Monday, April 28, 2008

Questions for the Author

I want to preface my remarks with a dedication, as if this were a book.

To all the children who have had the courage to ask me a question of any kind, whether in writing or in person. I have learned much from you and I thank you.

Soon after the publication of my first book, How Much Is a Million?, I started to receive fan mail replete with questions. A short time later, I began visiting schools for author presentations and I heard many more questions. I began to realize that I could benefit by listening closely to the questions and thinking about what was behind them. I also realized that children could benefit from learning what makes a good question!

Students are over-assessed these days, but it is always their answers that get assessed. I think questions are at least as important as answers, yet only rarely have I seen a teacher provide guidance in the art of asking questions. The ability to ask good questions is a skill of paramount importance in many human endeavors and it opens the mind to countless wonders. In this post I am going to turn the tables and “grade” (well, comment upon) the questions that kids ask.

In the 15 years that I have been visiting about 50 schools per year, three top questions have emerged.

1) How old are you?
2) How much money do you make?
3) Where do you get your ideas?

Teachers are aghast when their students ask 1) or 2), but I answer both. After joshing “Less than a million” in response to the first question, I simply tell them how old I am. (Actually, I tell kids in the intermediate grades that I was born in 1951 and let them do the math – which sometimes results in my being over a hundred years old!) For the second question, I tell them how much (i.e., how little) money I make on the sale of a single book, and everyone is shocked.

Before I get to the third question, let me assess the first two. I think the age question is natural for children to wonder about, but if they had done research in their school library, they probably would have found my date of birth in a reference book such as Something About the Author. That’s OK—I don’t really expect everyone to do a research project before I get there, but I believe that well-prepared students (who have done research on the author and his/her books) make the best audience and ask the best questions. The other thing that makes this a mediocre question is that it doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t lead to follow-up questions, which are usually the best ones, or teach them anything that can propel them to further learning. What can they say after learning my age (other than, “Oh my God, he’s older than my grandfather!”) Perhaps a rule of thumb is that if a question is bound to be answered with one word, it’s probably not the world’s best question.

Despite teacher objections, I actually think the question about how much money an author makes could lead to an interesting answer, but for it to be meaningful I would have to spend a long time putting it in perspective by discussing how much various authors earn, and how those earnings compare with typical salaries in other careers (and the huge incomes of well-known celebrities). This discussion could go in many directions – for instance, why do a very few authors rake in enormous sums while the majority earn so much less? How is an author’s income determined? Here’s a “math guy” direction: given that a picture book author (who is not also the illustrator) usually earns a royalty of about 5% on a hardcover book, calculate the income on one book and determine how many books would have to be sold for the author to make a million dollars.

The third of the “Top Three” questions always gets the Teacher Seal of Approval, and for good reason. It can lead to discussions and thought-processes likely to go in many directions. The author’s answer can be applied to students’ own experiences and the students might be able to use the answer to improve their own writing. In most cases, the answer is not one that can be looked up in a reference book.

My answer to that question usually begins like this: “Ideas are everywhere. If you keep your eyes open, your ears open and your mind open you’ll find lots of good ideas. If you also wonder about the world, you’ll find lots of great ideas.” And then I talk about where the ideas for specific books of mine came from. Very often my books go back to when I was the age of the questioners. I tell them how, as a child, I wondered about things that came in big numbers. “How many hairs do I have on top of my head?” “How many blades of grass are on the baseball field?” “How many grains of sand are on the beach?” I drove my teachers crazy, but years later I turned those musings into How Much Is a Million?

When a child queried the origin of a machine that fills an entire school with popcorn in On Beyond a Million, I explained that I sometimes get ideas from other books. “My favorite book in third grade was Homer Price by Robert McCloskey. In that book, a donut machine goes out of control and fills a lunchroom with donuts. Well, I took the out-of-control donut machine and morphed it into a popcorn machine. The two books are completely different but I wouldn’t have thought of the popcorn machine if I hadn’t remembered the donut machine from Homer Price.” And then I try to bring it home: “You can do the same thing,” I tell the children. “Take something you have read, change it so it becomes your own idea, then use it in your stories.”

