Met Any Good Authors Lately?

Classroom author visits can happen via Skype (here's a list of those who do this for free)

Illustration by Marc Rosenthal

At 7:25 am on the last day of school, five avid fifth-grade readers hustle into the library of Chamberlin School in South Burlington, VT. They shrug off backpacks and pull out advance copies of The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z, my middle-grade novel about a Vermont girl who’s convinced her school leaf collection project is ruining her life. They crowd around a PC webcam, ready to talk books. On the opposite shore of Lake Champlain, I fire up my MacBook in my own classroom. In half an hour, my seventh graders will arrive for homeroom, but, first, I’m going to visit with these fifth graders from across the lake. I launch Skype, and when the computerized ring tone sounds at exactly 7:30, I click on the phone icon to answer. “Good morning, Kate!” says Chamberlin’s librarian, Cally Flickinger. She introduces the students, who start off quietly, a little wary of this newfangled sort of author visit. But soon they’re taking turns sharing their favorite characters and we forget the computers that connect us. It feels like we’re all in the same room, and the questions fly across the miles. “What happened to Bianca after the book ended? Did she ever become nicer?” “Are you going to write a sequel?” The video connection allows for some show and tell. I hold up the leaf collection from my school that sparked the idea for the book. The students also get a sneak peak at the outline I’m working on for my new project, a middle-grade mystery. I love the way they talk not just to me but to one another, building on ideas like readers do in any book club discussion. “My favorite character was Nonna. She reminded me of my own grandmother because they have similar personalities. She bakes really well, too.” “I liked Ian. He was funny.” “I thought he was annoying.” “Yeah, like my brother!” Our half hour flies by, and we’re just saying goodbye when my school’s 8 o’clock bell rings, and students start filing into homeroom. I close my laptop and take attendance. This connection between an author and a classroom of young readers could not have happened without our ability to videoconference. If you’ve ever had an author visit your group in person, you know what a wonderful element that can add to a book discussion. Is it really the same with a virtual visit? Well…yes and no. In May 2007, the faculty book club that I facilitate read Chris Bohjalian’s novel The Double Bind (Shaye Areheart: Harmony, 2007), and Bohjalian, a local author, agreed to meet us in Burlington for drinks and conversation. When he arrived, we introduced ourselves, passed around some nachos, and began our discussion. We shared our reading experiences, and Bohjalian answered questions about everything from the novel’s real-life backstory to his writing process. He shared some tidbits about his upcoming book, which at the time was Skeletons at the Feast, before signing our books and heading off to another commitment. How does that compare to a virtual book club visit? While it’s always terrific to meet an author in person, I’ve found that similar kinds of discussion and interaction are possible whether the author is there in the flesh or just on the screen. Once students are used to the technology (and they adapt more quickly than we do, most often) they’re happy to carry on a conversation as if the author is sitting in the room with them. Virtual handshakes are still a little tricky, but book clubs that opt for a videoconferenced author visit can sometimes arrange to have personalized bookplates mailed so that kids can walk away with a signed book at the end. How do you know if the author of your book club selection is willing to make a virtual visit to your group? Almost all authors have an online presence with Web sites and email links, so it’s often possible to send a quick note to inquire. The authors listed in the sidebar (p. 38) offer free 20-minute virtual visits with book clubs that have read one of their titles. Once you’ve decided on your book and contacted the author, you don’t need to be a technology genius to set up, but you will need basic software and hardware, as well as a plan for your virtual visit. Here’s a checklist to help you prepare: Before your book club meeting:
  • Download Skype or other videoconferencing software at home, and try it out with someone you know. While Skype may be the best-known program, it’s certainly not the only option. Apple’s iChat and Google Video and Voice also offer free videoconferencing capabilities. The book club and author must use the same platform, so that needs to be arranged in advance.
  • If you plan to meet at school, contact your technology coordinator to make sure you can use the software. Some districts block programs like Skype, and if that’s the case, you’ll want to see if it’s possible to unblock it for your program. Test it at school to make sure it works.
  • Contact the author to arrange your virtual visit. Set a date and time and decide which videoconferencing program you’ll use and who will initiate the call.
  • Once you’ve arranged a time (morning may be best to avoid high Internet usage), reserve the space where you’ll be having your virtual visit. Make sure all the necessary equipment is available and working. You’ll need a computer with a broadband Internet connection, as well as a webcam and microphone. These can be built in or attached via your computer’s USB ports.
  • Plan your meeting. How long will it last? Will members gather around a computer or will the author be projected on a big screen? Where will kids stand or sit so they can be seen and heard? With adequate preparation, you’ll avoid confusion and make the most of discussion time. Have kids write questions on index cards in advance to keep things moving.
  • Make sure the kids understand that your connection may be lost temporarily during the chat. It helps to have a plan in place for when that happens. Whenever I use Skype with my students, they bring their novels, with the understanding that a lost connection is their signal to start reading while I get things fixed.
On the day of your book club meeting:
  1. Power up your computer and test your microphone and camera at least 20 minutes before you’re scheduled to contact the author. That will give you time to solve any last-minute problems.
  2. Launch your videoconferencing program, and either call the author or wait for him/her to call you—whatever you agreed to in advance.
  3. Once your connection is established, introduce everyone who will be speaking. If the kids seem reticent, you might start things off with a question or two to prompt discussion.
  4. If your connection is lost, don’t panic. Just call the author back. It may take a few tries before you establish a good connection.
  5. Keep an eye on the clock, and let book club members know when it’s almost time to wrap up the discussion.
When I Skype into a book club meeting where kids are discussing my book or watch my own students video chat with an author, I can’t help but be a little jealous on behalf of my grade-school self. My bookshelves were bursting with Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume titles that I read over and over again, but I never even dreamed of talking with the authors. These were distant, magical people, in my mind, off scribbling stories and drinking tea in faraway author places—castles in Scotland, maybe. Today’s students live in a brave new literary world—one in which they can connect with their favorite authors at bookstore signings or during school visits, not to mention on Facebook. Most authors today have at least a Web site with an email link, and some go well beyond that. They blog. They podcast. They vlog. They tweet. That means greater accessibility for young readers, who then get to know writers as real people with real lives, not just magical, faraway ones scribbling in Scottish castles. And, besides, these days you can easily Skype from your castle.
Author Information
Kate Messner ( is a middle school English teacher and author of The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z (Walker Books, 2009).

Authors Who Skype with Book Clubs

These authors are willing to participate in 20-minute Skype visits free of charge. (Many also offer more in-depth virtual visits for a fee.) Middle Grade Book Clubs (Ages 8-12) Teen Book Clubs Picture Book Clubs for Younger Readers (4-8) Additional Links: I’ll be adding to the list as more authors come on board.  For updates, check this post.

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