Dear Author, When’s Your Birthday?

About a month ago, I received an email with the subject line “Important Business.” Here it is, in its entirety:

Hello, I am a sixth grader and I am doing a book report on you book Just another day in my insanely real life I need to learn things about you like your birthday so can you please help me.

No other questions or comments. No signature.

I always answer reader emails, but this one made me hesitate. Usually when a kid writes an author, he or she says something about your book and his/her experience reading it. Or the kid explains the assignment. Or maybe asks when your next book is coming out–or when “they” will make a movie.

But all this kid said was that he/she wanted to know my birthday. That struck me as odd. Was the writer even a kid? There was no way to tell; any adult could also write without punctuation. And would a kid use a subject line like “Important Business”? To me that had the ring of phishing.

Plus there was this: Why did the kid want to know my birthday? I understand that when kids write biographies, they’re taught to provide the subject’s relevant data–but presumably, this was a book report, not a biography, anyway. So why was my birthday even relevant? What did it reveal about my book?

Not knowing how, or even if, to respond to this email, I sought advice from several author friends. Most of them told me that they’d received similar emails at one time or other, and simply provided a fake birthday. Or they gave the right year, but not the right month, or vice versa. A couple said they answered truthfully, but didn’t know why–and come to think of it, might not in the future. Others told me this email smelled phishy to them, and I should just hit the Delete key and forget it.

I’m still thinking about this email. What I keep coming back to is this: When grownups encourage kids to email or otherwise communicate with authors, that’s terrific. But let’s make this outreach a teachable moment. Let’s explain to kids the difference between a courteous, relevant question about an author’s work, his/her writing method, etc–and a question about personal data. Let’s remind kids that most personal information an author wishes to disclose can be found on his/her website. Chances are good that if it’s not on the website, the author prefers to keep it private, or doesn’t think it’s relevant or helpful to a reader.

And while we’re at it, let’s remind kids that if someone they can’t identify asks them a personal question– online or otherwise– they shouldn’t feel compelled to answer, either.

Barbara Dee
  1. I think that email feels like a grown person trying to sound like a kid.

    • Cynthia, that’s what I thought, too. In the end, after much agonizing, I decided not to answer. ?

  2. Sounds like phishing to me. Thanks for the heads up. I doubt if I ever would have suspected.

  3. And believe me, authors are thrilled to know when a book of theirs connects with a reader! Emails from readers are often what keeps writers’ spirits up when the words aren’t coming! The only kinds of emails that are problematic are the ones that ask for personal info–and the ones that ask the author to do the kid’s assignment for her!

  4. I have to agree. A book report would not include much information about the author except maybe the inspiration behind it or what the author hoped to achieve by writing it. But I have to say,knowing that many authors will respond nowadays makes me excited to guide my daughter’s when they have book assignments what could be better than receiving a response to a book that touched them so?