November 17, 2017

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Taking It to the Kids—Middle grade author visits

 

Oh boy! An author visit.

It’s a lot of work, to be sure. And we know it’s work that most often falls to the school librarian or to the children’s or YA librarian in a public library.

In this and in a series of articles that will follow, authors who often visit libraries and schools will reveal that there’s plenty of work on their sides, too. They’ll also let you in on some of their best practices, missteps they’ve encountered, and lots of lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Here you’ll meet three authors of middle grade fiction who’ve been there: Kirk Scroggs, Nikki Loftin, and Shelley Moore Thomas. We hope their experiences will let you know that the work—on all sides—is worth it, because an author visit inspires young people to read, to read more, to enjoy books in a new way, to write, to talk about books with friends, and to look to authors for inspiration and possibly aspiration. So move over professional athletes and movie, TV, and music celebrities—make room for these rock stars!


KIRK SCROGGS


Kirk at Westwood Charter Bedtime Story Jam, Los Angeles, CA.

Kirk at Westwood Charter Bedtime Story Jam, Los Angeles, CA.

My name is Kirk Scroggs, and, even though I’ve written 17 books to date, I’ll be the first to admit—I am not a confident writer. I overthink and analyze and hem and haw over each and every paragraph. Heck, just writing that last sentence took me 28 hours. But I’ve got a secret weapon, a fallback: visuals. I like to fill my books with loads of goofy, action-packed illustrations, often with plenty of details for readers to hunt for. It’s a crutch, I know, but it pulls the kids in by involving them a little bit more in the creative process.

That creative crutch comes in handy during my school visits as well. When I stood before 300 fifth graders for my first Wiley and Grampa presentation years ago, I was a nervous wreck. As I recited the first few sentences, my knees and my voice were in a race to see which was wobblier. I quickly deduced that not only was I not a confident writer, I was not a confident read-alouder either. So, instead of standing there like a trembling kangaroo mouse, I whipped out the ol’ crutch—visuals! I nixed pressing on with my reading and invited the kids to help write a secret chapter to the book, Mad Libs–style, which I scribbled out on a giant pad. Instead of just listening, they got to participate, shouting out ingenious words to fill in our tale, some of which I had never heard before (broccolucious is my favorite so far) and others that were more expected. (Teachers and librarians: it’s OK for kids to say poop, at least in my presence. Of course, I have very low standards.) When I read back the story we had co-created, they were roaring with laughter. Then I drew some pictures and all bets were off. I had them in the palm of my hand, and, on the flip side, they had whittled down my case of the jitters.

I’ve incorporated Mad Libs and illustrations in every school visit since, drawing Muppets and monsters across the country. The secret chapter has been especially fun with the “Tales of a Sixth-Grade Muppet” books (any chance to draw Gonzo is all right by me), and with my new series, “Snoop Troop,” since it’s in the mystery genre and chock-full of oddball critters and intrigue. I also make sure to leave a good chunk of time at the end of the visit for kids to ask me any questions about writing or drawing or being creative. That way they can leave feeling, at the very least, like reading a book, and perhaps that they, too, can write or illustrate their own story someday. And you know what? They can!

Kirk Scroggs is the author of four “Tales of a Sixth-Grade Muppet” books and the new “Snoop Troop” series (both Little, Brown). Check out kirkscroggs.com for more school visit info.


NIKKI LOFTIN


Nikki with students at Brykerwoods Elementary, Austin, TX.

Nikki with students at Brykerwoods Elementary, Austin, TX.

When I visit elementary and middle schools as an author, I often teach writing workshops. I love those “aha!” moments when the participants figure out how to make a character leap off the page, how to ramp up the tension in their stories, and—most important of all—how to get their students to do the same things back in the classroom.

Oh, did I mention I teach these workshops to rooms full of teachers?

The idea of adding optional teacher workshops to my author visits started when I was promoting my debut novel, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, at a school outside Tokyo. I was asked to speak to all ages of kids, even ones who were a bit young for my dark and scary book. For these younger groups, I created a large-group character and story-generating exercise, with parting instructions to go back to their classrooms and write or draw what they’d come up with.

