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.