Look at all the mileage I got out of one simple question!

A few other things for the proactive teacher to think about in a class devoted to questioning.

* Children often ask questions that are way too vague. “What’s it like to be an author?” is a classic. How about reshaping it to, “What’s the most enjoyable (or frustrating) aspect of being an author?”

* Some questions are overly specific and basically trivial. I particularly dislike “favorites”: “What’s your favorite food/color/number?” I realize the kids are trying to get to know me as a person, and I like that, but does it matter that my favorite color is purple? Sometimes it’s blue. And I also like red! The truth is, I don’t have favorites. How about hobbies? I don’t mind being asked about my pastimes, but a good way to give it some importance might be to reshape the boring old “What are your hobbies?” question into “Do your hobbies relate to the books you write? How?”

“What was your first book?” and “How many books have you written?” are popular questions after my assemblies but they are absolutely terrible questions. Why? Because I have already answered both of them in the assembly! Perhaps the questioners weren’t listening. Perhaps they composed their questions before the assembly. Possibly both.

Which leads to my plea to teachers: Don’t encourage children to write out questions before the author comes to school. It locks the children into their questions, and they will mentally rehearse asking them instead of listening to the author and composing a question based on what has been said. Instead, practice asking meaningful questions as a response to something you tell them or read to them.

I will close with my all-time favorite question, which was asked by a second grader years ago. “Do you regret anything you’ve ever written?” What a fascinating question. I’ve always wondered what possessed her to ask it.

I told the audience I regretted a mathematical mistake I had made in my second book, If You Made a Million. Four hundred eyes riveted onto me. “What’s the mistake?”

“See if you can find it,” I replied.

I then realized that the silver lining in the cloud of the mistake is that kids get to do great math to find the error of my ways. And when they find it, they are triumphant. “Feels good to know we did right,” wrote a pair of students who found it together, “and the book has a boo-boo.”


Monica Edinger said...

This issue of children's questions is of great interest to me. While I work a lot all year with my 4th graders on good questions they can still fall back on the vague ones in formal situations. Recently I took them to Plimoth Plantation where questioning is critical. That is, you need to ask the actors good questions to get them to respond with deep and complex answers. But some of my kids got shy and others sort of forgot. I had to do a lot of the questioning (including those I knew certain kids wanted). I feel kids need tons of modeling of good questioning to know how to do it themselves.

I also want to comment on the "where do you get your ideas?" question. I know this is a trying one for many authors (if not you), but it is one that is huge for kids. Many of them do struggle to come up with good ideas for writing. They read all these great books and wonder why they can't come up with equally great ideas. So that question tends to be very real and from the heart, difficult as it probably is to answer.

Anonymous said...

The flip side of needing good modeling of questioning is that many of their questions derive directly from the questions they hear asked all the time.

The one about your age really stands out in that regard. Just listen when adults are around children and they almost always open with that one (or some proxy like "what grade are you in"). And I agree with you that it is a bad question that goes nowhere. I wonder if adults realize that when they ask it or just don't want their conversations with kids to go anywhere.

Also few adults actually try to have conversations with kids about what interests them. So kids don't have a reference point for how to do that. If we brush them off when they start talking about the things that they really like, then why shouldn't they brush us off when we talk about stuff that they aren't personally into.

Which leads me to wonder whether they really do have difficulty thinking of things to write about or whether they self-censor all the topics that adults (particularly parents and teachers) brush off as unimportant or uninteresting and try to come up with an "acceptable" topic.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for an interesting post, David.

Your final question resonated with me for many reasons, not the least of which is that the first edition of my first book contained a "boo-boo", too. Said mistake was entirely my fault and resulted form a misunderstanding of a simple but new-to-me concept.

While I worried about this mistake incessantly once it was brought to my attention, I have (re-) learned through a year's worth of school visits that it is okay to make mistakes. We all do it. And students appreciate when we adults admit to them.

Loree Burns

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