Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of following Mark Teague to three different schools while he presented his new book to hundreds of avid children.
This is one of the joys of working in a bookstore, working with children and the authors they love, working with the teachers, librarians and parents who are all committed to making the kids in their lives literate and widely read. We may not make huge sales (note to self: remember that the first weeks in the Seattle schools is Book Fair week!), but the "ooh"s and excited chatter that erupt when the first story is read, the familiarity of meeting a new book in a series, makes it all worthwhile.
There were a couple of good sized groups in yesterday's meetings and I loved that Mark involved the teachers sitting along the sides of the gyms; the behavior watchers became part of the story and the event by holding copies of the book so everyone could see without having to always look up front at the book being held by Mark. It is a good way to make everyone a guest at the party.
Mark has great control over his crowds. He laid out the rules before he got started ("If you have a question, raise your hand, and stay quiet so we can hear the question") and the kids, pretty much, followed along.
There was one open-ended question, "do you and your brothers and sisters squabble like that?", that provoked some amazingly intense discussion among the first, second, and third graders at Echo Lake Elementary School. The rise of chatter, like an entire rookery of crows calling, completely overwhelmed the hissing ssshhhs of the adults, and not one child noticed the upraised hand signal with the middle fingers closed tightly on the thumb signifying closed mouths. They had things to say and they were important! Each one of those kids had been victim to someone not letting them look out the other window, or the radio is on her side, or fingers walked over the duct tape separating them ("MOOOOMM! He's on my side!"). I sense a class in narrative non-fiction coming.
And, OH! when you are lucky enough to have an author in attendance who also illustrates the books! Every single child in every school was absolutely silent when Mark put his pen to the page. There was a little movement, a little susurration, while he explained how he decided where to start drawing, that he needs to know where on the page the action takes place before he gets started (he starts at the top, works his way down the page). But, the moment he put the black pen to the paper, at the top, little triangles and a brushy line, it was absolutely quiet. Until he said, "Do you know what this is?" "EARS!!!" Turning back to the easel, he lifts his pen and, brandishing it like a baton, the voices calm and then disappear, as he starts the next few lines to complete the drawing of Ike, the hero of the Mrs. LaRue books. He finishes, and capping the pen like a little bow, the school erupts in applause and whistles.
Questions next, pretty good ones, too. When did you start writing? About your age, dictating stories to Mom, drawing the pictures, then stapling the pages together. Where do you get your names? Keep a journal, write interesting names down, sometimes the names suggest what that character will be like. How do you make every drawing of Ike the same? Practice, practice, practice, I draw him over and over until it's right. One of the teachers asked, "How often do you rewrite your stories?" Over and over until it's right. "It could take 10 times?" I re-write until it's right, sometimes it takes a lot of rewriting until every word is right.
I love that authors tell kids that what they see in the book doesn't just happen, quick, like a finger-snap, that they work really hard, writing, sending it to an editor, rewriting, sending it away again, getting it back and working on it again. Maybe having to throw what may be your best words out because they don't work as well as others in this story. It validates the teacher and let's kids feel good about having to rewrite their own work. I can hear them now, "Even Mark Teague had to re-write his stories. And then he had to send it away! You can work on your story and have it back right now!"
Anyway, the long lasting effects of having an author visit a school are many and varied. For some, it's a chance just for a break in the classroom routine, for others, it can be inspiring to see a grown-up making a living doing something that looks like fun. Some kids get teased for writing or drawing and this is validation for them. Some children find a soul mate in the author, some find solace in the words. All of them are affected in one way or the other by being read to or talked to, encouraged to try a book they may not ever have wanted to pick up, changed by the experience, no matter their ages.
Can you see the absolute concentration in these boys as they watch Mark write their names in the books they love? They are watching him draw a little tiny Ike next to their names. They will never forget this.