The Importance of Author Visits

I got my real teacher education in an Alt Ed classroom.  The Oklahoma program, before it was watered down by politics, mandated arts education and life skills as part of the core curriculum.

A good grant writer and matching funds helped me bring workshops to my school, including a poet, a cartoonist, and a found-objects sculptor.  Volunteers and friends made other experiences possible.  Dan, who’d served three tours of duty as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, taught my kids to cook.  Mila, who owned a quilt shop, taught them to sew.

How valuable was this hands-on education?  One of my students is a professional chef with his own restaurant.  Another became a math teacher. What I learned was that all students have gifts if we make the effort to uncover them, and that outside experts are invaluable in helping your students develop their gifts.

When a new superintendent farmed the Alt Ed program out to another district in the county, I moved to the high school English department.  Fortunately for me, many of my friends were writers.

My students were fortunate because the board of the local education foundation was made up of readers and book lovers. That year I wrote my first author-visit grant.  The board loved my idea, a visit from Anna Myers and an all-school read of her historical fiction novel Tulsa Burning.

The next author was storyteller Tim Tingle.  The all-school read was his Walking the Choctaw Road.

The third year, when I asked students whom to invite, they wanted Anna back.  We read Assassin. I moved to the elementary school. There we had visits from picture book author Tammi Sauer and nonfiction author Kay Jackson.

When I moved to another district, it was the principal at our school who recognized the importance of school visits.  She raised funds for books and authors, including Tammi Sauer, Barbara Lowell, and members of the Doodle and Peck team, including Sandra Lawson and Una Belle Townsend.

After visits from authors and illustrators, we saw the results.  Kids read more.  They chose favorite authors and would read everything their favorite wrote.  They started asking for particular books. They wrote more.   Some students started calling themselves writers. The artists showed off their illustrations.

Getting to know writers and realizing they are real people helps students see writing as a real choice. I know, because it is what my sixth-grade teacher, an author named Healion Toaz, showed me.

The importance of outside experts can’t be overestimated, whether they are poets, authors, farmers, or cooks.  They give students options they didn’t know they had.  As for kidlit experts, Oklahoma has some of the best in the country, and they are available to inspire your students.

Making Connections: Books in Pairs

Sometimes reading one book will help you understand another.  In fifth-grade reading classes, I paired Anna Myers The Keeping Room with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793.   The two books, one set during the Revolution and one in the first years of the new nation, showed students what life was like for different classes of people during this time.  The struggle didn’t end when the war ended, it just changed.

I was always amazed at the questions the books generated, legitimate questions:

How did they wash their hair?

If there were no grocery stores, what did they eat?

Did they have money?

I read Avi’s Crispin: The Cross of Lead aloud to my seniors before we read any of Shakespeare’s plays.  The Newbery-winning Crispin helped students understand Shakespeare’s time and the way income inequality, religion, and the power structure made most of your choices for you.

Before we read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” I read Patricia Reilly Giff’s Nory Ryan’s Song aloud. I didn’t have to explain Swift’s satire; humanizing the Irish potato famine provided the connection they needed.

Here are four recent books with surprising connections. All four books contain a touch of supernatural.  The latter two are great examples of magical realism. They all have other things in common, as well, including exquisite storytelling.

middle ages

The first pair is set in the Middle Ages.  The Inquisitor’s Tale or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz is a literary masterpiece. The story is relentless, the quotable passages bountiful, and Hatem Aly’s illustrations illuminating, pun intended.  The drawings in the margins of the pages mimic the illuminated manuscripts of the era.

The Middle Ages were a time of great division.  People were taught to fear anyone who was different, and even the king feared the peasant girl, the Jewish boy, and the young monk with the dark skin.

Pair this with The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. What the two books have in common are unlikely heroes, miracles, the role of religion in everyday life,  the fear of differences, and quests.  It’s the quests that will draw readers in.

Fast forward to a modern setting.  Like the two books from the Middle Ages, Kim Ventrella’s Skeleton Tree and Kheryn Callender’s Hurricane Child have magic and mystery.  To whom do those twitching fingers belong?  Who is that dark woman at the bottom of the ocean?

magical realism

The real thread that ties the books together are the main characters, kids who must accept who they are and what life throws at them while dealing with issues that even adults find difficult.  There are also two missing parents.  Ventrella’s Stanly needs his father to come home. Callender’s Caroline must find her mother.

These are my recommendations for your summer reading.  Are there books that you’d pair for illumination?  Yes, another pun, but I seriously want answers.



Read Like a Writer, Picture Books

Here are a few things I’ve learned about picture books by reading picture books:

Picture books don’t have to rhyme.

Picture books can rhyme.  The rhymes don’t have to be formal, but they do have to sing. Read Rebecca Kai Dotlich’s What Can a Crane Pick Up? and Tammi Sauer’s Mary Had a Little Glam.

Picture books don’t need a whole lot of words, but as in a poem, every word must count.  Here’s an example of what a writer can accomplish with less than 100 words: Extraordinary Jane, Hannah E. Harrison

When you are finally ready to submit a picture book manuscript, don’t include illustrator notes unless some small tidbit is essential to your story. You have to leave things open for the illustrator. See how Tammi says just enough and leaves the rest up to the artist:  Making a Friend, Tammi Sauer

Sometimes, the illustrations tell a completely different story than the words tell.  Just Another Ordinary Day, Rod Clement

Here’s something else you can learn from Making a Friend and Just Another Ordinary Day: You can’t be too outrageous for kids, but if you are going to be outrageous, you have to make the outrageousness believable.  I love that Beaver can make stripy socks, and I believe he can.

You can tackle hard subjects.  There are picture books about missing an incarcerated parent, about homelessness and living in shelters, and about hard times. Let Eve Bunting teach you how to be empathetic without being maudlin.  Yard Sale, Eve Bunting

Kids are sophisticated enough not only for the hard topics, but for humor. I’ve read this book aloud to many audiences, and the ending never fails to make me and the kids laugh out loud:  Clancy,  Una Belle Townsend

You can write on topics that please students and, at the same time, satisfy teachers’ needs for content, including Social Studies and STEM.

Here’s an award winner that has both science and civil rights history:  Tiny Stitches, Gwendolyn Hooks

My picture book follows musicians from the Mississippi delta to Memphis. It’s written to be read aloud, but I included a short history of the Memphis Blues and W. C. Handy for teachers and history buffs.  Froggy Bottom Blues,  Sharon Edge Martin

This Oklahoma author gives us history as memoir: Dust Storm, Jane McKellips

Barbara Lowell can teach us all something about writing biographies that kids want to read.  She finds unfamiliar facts about familiar names. Sparky and Spike, Barbara Lowell

If you are going to write, you must be a reader first.  And you can’t just rely on the classics.  Read what’s being written now.  Being a reader first may be the one non-negotiable rule for writers, regardless of your genre or audience.