Archive for School Visits

A School with an Idea Worth Stealing

I had a happy experience on a recent evening at Ichabod Crane Primary School in Valatie, NY. I was one of two authors invited to an annual event at the school: Young Authors Night. The other invited guest was the brilliant Doreen Rappaport, who writes widely-acclaimed picture-book biographies. I’d met Doreen before and she’s simply the best; her work is second to none. We were asked to come from 4:00 – 6:00 to sign books. That’s it, just sit and sign. However, no payment — but we were assured that the Ichabod Crane community comes out strong for this event. 

Well, they sure did.

When I entered the school, I passed a large room lined with tables. On each table, neatly laid out, were books written by students. Each class, grades K-3, had its own table of handsomely-produced, original books. (This was the “young” authors section of the evening; Doreen and I represented a somewhat older demographic.) Tonight was the night when parents were invited to celebrate their children’s work. The not-so-young guest authors were stationed around the corner in a small library. Out in the hallway, a famed local bookseller, Rondi Brower, had set up an attractive display of our books. Note to potential idea-stealers: Rondi’s role is indispensable here. Partnering with a local bookstore is an essential part of the evening. (Oh, and a portion of the sales go to the school, so it’s a fundraiser, too.)

Inside the library, I was offered a chair, a desk, and a pen. Same deal for Doreen, across the room. Doreen and I chatted a bit, traded war stories, while the librarian, Alanna Moss, gracefully attended to last-minute details. Frequent readers of James Preller Dot Com may recognize “Miss Moss,” for she’s the librarian who hilariously had herself duct-taped to a wall to motivate end-of-year book returns. At almost 4:00, we took our places. “They’ll start coming in soon,” Alanna informed us.

I hope so, I thought.

Oh, and one other key detail: The school has been hosting this event for many years, always on the day of the school budget vote. Smart, right? It helps get parents out of the house, they visit the school, support literacy, vote “yes” for the budget, all before dinner. Genius. And an idea worth stealing!


I signed books nonstop for two hours. Same with Doreen.

No question that a huge part of the night’s success can be attributed to the aforementioned Miss Moss, who did so much advance work prepping the students. She shared our books in the library, building anticipation and excitement for the “big night,” inspiring young readers to come on out and get their books signed by real (and evidently still live) authors.

“Get ’em while we last!”

I have one last image to share. Because the lines are long and the event is so well-organized, students came to my table with their names neatly printed on Post-It notes. This is extremely helpful and efficient, and it also frees us up to discuss topics other than how exactly to spell, say, MacKenzee. I’d take the note, slap it on the table, sign the book, we’d chat a bit — “What are you doing this summer?” “What was your book about?””Any brothers or sisters?” “Have you read Jigsaw Jones before?” the usual light banter — and move on to the next. Toward the end of the night, my desk looked like this:

 

This is just to say: Thank you, good folks at Ichabod Crane Primary School for letting me share a slice of this special night. It was impressive all the way around, particularly the way the families came out for their children — to support literacy, to vote, to have some family fun. A true community of readers. Well done!

Courage Keeps Walking

A friend alerted me to a recent post on Twitter from a Texas librarian. I’m not on Twitter yet, but I’ve been seriously considering it for more than a year. Slothlike in my cogitations.

Anyway!

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This comes from a passage from THE COURAGE TEST. Maybe I had forgotten about it. The moment here reminds me of the initial concept behind the book, which I kind of buried during the writing of it. The iceberg theory of writing, I guess, that 90% is under the water. Still important, just unseen from the surface.

Reading from THE COURAGE TEST on a school visit.

Reading from THE COURAGE TEST on a school visit.

My idea was that Will’s journey, which parallels that of Lewis & Clark, gives him experiences — i.e., lessons — that he will carry home, which he can put to use when he encounters the true test of his strength and character.

In this moment, Will learns about the explorers’ courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. They could have given up. Maybe it was almost reasonable to do so. But no. Courage keeps walking.

It’s interesting. We’re in a sometimes-awkward corrective phase in children’s literature. The diversity movement is making important inroads in our schools and libraries and publishing houses. My sense is that this is not really the moment for old white guys like Lewis & Clark. Heads are turned in other directions. And I get that, I do. And yet! Their story is still worth knowing, still an essential, defining aspect of the American experience, for good and for bad, and very much worth examining through a modern, “enlightened” perspective.

Thank you, Karen, for that sweet tweet!

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An Author Confesses About School Visits

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I was sent this photo after a series of elementary school visits in Hudson, Ohio. The boy’s name is Alex, we had the chance to chat, and I guess he came away inspired to write his own stories. His mother took the shot and passed it along to his teacher, who in turn shared it with me. I post it here with their permission.

The visit was particularly successful because these schools did everything right. I’ve said it a thousand times: “Authors don’t do school visits; schools do author visits.” 

