Not too long ago, I was speaking to a diverse group of 7th graders. They were diverse in every way – ethnicity, size, and even their desire to be in the room. Some entered smiling at me, obviously anticipating this day, the day when the author of the book they’d all read together would visit their school. Other shuffled in silently, eyes down, way too cool to care.
The body language of one girl caught my attention. She entered laughing and swinging her long hair. She had the attention of those around her. She was pretty, wearing more makeup than most of the other girls, and she looked more like a high school freshman than a 7th grader. She seemed more interested in laughing with the boys at her table than listening to a visiting author.
I’ve done enough author visits in the last seven years to know that middle schoolers can be a tough crowd. I knew I could engage the ones who were excited about my visit and, hopefully, win over those who were indifferent.
About half way through my presentation, the girl pulled out a blank piece of white notebook paper. I hoped she was so inspired by my talk of writing that she was moved to compose a poem or short story right there on the spot. But as moved around the room, I could see she was writing a note to someone. Probably to one of the boys. I sighed and thought, “I can’t reach them all, I guess.”
When the presentation was over, she came right up to me and, to my surprise, handed me the note. She smiled, and then hurried to catch up with the boys.
Here’s what it said, in part:
Dear Mrs.House, (close enough for me!)
Thank you making me feel confident about my writing. Hopefully you know how much this writer’s workshop meant to me. When I came to the writer’s workshop I thought it was going to be just like the other workshops I went to. I had so many questions that had no answers. I cherished all your words. I really appreciate you coming to our school. You answered my questions.
I bet you get a lot of letters but I want to tell you that you make me want to be a writer or at least get started. You probably won’t remember this letter in 2 days but you showed me skills that I will continue to use.
We’ve all heard the many reasons author visits are important: They promote interest in reading, they inspire young writers, they provide firsthand explanation of how publishing works, they encourage students to become better editors of their own work, they’re just plain FUN!
These are all great reasons for authors and schools to connect. But, I can tell you that at every school I’ve visited, at least one student has expressed in some way a profound connection with either me or my work. It’s often a student who stands out socially, is awkward, or very quiet. Sometimes, it’s the one I least expect. Those connections makes every hurdle schools must leap to get that author standing before that student in that particular moment worthwhile. Those face to face connections cannot happen anywhere else.
Earlier this week, author Matt de la Peña won the Newbery Medal for Last Stop on Market Street. A couple of years ago, he spoke to NPR about connecting with a particular student a school visit and about how reading changes young (and old) lives. It’s a piece worth reading. Click here.
Many authors’ websites and blogs tout the benefits of school visits. But, I thought perhaps I’d leave you with some links from others who have seen the magic happen when a student and author connect face to face.
From a librarian: https://youthserviceslibrarianship.wikispaces.com/Author+Visits
From a teacher: http://wonderteacher.com/authorvisitsinspireyoungwriters/
And, perhaps best of all, from the students: http://reederama.blogspot.com/2014/10/author-visits-are-important-because-you.html
And, to my friend at the school I visited not too long ago, I sent a personal reply via her librarian. I had to tell her she was wrong. I do remember her letter. More than two days, more than two months after my visit. I will always remember her. And, I hope she does become a writer. At least, anyway, she got started.
Michelle Houts is the author of four books for middle-grade readers. She has just completed renovations on a one-room schoolhouse which she’ll soon use as her writing studio. She loves to visit bigger schools, too. She’s happy because she’s just booked her first school visit in sunny Florida, and this is the view from her window today: