciturn Heaven only knows. And on May 20, 1768, savvy, rosy Dolley Madison (far the better politician than her brilliant hubby), was born. Exactly 94 years later, President Lincoln found time away from the abysmal war that was consuming his administration in 1862, to sign the far-reaching Homestead Act into law. May 20, 1927? Charles Lindbergh took off from Long Island, bound for Paris. Now imagine the lives, the thoughts, the contexts, the actions, the rippling after-effects, the stories represented by each of those little factoids! Doesn't that just knock you out? 
The glorious lake formed by many a long-ago eruption
of the Taal Volcano on the island of Luzon. 
And in the center of the lake? Vulcan Point, yet another island.

For yet another thing, in my post last month, I confessed my dire misgivings and oogly-booglies about traveling to Manila. So I did and did not, after all, wind up lost and alone, thousands of miles away from what little savoire faire I possess. I lived to tell the tale of my adventure in the Philippines - but not here. This ain't no travelogue, after all.  I'll confine myself to saying that what I saw was glorious (troubling too, of course, being that the divide there between those who have and those who don't is ever so much wider and deeper there than our American chasm between rich and poor) and being with the students at Brent Internat'l School was a tremendous joy. Unlike Ann B. and ever so many others, whose love of their children brought them to writing books for young readers, that bespectacled, introverted 5th grader you see above drew pictures and devoured children's books partly as a means of avoiding my parents' offsprings, i.e. my little brothers. As a grown up greeting card illustrator, I came to children's books because they were the ones that had the pictures!  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that a big part of the business of children's books was visiting schools, universally infested (in the sense that P.G. Wodehouse used the term - if you guys only knew how many hours I've drawn and painted whilst listening to Right Ho, Jeeves, about hapless Bertie Wooster and his butler) with little people! Further imagine my surprise when I found out how much FUN it was, visiting with kids - what a big fat, life-affirming, profession-affirming bonus! What it would have meant to my dorky ten-year-old self if a living, breathing writer of books had come to Mrs. Fadler's classroom at Bryant Elementary School!
Can you find me, roosting in the midst of a bunch
of swell kids at Effingham, Kansas the other day?

  Of course it's a blast, answering their many questions. Drawing pictures for them. Assuring them that their teachers weren't merely persecuting them when they insisted that revision actually is a key part of the writing process. Repeat after me, I tell 'em, 'All REAL writers/ if they have any self-respect whatsoever/ work on their writing some more. / Oh, baby!'  But beyond all of the theatrics (after all any REAL writer is an entertainer, too, and especially if you wish to get and keep the attention of a bunch of lively young squirts), what a large load of joy it has been all these years, talking with young Americans about the vivid, complex life behind each and every one of the famous names they're asked to remember, behind the multitudes whose names we'll never know. Asking them, wouldn't you guys be treated with more respect, be cut some slack if others understood what all you've done and experienced? Your history? Isn't it the same for a nation? A people? Would you not better understand why nations behave as they do, the more you understood those nations' history? Nations are more than borders and banners. A nation is a combination of all of the stories of all of the people who've lived in the land all through the years of the living past!  We are, by golly, a story-loving species and never have I been more grateful to have accidentally found myself among those who write them, than when I'm talking about books, these precious story-delivery devices, with a bunch of young readers. And grateful I am and still occasionally surprised that a crabby, shy, paintbrush-pusher like myself should be among these noble nonfiction-meisters, my fellow INKsters, who show and tell what we humans have been about, what we have come to understand about our world, infested with our bumptious species. 

Speaking of which, just for you to know, according to a story in Sunday's edition of the Kansas City Star, the Kansas legislature has banned the "spending of any money to implement the national Common Core standards for math and reading" lest the federal government further intrude its control into the workings of the state. (Nor has the KS Board of Ed. seen fit to implement the Next Generation Science Standards.) On the other hand, there's this story, in which some fine points are made concerning this thorny discussion.. In any event, certainly anyone with even a knucklehead's understanding of America's history knows our time-honored push-pull between states' rights/individual rights and federalism, but not since President Lincoln's time has the partisan chasm between Americans been so deep and dangerous. Where this will lead - well, I guess Heaven knows that, too. For now, we can only imagine. And tell the stories.

Read more here:

Friday, May 17, 2013

For the Kids

 Susan E. Goodman shared a wonderful tribute to mothers recently, and the coincidence of my youngest son’s upcoming college graduation inspires me to add a note of recognition for children.
Whenever I do a school visit, I include a brief introduction about myself. “Here’s me in fourth grade,” I say, soon after the session begins. “If you’d asked me then what I wanted to be when I grew up, the first thing I’d have said was, ‘I want to be a children’s book author.’” It made perfect sense. I loved books. I loved to write. Why not write books for kids? Case closed.

And yet, I tell the school children, I didn’t immediately become a children’s book author when I grew up. Instead I turned, upon finishing college, to what I call “more practical writing,” and then I describe the work I did for ten years with the marketing of books, academic public relations, and the editing of an alumni magazine.

“It was only when I took a break to have kids,” I tell my audience, “that I reconnected with that childhood idea to write for young people.” So I have an easy answer when kids ask, “What made you want to become a children’s book author?”—“My kids,” I reply. Then I show a childhood photo of Sam and Jake “reading” Winnie the Pooh together. Hearts melt.

What came next, I tell the students, is the birth of my writing career. “While I watched my kids grow up, they watched my career grow. Now they’re in middle school/high school/college (fill in the blank depending on what year I’ve been speaking), and I’ve published seven/eight/nine books (add corresponding number of titles).”

Then I show a photo of my two sons at their present ages, contrasted with the photo of them as young children. Kids eat it up, of course, because they can see themselves in such a narrative, and I never tire of telling this story about my life and the lives of my sons.

