Category Archives: Diversity

Book Fairs: Forging Connections Between Authors and Readers

As an author and as a parent, one of the school activities I love most is the book fair. This chance to watch our readers as they browse books and talk about what they’re connecting to is invaluable; it provides a unique peek into what they love about books and characters that I don’t get anywhere else. Obviously, there are other tools and even metrics to measure what’s resonating with our middle grade readers, but book fairs are just special.

Recently, in an effort to enhance the book fair at my children’s school, I piloted a new program called “Meet the Author.” I stole the idea from another book fair I had worked with in Oro Valley, AZ, where their week-long event included two full days of classroom visits from authors whose books were being sold at the fair.

It was a wonderful way to immerse the students in the whole process of publishing—from the crafting and editing of a book to the actual purchase. The visits also offered readers who were able to purchase the authors’ books a tangible reminder of the visit—personally autographed books! The difference between these and the typical author school visit was that it all happened in the classrooms, which provided a more intimate visit than is usually manageable when you pack an entire grade level into a large room.

The event took a lot of heavy-lifting: months of organization and two long days of managing a roster of authors and parent volunteers who could escort our visitors around the school. But oh, the results. Kids were excited and energized; brand new authors were born in every classroom. It was truly wonderful to watch.

When I imported the idea to our school here in northern Virginia, I started small: no budget and only one author for one grade level presentation. I had to depend on the kindness of an author who would be willing to speak for free and still be willing to sign books afterward. That author was Leah Henderson, author of ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL.

Leah was fabulous. Her presentation was interesting, engaging, and interactive. The children loved her slide show, which included photos of Senegal, where her novel is set. They really plugged into her questions, competing with each other to identify which of her geographically diverse photo slides were in Africa.

Even better? Our 6th graders gained a valuable and exciting connection between the book they saw on the shelves at the book fair and the in-person visit from the actual author—the face of the artistry behind the pages.

“Whenever someone can build a connection with a book they’re more apt to pick it up the next time they see it—often curious what other connections they may make. Having a ‘Meet the author’ event before or during a book fair is a wonderful way for students to hear the behind the scenes in an author’s book journey.”

                                                     –Leah Henderson, ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL

It’s important to note here that the experience itself—an author visit—wasn’t new for us, nor would it be for most schools that want to try this. Our school in particular is very fortunate in that we have an active librarian who schedules author visits as often as her budget allows: we’ve met some pretty amazing, well-known writers. But this was unique in that the author’s work was on sale at the book fair, so everything happened in real time: students saw the book on the shelves at the fair and heard about it in person. They got to interact with the author. Many bought the book and got it signed, much like bookstore signings, which not all children get to attend.

One student said afterward, “It was very interesting to hear how she was inspired to write the book and I liked that she focused on that instead of giving spoilers about what the book was about. That was really good.”

Another said, “I was interested to find out what it takes to get a book published. It takes a lot longer than I thought, and I didn’t know that before we listened to Ms. Henderson. She was a great speaker.”

What motivated me to share this with all of you is twofold: 1) I wanted to encourage all of you who get to work with school book fairs to consider this idea (if you haven’t already); 2) I wanted to thank all the authors who are willing to cut or eliminate their speaking fees entirely when they are being courted by a local school or a speaker program with no budget. I understand that for many of us, speaking fees are a vital part of our income and we can’t make ends meet without them, certainly not when it involves travel outside our region. But the fees can also be prohibitive. I was so grateful to Leah for her generosity because I had no budget at all; any speaker fee would have come from my own pocket, which I couldn’t do. But the value of Leah’s visit was priceless for our kids, and, I can confirm, gained her some new fans. And if we’re lucky? A few new authors were born that day.

Happy Holidays to all of you, and here’s to a 2018 full of great books and good cheer.

STEM Tuesday Science in Fiction Books– In the Classroom

We’ve taken a few of the titles from last week’s book list – Science in Fiction Books – and found some fantastic ways to use them in the classroom. There are lots of links and places for teachers, students, and parents to go from here!  Have fun!

The Reinvention of Edison Thomas   by Jacqueline Houtman

Science comes easily to Eddy (Edison) Thomas. Social relationships? Not so much. On her website, Houtman shares a number of classroom activities which will prod middle-grade readers toward deeper discovery and understanding. Here are a couple.  See more cross-curricular classroom activities here. 

Design an experiment to test Fact Number 28 (p. 73): Listening to slow music can lower your heart rate, while music with a faster tempo can increase your heart rate. Who would be your subjects? How would you measure heart rate? What other factors might affect your experiment? How would you make sure that you are only measuring the effect of the music?

Find out how the special effects in your favorite science fiction or fantasy movie were done. (Many DVDs come with special feature discs that explain how the effects were achieved, or you can use the Internet.) How have special effects in movies changed in the last 10 years? 30 years? 50 years? How did they do special effects before there were computers and computer animation?

Eye of the Storm  by Kate Messner

A summer at science camp turns into a life-or-death situation for Jaden and her new friends Risha and Alex in this thrilling science-packed middle-grade novel.  Teachers can find a thorough Eye of the Storm Discussion Guide on author Kate Messner’s website as well as a link to a gallery of Eye of the Storm Resources on Pinterest. 

