Steve Sheinkin and "Superlibrarian" Bring Authors and Readers Together on YouTube Game Show

Author Fan Face-off pits a middle grade superfan against the author of one of their favorite books to see who knows more about the title.

When school buildings closed last spring, author Steve Sheinkin watched as his peers mobilized to help educators and kids get through the difficult end to the school year with online read-alouds, free writing and drawing classes, and Zoom author visits.

As summer was ending and it was clear that the coming school year clearly would not resemble anything close to normal, the children’s nonfiction author wanted to do something different for kids and teachers. Inspired by the Battle of the Books, and memories of a Jeopardy-like competition during lunch when he was in high school, Sheinkin came up with the idea of quizzing authors on their own books.

Looking for a collaborator, he called Stacey Rattner—a “superlibrarian,” according to Sheinkin.

“In my life, I meet superlibrarians all the time,” he says. “I go to these conferences, and they are just the people you see. They go way above and beyond the classroom stuff, which is really important and a full-time job in itself.”

When the phone call was over, the idea Sheinkin calls “a lark” had evolved into a more elaborate project.

“His initial idea was to have us ask the author questions to see how well they know their own book, and I suggested, What if we add a young fan?” says Rattner, school librarian at Castleton (NY) Elementary School. “We basically had the format after our first phone conversation.”

Sheinkin and Rattner would select a title by the author and ask questions about the book. The initial plan was to pull questions from an internet search, but it hasn’t exactly worked out that way.

“That just wasn’t practical, because it didn’t exist really,” says Sheinkin. “We realized quickly that we just had to prepare. We had to read the books—or reread them—then come up with 10 questions and some kind of bonus.”

Sheinkin wasn’t sure authors would agree to it. Not only was he asking for their time, but he worried that they might fear looking bad, as many hadn't read their books since before publication. But he found, instead, that the "incredibly generous" people he has asked aren't concerned. No one has said no.

To test the project, he called his friend and author Chris Grabenstein, who agreed to face off against a young reader on the details of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. Rattner found the student, and after that first filming, it was clear they had something compelling.

“I love connecting the kids with the authors,” says Rattner. “For many years, I have connected my own students with authors through Skype visits and in-person author visits. We would scream and get so excited when the author first appeared on the screen. Now, Steve and I are giving the opportunity for one fan to be with their favorite author for 10 minutes and beat them in a game show. How awesome is that?”

Author Fan Face-off was a go, a middle grade book game show. Each episode has its own dynamic, develops a unique relationship between the fan and author, and gives those watching a chance to guess the answers as well.

“I hope that kids and fans will play along, so it will be not so much the kid on screen, but you—the watcher—against the author,” Sheinkin says.

Sheinkin edits the episodes, adding graphics and the contestants' score. He particularly likes when the book is a graphic novel and he can include images.

The episodes are not just entertaining (and sometimes nerve-wracking) to watch, they are also an engaging and unique way for librarians and teachers to booktalk.

“I'll share an episode in a class, and then I'll have 10 kids waiting in the queue for the book,” says Rattner.

Author Fan Face-off has recorded shows with a who’s-who in A-list children’s authors, including Katherine Applegate, Varian Johnson, Cece Bell, Kekla Magoon, Dan Gutman, Karina Yan Glaser, Kate Messner, Victoria Jamieson, and Nic Stone.

Often, the conversations go beyond the competitive Q&A, with authors remembering details, sharing behind-the-scenes stories, or bonding over a specific moment with the reader.

[Read: Kid Lit Authors Step Up to Help Educators, Students, and Parents]

Rattner can’t pick a favorite of those taped so far.

“I love the pilot, of course,” she says. “I loved Pablo Cartaya's episode, because I felt like it got really deep. Ruth Behar had a superfan that shared a body cast that she made herself, and the two of them sang together at the end. I love Nic Stone's because, well, I love Nic Stone. Sarah Weeks and her fan were both so nervous, and I loved how they bonded over that. Really, I can go on and on about each episode.”

When asked about moments that stand out to him, Sheinkin talks about authors who help kids who are nervous or change the dynamic from a competition to a team effort.

“That’s been really cool to see,” he says. “Victoria Jamieson pointed out in a roller derby team, there’s no individual points, you score as a team. So, for that one, I ended up making it a cumulative score, because that was how they wanted it.”

Still to come for episodes that will post once a week through the end of the school year: Shows with Meg Medina, Christina Soontornvat, Candace Fleming, Trenton Lee Stewart, Rita Williams Garcia, and Kwame Alexander.

Says Sheinkin. “We were just trying to come up with something fun and helpful in this scary school year.”

Librarians or educators who know a student superfan who might want to take on their favorite author, or who have an idea for the web series, can contact Sheinkin via Twitter or his website.

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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