These days, when I finish talking, usually the kids come running up for autographs. That day? The teachers mobbed me, asking for clarification, possible extensions, and advice on using the lessons in the classroom. I realized that teachers everywhere are hungry for new ways to teach writing—and linking the author visit to relevant and interesting writing lessons excited teachers and students alike.

After decades of work doing public speaking and teaching, I feel 100 percent comfortable presenting to and working with kids. But the first time I was asked to teach writing to a room full of librarians and teachers, I was pretty intimidated. Would they be able to let go and get into the creative, even silly, aspect of brainstorming character traits as easily as kids did? Or—and I knew this was a distinct possibility, as I was once a teacher myself and had sat through endless hours of professional development that bored me to tears—would they fall asleep? I shouldn’t have worried. These engaged, passionate, creative people, who spend their days focused on kids—these teachers are also amazing students.

I love it when librarians ask me to work with their staff—or, if time doesn’t permit, when they encourage the teachers to stay for the kids’ writing workshops or large-group presentations. If I can light a fire in a writing teacher’s imagination by sharing what I know really works to make a story come to life, then that teacher can keep the spark glowing for a whole classroom full of kids for months…or years.

So, the next time you plan for an author to visit your school, ask if he or she would mind having a few more “mature” students, whether during the students’ workshop, or after the bell rings. You might find that, in a few years, not only are your students writing their own novels…your teachers may be as well.

Nikki Loftin is the author of three novels for young readers: Wish Girl (2015), Nightingale’s Nest (2014), and The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy (2012, all Razorbill). For more information about her award-winning books or school visits, visit www.nikkiloftin.com.


SHELLEY MOORE THOMAS


Shelley kicks off Read Across America at Jefferson Elementary School, Carlsbad, CA

Shelley kicks off Read Across America at Jefferson Elementary School, Carlsbad, CA

Student readers are like detectives—they want to know the story behind the story.

When I visit young readers in their schools or libraries, I try to give them clues about how my stories came to be. I share that I’ve spent a good part of my life in the 398.2 section of the library, researching the stories of the world because…well…because I love them. And then I show them. I whip out my velvet cape and my fancy storytelling sneakers and take on the role of storyteller. I don’t want students to connect just with me, the author. I want them to connect with the story.

Story is how we pass down our humanity from generation to generation. It has always been this way. My goal is for children to become thoroughly enchanted by stories—enough to keep reading them. Enough to start writing them.

Bits and pieces of beloved folktales have found their ways into my stories, woven in with parts of my own experiences, to create something new. When I visit a school, I like to take them behind the scenes to the tales that inspire my novels. For The Seven Tales of Trinket (Farrar, 2012), it is rather easy—there are seven to choose from. My favorite is an old Celtic version of The Stolen Child. Students who have read my book can see where Trinket’s harp of bone and hair came from, and students who have not read the book might now be curious enough to do so. Sometimes, I’ll share a faerie story, for faeries are renowned tricksters and cannot resist a wager, much like the Faerie Queen in Trinket’s tale. When I talk with students about Secrets of Selkie Bay (Farrar, 2015), I start with the story of my daughter’s visit to the zoo when she was in first grade, and how her class got on the bus and left her behind (accidentally) at the seal pool. Mommy, I just wanted to stay with the seals. I couldn’t stop watching them. They wanted me to stay. Then, I follow with a mystical legend of the selkies, the charmed seals who can shift their shape into human form. Listeners quickly “get” the connections.

Even my fantastical easy readers featuring the Good Knight have stories behind them—but this time not folklore-based. Crafty student detectives figure out that in Get Well, Good Knight (Penguin, 2004), the little dragons who will not take their potion are completely based upon my own children. Yes, I have often played the role of the Good Knight at home.

When I finish my session, students often ask, “Are those stories true? Are they real?” My answer is always the same: Every story is real if you can feel the truth of it in your heart. n

Shelley Moore Thomas can be found hanging around her blog, storyqueenscastle.blogspot.com, and occasionally on twitter as @story_queen. She is the author of the “Good Knight” (Penguin) series of easy readers as well as various picture
books and novels. Her latest, Secrets of Selkie Bay (Farrar, 2015), was published in July.

Lauren L. Wohl is a consultant with New Leaf Literary agency. She can be reached at llwohl@aol.com.

This article was published in School Library Journal's August 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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