Archive for School Visits

PREACHING TO THE CHOIR ABOUT SCHOOL LIBRARIANS: So We Can All Sing Together, One Voice, Loud & Strong

 

PHOTO: Tom Gralish.

PHOTO: Tom Gralish.

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I’m primarily writing to pass on a link about school libraries. Maybe the article states the obvious. Essential stuff we already know, or certainly sense.  I realize that I’m preaching to the choir here. But what I’ve come to believe in life, and politics, is that it’s important to preach to the choir. That’s how we can all open the hymnal to the same page, how we all sing out together, loud and clear. Not a bunch of scattered voices, but a powerful choir.

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Here’s the link to a terrific article by Carol Heinsdorf and Debra Kachel, “School Libraries Are Essential to Learning,” along with a copy of the first few paragraphs. Their immediate focus is on Philadelphia public schools, but this represents a national trend:

In 1991, there were 176 certified librarians in Philadelphia public schools. This year there are 11 and only five are known to be actually doing what they were trained to do. Five librarians for the nation’s eighth-largest school district.

Leaving Philadelphia’s public school libraries without professional staffing is a grave mistake. It will have consequences for the students for the rest of their lives. Study after study shows a clear link between school libraries staffed by certified librarians and student achievement.

In 2012, research showed that students who had school library programs and certified librarians were more likely to have advanced reading and writing scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests. And they were less likely to have “below basic” scores.

The same study found that school library programs have their greatest impact on students who are economically disadvantaged, black, Hispanic, or have disabilities. African American students in schools with certified librarians are twice as likely to earn advanced writing scores as those in schools without librarians.

A Mansfield University paper that looked at studies done in 23 states verified that schools with a trained librarian – someone who teaches students and works with teachers to develop information and research skills – have a consistent positive effect on student achievement regardless of demographic and economic differences among students.

In my professional life, I’ve been fortunate to walk into hundred of schools around the country as a guest author.  Increasingly, I see libraries that are understaffed, and I meet librarians who are tasked to provide full-time services on part-time pay (and hours). On many days, these librarians are simply not in the building. In many schools, the library is increasingly marginalized and treated as non-essential — though, of course, no one on a school board ever admits to that out loud. “We may have cut the job in half,” they will tell anyone who’ll listen, “but it will not effect our children.”

Sorry, folks, but I’m calling bull***t.

This trend is true even in my own supposedly “quality” Bethlehem school district, in a relatively affluent suburb of Albany, NY. Former full-time librarians are now commuting between schools, splitting time and services. It’s a huge problem in New York, since the contract does not mandate a full-time librarian position (as opposed to, say, a P.E. instructor). A library should be the heartbeat of an elementary school. And in great schools, it clearly
serves that central, essential function. The librarian, or Media Specialist (if you prefer),
interacts with every child, in every grade, often across six years of learning. Consider that for a moment, the broad impact of that one person. A librarian works with and supports 640classroom teachers. And in response to this reality, the political leaders in our educational system can only think to fire those people, or force them to split schools, while they increasingly focus on standardized tests, purchasing more technology, saving pennies and wasting dollars.

It’s so maddening, and so wrong-minded, I could scream. And that’s why we preach to the choir. Because maybe if we all scream together, somebody will hear our cry.

Sign in a School Hallway

This photo was snapped by my friend, author Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen, on a recent school visit.

Stephanie is a great talent and an even better person. As S. A. Bodeen, she’s written The Compound, The Raft, and several other “The” titles. These days the book-loving world is buzzed about her new adventure series, Shipwreck Island.

But enough about Stephanie. Today I want you feast your eyes on this lovely sign in a school somewhere. I know that many schools post signs like this, messages of intent, statements of mission, but this one in particular gets all the notes exactly right.

I like it.

 

 

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How to Tip the Chambermaid

Over the past five years, I’ve traveled a lot to visit schools in far-flung places: Oklahoma, California, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Virginia, South Carolina, Massachusetts, etc. Mostly I stay in the NY/NJ area. But regardless, the basic fact remains: I’m not at home. I’m often alone, away from my family, unwrapping a plastic cup from inside a plastic wrapper. Sigh.

51LvdCXV+dL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_One of life’s little puzzles is how to properly tip the chambermaid. For the longest time, I was never quite sure. So I faked it, without much rhyme or reason. Last year I met author Kate Klise in a hotel in Rye, NY. We share the same tour administrator, the awesome Kerri Kunkel McPhail, who organizes and coordinates our school visits in the greater Westchester area and beyond. It’s a rare treat to meet real, live authors, especially since we spend most of our working lives alone, tapping out words on a keyboard. I quickly learned Kate is a hugely talented author, dedicated and wise to the ways of the world, and a kind person, too. I liked her a lot.

Sitting in the lobby, we hit upon the topic of hotel living. I must have said something about tipping the chambermaid, because Kate gave me a suggestion that I’ve used in every hotel stay since.

I leave $5 each morning. In the past, I’d often waited for the end of my stay, but I realized that it might cause an unfair distribution. A different hotel maid might be working that day. Better to leave a smaller amount daily. Five seems like the right number to me, though I didn’t arrive at that figure scientifically. Here’s where Kate told me her approach. She said, “I always leave a little thank you note.”

2698349-1“You do?”

“Yes. It’s such a tough job — think about it. I feel like the least I can do is just write a short note of appreciation.”

Nice, right?

It immediately made sense to me. After all, that’s all anybody ever wants in this life. Some basic recognition, a note of appreciation. The tip is one thing, certainly, but taking one minute for a quick note brings it to a higher level.

Now every morning in a hotel before I’m rushing out for a day’s work, I quickly grab a piece of paper, write “THANK YOU!” or some variation, and leave a tip.

And every time, I feel good about leaving behind a little extra kindness.

And last week, for the first time, I got a response . . . with three exclamation marks.

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Writer’s Workshop Photos

 

Here’s a sweet shot from a writer’s workshop I conducted during a school visit last week in Virginia.

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After my prefatory remarks, in which I endeavor to focus & rally the troops, there’s always that uncertain moment when I say, “Okay, now it’s your turn.” They pause for a second, stare at the blank page, and plunge ahead. I am always, always amazed when they actually begin to write — and by what they have to say. It really is a revelation, every time.

I realize that it’s difficult for schools to schedule these kinds of workshops, since they can’t possibly give equal time to every student, I do think this kind of activity can make a meaningful impact on the life of a young writer. And, yes, it’s fun to watch them roll up their sleeves and get cracking. While I always say that sharing is optional — I hold to the writer’s right to keep the work to herself — my experience is that many kids are eager to share their work.

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Fan Mail Wednesday #184: Highlights & Thank You’s & Student Art

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Often after a school visit I’ll receive a large package of thank you letters. Usually I’ll respond with one “thank-you-for-the-thank-you letters” letter, but not always. Especially this time of year, or when I get overwhelmed with work and letters, time slips away and schools closes.

I realize how lucky I am, how fortunate, and I hope that readers understand how much I appreciate all of this great stuff that comes my way. Feeling blessed.

Anyway, I wanted to share a few highlights from a wonderful package sent from Minisink Valley. At the risk of sounding my own horn, here’s the (classy, handwritten) note from Trinke O’Connor that I found on top of the pile:

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This one from Sierra really caught my eye . . .

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Here, take a closer look at that joyous self portrait . . .

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She’s a writer, just like me. And while I realize that she was drawing a pair of glasses, they made her look like a superhero. And in case you missed this detail, Sierra had a suggestion . . .

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I loved this one from Kelsi for the energetic artwork . . . Jigsaw Jones and Mila Yeh!

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And I have to say, this simple mistake by a very kind lad named Kevin made me smile . . .

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“You are my biggest fan.”

Yes I am, Kevin. Yes, I am!

Here’s one from Skylar, who appears to be hooked on my “Scary Tales” books . . .

 

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And another “Scary Tales” fan in Elizabeth . . .

 

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Here’s a sweet illustration from Alyse, who likes Jigsaw Jones and Scary Tales. Note the smart thing she did, copying the style of the “Scary Tales” covers by drawing in black-and-white and then adding just a splash of color. Smart and perceptive, Alyse! To answer your question, yes, I just finished writing Scary Tales #6: Swamp Monster! Guess what? It’s in a swamp! And there’s a monster!

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Check out this killer, blown-up detail of the one-eyed doll . . .

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I don’t think it’s practical for me to share every letter — and I do feel badly by highlighting only a few — but the internet only has so much space. I’ll wrap this up with a cool illustration from Holden . . .

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Thank You, Arizona Library Association!

Good News! I received an email from Kerrlita Westrick and Shirley Berow, co-chairs of the Grand Canyon Reader Award, organized by the Arizona Library Association. Instead of telling you about it, you can read the important bits for yourself:

Dear Mr. Preller,

It is out pleasure to inform you that your book, Justin Fisher Declares War, has been nominated for the Intermediate Book category of the 2015 Grand Canyon Reader Award! Congratulations!

The Grand Canyon Reader Award is a children’s choice award with approximately 45,000 Arizona students voting each year. Your book, along with nine other tiles, will be read by teachers, librarians, and students all over Arizona and voted upon by April 1, 2015.

Well, that felt good.

Justin FisherAs a writer, all I’ve ever wanted was to be read and, hopefully, acclaimed to some extent. Approved of. Valued. Appreciated. I dream that at least some fraction of the reading public will say, in essence, “Hey, you did good.”

Making it on these state lists is so important to keep a book in circulation. So, absolutely, a heartfelt thanks from me. Much appreciated. When I look at the other titles on the list, well, it’s just crazy. Not expecting to win, that’s for sure.

Though it’s been well-reviewed, and sometimes even praised, Justin Fisher has been pretty much ignored by the purchasing public (not to mention my own publisher). A paperback edition has never been made available in stores.

Justin Fisher was conceived as part of a series of school-based stories, including Along Came Spider, which was honored by the NYPL back in 2008. Both books share characters and the same setting, Spiro Agnew Elementary.

UnknownHere’s a nice review of Justin from a 5th-grade teacher, Franki Sibberson, who called it “One of my go-to funny books for boys.”

From the first  moment I saw these covers, I thought: “Uh-oh.” I expressed my worries to my editor, that they didn’t at all convey the stories were school based, but was told that the decision had already been made. End of discussion. Oh well. Everybody does their best, I guess.

To help the humor come out, I had really, really wanted the books to be illustrated, ala “Wimpy Kid,” but that was not in the cards either. But most wonderfully, a group of students from Pennsylvania sent me their own illustrations a couple of years back. I love student artwork. Here’s some highlights:

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Now I can only hope for an invitation to visit school in Arizona.

February is wide open! Brrrrr.

Girl from the North Country

 

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I want to tell you a little bit about Annika, the pink-laced lass pictured above, whom I met on a recent visit to northern New York, or where locals refer to as “the North Country.”

During a period of downtime in the school library, Annika came to have her book signed. I had remembered her face from an earlier presentation. She had that kind of presence, the way she leaned in and listened. When I talk to a group, it’s natural to scan the gathered faces. The bored ones, the curious ones. I’m grateful when I find a student who is fully there, like a friend, smiling, enjoying it.

So now here she stood, still smiling, asking for me to sign her book. Of course, I was honored to do so. We got to talking. About movies and books and stuff. Neither of us in a particular hurry.

I later learned that Annika happened to be the daughter of the school librarian. “Ah,” I said, the pieces falling together. I was also informed that Annika was not merely an avid reader. She was a trapper, too. Like her daddy. “She earned $500 last winter,” her mother told me. “Skins ‘em herself, too.”

Really?

Oh, yes, really.

“She’s a real North Country girl,” her mother said. “Here, let me show you a photo . . .”

And so she did.

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That’s one of the reasons why I love to do school visits. They get me out of the house, out of my small world. I see new places, try to look around if I have some time, open my eyes a bit wider. Some days I get to meet seven-grade wonders like Annika, and I am always glad for it.

Meeting Annika reminded me of a favorite song by Bob Dylan, “Girl from the North County,” off the Freewheelin‘ LP.

The lyrics:

If you’re traveling the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
For she once was a true love of mine.

If you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze and summer ends
Please see if she has a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin’ winds.

Please see if her hair hangs long
If it rolls and flows all down her breast
Please see for me if her hair’s hanging long
For that’s the way I remember her best.

I’m a-wonderin’ if she remembers me at all
Many times I’ve often prayed
In the darkness of my night
In the brightness of my day.

So if you’re travelin’ the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was the true love of mine.

Dylan wrote this song in 1962, soon after spending time with folksinger Martin Carthy, who introduced Dylan to a great many traditional English ballads. You can hear in the syntax of the lyrics, the entire setup of the song (the instructions to the listener, “If you’re traveling,”), and even in the song’s closing lines, borrowed verbatim from an old ballad, “Scarborough Fair,” later popularized by Simon & Garfunkel. Importantly, while the traditional lyrics of “Scarborough” call on the lost love to perform a series of impossible tasks, in Dylan’s tune he wishes only for her warmth and remembrance.

I love the understatement of this lyric, the quiet poetry, the things not said. Remember me to one who lives there. He wants to know, simply, that she has a coat to keep warm from the snow and howlin’ winds. He wants, only, for her to remember him, as he remembers her after all these years. Through time and absence and cold winds. Just beautiful.

 

Kids, Don’t Let This Happen To You: 3 Photographs

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This would be yours truly, guessing age 12-13, circa 1973, and that’s my dear old Mom. In background, the Lincoln Memorial.

Yes, lots of hair. I know.

More recently, here I am on a school visit.

Time waits for no man.

I suppose I should be happy that I still have hair — some hair — any hair at all.

It is always a great sign when a school puts in the time and effort to decorate the halls in anticipation of an author visit. When I see stuff like that, I know they will be excited and prepared.

 

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Oh, and this is my daughter, Maggie, age 13, at the Bronx Zoo, riding a camel. But you knew that already, didn’t you? Not that it was Maggie, but I hope that you recognize a camel when you see one. For most of my life, the only camels I ever saw were on the cigarette packs that my parents smoked.

Hump Day came on Thursday this week.

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Student Artwork: A Riot of Zombies to Celebrate an Author Visit

If I’ve said it a hundred times . . .

Authors don’t do school visits.

Schools do author visits.

I arrived home last night after a brief trip to New York State’s magnificient North Country — Chaumont and Clayton specifically — where I enjoyed visits to two wonderful schools.

I’m on deadline, late with a manuscript, so don’t have much time to dilly-dally today. Or not as much as usual. However, I am free to dither. Mostly I want to share some student artwork with you.

I have no idea what might have inspired students to create their own zombie art.

I have no idea what might have inspired students to create their own zombie art.

The art comes from the Lyme Central School in Chaumont, one of those cozy K-12 schools you sometimes see in less populated areas. My visit was organized by the incredible Linda Lepper, who assured me that this was not her first rodeo. In fact, I was the 28th author that Linda had invited to visit the school. Or maybe I was the 27th, not sure.

In any event, Linda finally worked her way down, down, down the list and got to me.

This is a school where they really embrace an author visit. There are activities all week, posters, art, themes, games, quizzes, and on and on. By the time I arrived, the students were prepared and enthusiastic. For my part, I spoke to four distinct groups: Grades 1-2, Grades 6-8, PreK-K (mini version), and Grades 3-5. Quite a range, which helped keep things fresh and fun for me. It’s a different show every time, folks.

To prepare for my visit,  many students created artwork, which was displayed throughout the school. A lot of them focused on zombies:

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And from the younger grades, a brilliant spin on my “Pirate’s Guide” series. In this case, those rapscallions are concerned with water safety.

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Caption reads: Never dive in shallow water.

Caption reads: Never dive in shallow water.

Thank you, students at Lyme Central. I’m sorry I couldn’t share all your work, but there’s only so much space available on the internet. And thank you most of all, Linda Lepper and all the teachers and staff at your warm, clean, well-lighted school.

Hudson Children’s Book Festival: May 3, 2014

Like the song goes . . .

“It’s the most, happiest time of the year!”

Truly a wonderful event, with just a staggering list of talented authors and illustrators, new faces and old faces and — best of all — young faces.

Eager faces. Kids who are excited about books, stoked to meet “real, live” authors, to have a book signed, to have that great literary moment.

If you’ve never gone, it’s time to straighten that out. Come to Hudson. Bring the children, from picture book readers to your outwardly cynical, eye-rolling YA book-lovers.

Celebrate what you value. Reading, books, education, fun.

Then go hang around in Hudson a little bit, eat dinner, chill. You’ll have a great day, promise.

Here’s the link, go experience the awe.

And then come. Stop with the excuses. Everybody is busy. There’s a million reasons why not to go. But this is “make a statement” day. This is “put your house in order” day. This is” show ‘em what you think is important” day. This is “go have a great time, together, as a family” day, centered around books and a lifelong passion for reading.

It’s a beautiful thing. I’m blessed to be a small part of it. You can be, too. Come.

Okay, here’s a partial list: Ellen Jensen Abbott, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Jennifer Berne, Ann E. Burg, Bryan Collier, Bruce Coville, Debbie Dadey, Bruce Degan, Diane deGroat, Chris Grabenstein, Ellen Hopkins, Ty Allan Jackson, Sylvie Kantorovitz, David A. Kelly, David Kirk, Ann Haywood Leal, Jeff Mack, Wendell & Florence Minor, Jane O’Connor, JAMES PRELLER (!), April Jones Prince, Hudson Talbott, Mark Teague, Jane Yolen, Michelle Zink, and many more! And by that I mean, lots more. Seriously, lots.