Is there a Placid Meadows in your state?  Use data from the national weather service to look at where tornados or super storms have occurred in your state in the past year. Map locations and decide if there is a spot that, like the fictional Placid Meadows, seems immune from such disasters. Or, is there a “tornado alley” or path that seems to attract severe weather time and time again?

Using gripping fiction like  Eye of the Storm in conjunction with nonfiction books about climate change and super storms can add a personal element to research and discussion of these topics.

The Same Stuff as Stars by Katherine Paterson

Truly a story of discovery, this novel takes readers along with Angel, the 11-year-old main character, on a journey in which she’ll find out things about herself and about the universe that she never believed possible.

The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance (NCBLA) has created a wonderful teacher’s resource for The Same Stuff as Stars here.  (Scroll past the resources for one of Paterson’s other books, but tuck those away for another day!)

As Angel learns more about the constellations, teachers and parents can help young readers do the same with websites such as KidsAstronomy.com and NASA Kids Club.

The Great Hibernation by Tara Dairman

Every great story and every great scientific discovery have started with the same question:  “What if?” So, what if every adult in the whole town of St. Polonius fell asleep and the children were left to run the town?

There’s so much fun to be had with a story that mixes science and problem-solving with  politics and mystery.

The Investigative Process and Premise –  Scientists begin their investigative process by asking questions.  Authors create a premise before drafting a novel. They are both asking and answering the “What if” question. Take a look at the books your class had read this year. What is the “what if” question posed by the author. Now, take a look the science topics you’ve discussed this year. What questions did the scientists ask for their investigations?  Now ask your students the following questions:   Can your science topics lead to new fictional story ideas?  Can fiction stories lead you to further investigate a science topic?

What is hibernation? Using the unexpected hibernation of the adults in St. Polonius to launch a study of real hibernation. Which animals hibernate and why? Where and when do animals hibernate?  Use facts found at How Stuff Works  to chart your findings on graphs or maps.

Add to the list!  If you have a classroom activity to accompany a sciencey-fiction book you’ve read, post it in the comments below. We love sharing your ideas!

Michelle Houts is the author of ten books for young readers. Her Lucy’s Lab series is another example of science-filled fiction. Find Lucy’s Pinterest page with classroom activities and experiments here.

10 Tips for Research Travel for Writers

One of the things a book reviewer invariably comments on is verisimilitude of a book’s setting, the vividness of the details, the authenticity of the regional voice. And how to you get that authenticity? If you are writing about someplace other than our own home town, travel is an important part about getting the research right.  One of the first writers I ever met and one who went on to become a mentor and friend, Susan Fletcher, went all the way to Iran to research her books Shadow Spinner and Alphabet of Dreams. She wanted to know what color the dirt was, the texture of the sand in the desert, and the smell of the souk. The result is a pair of books that were critically praised in America but also widely respected in their Persian editions in Iran.

I have since traveled to research my own books, both in the US and occasionally abroad. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way.

  1. Take a first aid kit and comfortable shoes. Always. You will be walking far more than you planned, and it’s just the worst when you have finally found the vista you needed most and be distracted by blisters or bee stings with no medical help in sight.
  2. Leave the computer behind. I get so wrapped up in my screen, it can b
    e a real detriment to engaging in the place I’m visiting. Most phones come with a camera, a note taking function and voice recording function. That’s all I need. I try to resist the urge to check email and social media. The kind of discovery that makes the details of my story feel authentic is not going to come from a screen.
  3. Be socially brave. Ask people questions. Engage. Most people like
  4. to talk about their home town and home culture. A month of reading in a library will not give the kind of insights that make something feel true. For example when I asked a family in a rural Oregon county what difference the reintroduction of wolves have made to their life, they said, “Now we send our kids to the bus stop with a gun.” That’s the sort of vivid detail that doesn’t come up in books and newspapers.
  5. Bring small gifts from home. I usually bring a stack of postcards from Oregon when I travel and give them as a thank you to a person I’ve had a conversation with on a train or at a pub. If I’ve made an appointment to see somebody–say a curator at a museum–I might bring something quintessentially Oregon like marionberry jam or chocolate truffles with douglas fir tips, or some small token of appreciation.
  6. Do not collect things unless it is specifically permitted. In many places even collecting a rock or shell from the ground is forbidden. In some public gardens it is against the law to remove any vegetation, even fallen leaves or flowers. Sometimes the fine is shockingly high.Take a photo. Trace the outline of a leaf, catch a sound clip of a waterfall,
  7. Track expenses. Many are tax deductible. Your flight or milage, admissions to museums, and exhibitions, your lodging, meetings that are specifically related to your writing count. The gifts you bought for your family, the play you took in just for fun, and the expenses of your traveling companions, not so much.
  8. Be open to discovery. The real benefit of going to a location is to find new perspectives and information that doesn’t get into the usual channels.
  9. Be culturally aware. sometimes the official line on a cultural or historical event is a dot off the full picture. Or, okay, an entire mile. The traditional thanksgiving story is a prime example. Take in more than one perspective. Be willing to change your story if  your version in not fair in its representation. Or be clear in your bias from the outset.
  10. Take contact information from key sources for follow up. You may be making revisions on the final version of this story 10 or 12 years after your initial research.
  11. Go beyond the guide book. Get off the beaten path. Linger. Arrive at an off peak time. Ask local folks where to go. The joy of travel is the unexpected and your book will be the stronger for it.