They shared my books with their students. They built up excitement and a sense of anticipation. They thought in advance about questions the students might ask. They created artwork. And they read, enthusiastically. Clearly, the feeling in that school was: “We’re having an author visit! Isn’t this exciting!”

Parents got involved. Volunteers put in hours of work. Teachers carved out time from their challenging schedules. By the time I showed up, all the important work had already been done. I was just the icing on the cake. A real, live author.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I’ve felt a gradual change in myself. School visits can be hard on an author. It’s not easy work. We leave our cushy routine, our home, our family, our kitchen full of snacks. We walk into schools we’ve never seen before and perform, calling upon an entirely different set of skills than we normally employ in our working lives. We’re good at being alone in empty rooms. So we get invited to talk to a sprawled group of 120 second-graders in a crowded cafetorium. Exhausting!

But like all good things in life, the more you put into something, the more you get out of it. Now that I’ve been visiting schools for more than 20 years, I can honestly say that I love these visits more than ever. I get it now; I’m all in.

I’m grateful to be invited, happy to interact with these young people, to talk about reading and writing — to answer questions — to listen — and to share with them my love of books. Because I believe in books, I believe that reading matters. I’m fortunate to have an opportunity to make a difference. 

Maybe if I’m lucky I’ll even inspire a few students along the way. Light a fire. Change a mind. It’s an incredible honor and — yes — it comes with great responsibilities and rewards.

Those kids, those faces. 

Our future.

I’ll confess: I’m cynical by nature. I tend to cringe when a rock star tells an audience that he/she “loves” them. “I love you, Houston!” I mean, come on, can you love 15,000 strangers? I’ve never quite believed it. But today, I’m not so sure.

I ask myself, “Do I love these kids?

And it kind of surprises me to sit here and conclude, “Yes, yes, I think I do.” 

I love what these school visits are all about, particularly the best ones. The visits when a school puts in the time and effort to make the day impactful, meaningful. You see it as the students walk into the room, the way they furtively wave to me in the hallway. I love their youth, their curiosity, their openness and sense of becoming.

It’s not about me. My books are fine, sure, but there are so many other amazing books out there. I’m just trying to open a door. Create some excitement. Share a positive message about literacy. The joy of books, and the value of self-expression. Of having something inside you that has to come out. Your own, unique fingerprint. It’s just an incredible feeling to be a part of that conversation.

To connect with these young people, and maybe, just maybe, to help them see that possibility within themselves. 

To dip their finger in ink. To make a mark.

So if you’ve ever invited me to visit your school, I’m here to say thank you.

Thank you very much.

 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #271: Lilly’s Fabulous Letter

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Do yourself a favor. Take a moment to read one of my favorite letters, just exceptionally sweet & kind. 

You know, it’s not about me. It’s about Lilly, and kids like her. There are so many of them out there. Pure and good and excited about books, open and bursting with light.

It could be any author or illustrator who walks into a school. Who gets that opportunity to stand before these children, talk about reading and writing and our silly pets. On this day, it happened to be me, and I reached a receptive reader named Lilly.

Again: How lucky am I? 

 

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I replied: 

Dear Lilly,

I enjoyed my visit to your school, and was especially glad to receive a wonderful batch of letters from your class, taught by Ms. B.

I read each and every letter. But I have to confess that yours, in particular, stirred my heart. You were so kind, said such nice things, that I wanted to take a minute to thank you.

Writing is a quiet life. At this very moment, I am alone in silent room of my house, pecking away at a computer keyboard. Sometimes I will speak the words out loud so I may hear them, to know they are okay. My cats don’t talk much. I play music, daydream, try to write. It can be lonely at times. I sometimes fill with self-doubt. 

Even when I finish books and send them out into the world, I never really know what happens to them. That’s why school visits are nice; I get to meet kids like you. And sometimes, on very good days, some of those readers write letters. And that’s when I know I’ve made a new friend.

Please say hello to Cally, your bird -– and, of course, your terrific fish. 

Happy to be your new friend,

James Preller

Author Visit Revisited: Action Sequence!

I was recently sent a whole mess of photos from a recent school visit, so here’s a sampling. Note: I sit for very young readers (very quiet and calm for the kindergartners), stand for everybody else.

Of course, the best shots are of the faces looking up at me — eager, excited, bored, inspired, amused — but it’s perhaps not my place to post too many faces on the internet. So I humbly give you a Jimmy Overdose.

All I can add is that I consider it a great honor and responsibility (sort of like Spidey Powers) to enter a school and speak before young audiences. It is also, mostly, a lot of fun. One of the best parts of my job. I try to make a positive impact. Share my enthusiasm for reading, writing, thinking, literacy, creativity . . . and hope that my visit helps create a few sparks.

Now is the best time to start planning school visits for new year. In 2018, I’ve already spent a week in Texas and a week in Ohio, in addition to my normal circuit in New York, New Jersey, etc.

I’m ready to hop on a plane to visit schools near you.

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