Sam, Class of 2011, now with City Year
Jake, Class of 2013, Pitzer College
Silly me.

When I first became a children’s author, I thought that my story was unique. Now I’ve met and heard about dozens of authors who were inspired to write because of the children in their lives. Their own kids. Their grandkids. The children they teach. The children who visit the libraries where they work. The 10-year-old child embedded in their own hearts. You know what I’m talking about!

Yet here we are, writing away for the archetypal young while our own original sources of inspiration grow toward adulthood and beyond. This Saturday my youngest son graduates from college, and the narrative of my school visits will have to be updated again. From cuddly boys to grown men. There’s a tale to celebrate!

So it’s no wonder I’m drawn to visit schools, and you may be, too, for the same reason. Instantly we are surrounded by the little people who remind us why we write.
Yes, it helps that our work can pay the bills, and yes, we write because we were meant to be writers, but we write for young people because, at the heart of it, we care about their future. If we can just give them good stories, good history, good science, inspiring knowledge, we will have, we hope, made a difference.

I always say that being a parent was and is the best job I’ve ever had. Probably the hardest, too, but by far the most rewarding. Writing for young people is a very close second! Like parenting, it is a labor of love, born of the idea of passing on the joy of life to the youngest among us.

Thanks, Jake and Sam, for inspiring me to be a better parent and a better writer. While I'm at it, I commend my fellow authors for writing and sharing your hearts and minds through your own works, and we all thank those in the wider publishing community who connect our creations with those smaller hands across the land. All are causes for celebration!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

School Visits -- Pros and Cons

Young Adult fiction author John Green is famous for his brilliant fiction and his VlogBrothers video blogs. This week, he talked about traveling to sustain his career with speaking fees and book promotion.  And while we write different kinds of books for different kinds of kids, we have that in common.   We both travel – a LOT.

So let's discuss the pros and cons -- in this case, the cons and pros -- of school visits. 

A GREAT hotel in Boise, ID.

I can’t define what “a lot” means for my friend John.  But I can define it for myself.  I have spoken to between 50 and 75 schools and conferences a year for the past five years.   A few are within driving distance.  Most require airborne transportation.  And both kinds of travel can be really tiring.  Con. 

Ground transportation mix-ups are a frustrating after a full 10 to 12 hours in airports. It's cold on those curbs, waiting for a stranger to pick you up.  But waiting is all that works, with the flight delays of modern times.  So you wait.  LITTLE Con. 

Hotels and hotel beds can be if-y.  Not all neighborhoods are welcoming.  And some beds should be in sleep deprivation museums.  Enough said.  Con.

Hungry?  Sometimes that's a problem.  If your host forgets that authors eat, and your hotel is not within walking distance of a restaurant, those Southwest peanuts you stuck in your bag start to look pretty appealing.  Temporary starvation.  Con. 


Before I start to look really whiny, hold on.  Am I complaining?  I am NOT – not even for a fraction of an instant.  These CON things don't happen very often, other than the long airport hours.  And I am grateful for the chance to connect with the kids that read my books.  Pro. 

Hanging out with kids keeps me on track to write true stories they care about.  I do this for my financial gain, sure.  But that’s not the real reason.  I do it for those kids.  And when I listen, they confirm my published books were worth writing.  They evaluate my new story ideas and show me where I should go to write the next one.  BIG Pro.

Photo by Roxyanne Young
Then there is research.  When I travel to a new city, I can do research for my future books.  In San Diego, I visited two haunted houses and investigated with a paranormal team for four twilight hours to prep for my ghost book.  Does it get any better than that?  Pro.

I also supplement   my writing income with speaking fees.  And those fees allow me to work well, not quickly.  With school visits, I can take four years  -- two years of research prior to sale, two years after -- to write a book that only paid enough to cover two months,  if I’m frugal; one month upon signing, the other after acceptance two years later.  Thanks to the generosity of parent teacher organizations, I can do serious nonfiction research, even if my topics are non-traditional.   And that is important to me and to the kids that read me.  HUGE Pro. 

Let’s not forget book sales.  I sell more books doing school visits than I could without school visits.  In 2012, I visited 19 elementary schools in February, thanks to the Literacy Connection, a group of retired educators in central Washington that organizes author visit tours each year. I was one of their authors in 2012.  I talked to hundreds and hundreds of kids and sold more than 2,000 hardcover books , along with earning my fees.   The organizers said we sold more books than had ever been sold before – most to reluctant reader boys, aching to love a book.  They loved mine. Pro! Pro! Pro!

Girls like my books, too!
That brings us to my last reason for loving (and enduring) school visits.   Every time I walk into that gym, that library, that commons room, that auditorium, that cafeteria, what I do is plentifully reaffirmed. 

If ever I've wondered if I made the right choice to write 25 years ago, if I've wondered if anyone cares about my books, if I've ever grieved not winning awards, or the pain in my knees, or the flus and viruses I get on the road, the uncertainties vanish the minute I see those smiling faces.  Doubt is replaced with joy, without exception.

I have a genuine passion for writing, and I’m good at it.  But it pales in comparison to my passion for young readers.  “You are my favorite writer.”  “This is my favorite book.”  “I want to do what you do when I grow up.”  Sentences like those discount the con columns.  They wash the cons away. 

I do school visits because they are a part of who I am. I am never more completely myself than I am when I’m with those kids – or the grown-ups devoted to helping them. 

Travel in post 9/11 airports may feel like hell.  But once you get to a destination that feels like heaven, what difference does it make?   

I AM lucky to do what I do -- even when it includes a 6:00 am departure time. So onward! 

And to all of you brilliant, generous hosts out there, thank you for being the angels that you are.  You are not just my hosts, you are my friends. 

Kelly Milner Halls