On Friday I traveled the 144 miles to Bloomington Illinois to meet with freshmen at Bloomington High School. I was invited by Keran Johnson, the school’s retiring Library Media Specialist (she’s in full countdown mode). We met last fall when I spoke at the Illinois School Library Media Association in Springfield, and she mentioned how much she wanted an author visit at her school before she left. Over the months we corresponded, trying to find some way to make it happen. At times we almost gave up, but miracles can happen. I guess we have to thank the snow gods, thanks to the need for snow days to make up for closings during the horrific winter, school did NOT end on May 23, the originally scheduled date. So at the last minute, they were able to fit an author visit in the school year.
While I did not know that my day would begin with the first period class at 7:30 (I am so not a morning person) I got there and got to work. I actually got there the night before. The drive took about three hours (2 1/2 according to Mapquest, but they did not include the construction slowdown in I55) Keran put me up overnight in her lovely home, and treated me to dinner. Then it was rise and shine and face the students.
|The teachers and I|
During the day I faced five classes from two English teachers, along with some kids who got passes to attend one of my session. The groups listened attentively (OK as attentively as kids who really wanted summer vacation to begin already) could. I talked about writing, and the author’s responsibility to craft a story that reaches out and grabs a reader and sucks them in. And about the readers bill of rights, most especially the right to stop reading any story that bores them. I admit to valuing that right just as much as I value the right to read anything, the right to reread and the right to skip pages. I talk to lots of reluctant readers, and I think many of them are or become reluctant because they don’t realize they have the right to dislike things other like, that right to read anything they like, and the all-important right to not finish if they are not hooked.
The school put together a poster for me to advertise my school visit. I loved it and just wished I could take it home with me. None of the students, and it was a culturally diverse group, had any issue with the faces on the cover. Kids really don’t seem to be put off by that, although publishers and booksellers seem to think only white faces on a cover will sell. Learning that my 2014 release, Minority of One, featured a black gay teen, perked up their interest. And when they asked me about my work in progress and I mentioned the heroine of that book is going to be bi-sexual, several of them wanted to see it NOW! (Sorry, it’s just started so they have to wait until at least 2015). I also shared lunch with some eager future authors, and we discussed the writing process.
Like the group I spoke to a few weeks ago in New Orleans, these kids were interested in multicultural books. We talked about crafting believable and likeable characters, which is where I start my stories. I read the beginning pages of Pull, my first published YA novel, and of one of my short stories and watched them perk up and tell me to keep going. I left the teachers with a list of book choices the kids could start with in deciding on a summer read for the contest, but reminded each student it was up to them to find the book that best appealed to them. Describe your likes to a librarian. Or maybe pick a book off the shelves at random. Read chapter one. If it doesn’t appeal to you, don’t try to force yourself to read it. Toss it and find something else.
All of this was to prepare to set them a challenge. Summer is a time when many kids want to do anything except read. I challenged them to go out and find something, fiction, poetry, an anthology, non-fiction, memoir, even fan fiction or magazines. Something they will feel so strongly about they will want to come back and recommend it to their friends. Because if they do, they will win prizes that include t-shirts. There is no requirement they read a specific book (I was pleased that several of them inquired about my books) or that it be fiction (non-fiction, graphic novels, memoir etc work just fine). This is not a replacement for any summer reading set by their teacher. But it is incentive for the eager readers, an inducement to reluctant readers, and a hope that some of them will find that maybe reading isn’t all that bad after all and share that with their friends.
Over the summer and the beginning of the fall years, these freshmen kids (now sophomores) will enter their recommendations int he school system. They have to add in a blurb about why this story was recommended. And then, they have to get their friends to vote on the best recommendation. The library will collect the votes, and I will send prizes to the top three. I am looking forward to hearing from the teachers and sending out prize packages.
And happy retirement, Keran.
I teach online classes for writers, give workshops on reluctant readers and writing, and presentations to schools and libraries. If you are interested in a school, library or conference visit, use my contact page to send me an email