I’m Lea Wait, and, as many of you know, I write for children as well as adults.
Part of writing for children is visiting schools, classrooms, and being part of children’s literature festivals: venues where I get to talk with young readers, share information about my books and how I write them, tell what an author’s life is like, run writing workshops, and, most of all, answer questions. I’ve spoken with kindergarteners and college seniors in 14 states, but because I write “middle grade” books, most often I speak to students in grades 4-8. And when it comes time for questions, I always begin by saying no subject is off-limits. Some teachers flinch when I say that, but so far I haven’t died of embarrassment, and neither have they.
To many children, the author of a book they’ve read is a celebrity. At one school I was signing in at the office when I saw two young ladies, noses pressed against the glass in the lobby. One said to the other, “Is the author here?” “Nope,” replied the other. “I haven’t seen any limos pull in yet.” I always carry postcards of my latest book with me, which I autograph for students; otherwise I’m asked to autograph notebooks, scraps of paper, book covers, and arms. (I don’t sign body parts.)
I’m often asked if I know J.K. Rowling. Or Stephen King. Or Stephanie Meyers. Or Rick Riordan. (When I actually HAVE met someone on their dream list — like Stephen King, or Rick Riordan — they stare in awe.)
Only once was I caught without an answer to a question. I was being interviewed by a seventh grade reporter on a morning CCTV program at a middle school in Missouri. He asked me, “What is your favorite word?” For the life of me I couldn’t think of a response. And we were on the air! I asked for another question.Then I went back to the first one and answered. My favorite word, I’d decided, was “hope.” (I was asked the same question later that month in Pennsylvania, so it must have been in the air that spring.)
What do children want to know? The same things adults want to know, but often don’t ask.
How old am I? (65.) How old was I when my first book was published? (53. Yes; old.) What did I have for breakfast? (Well, maybe adults aren’t so interested in that one. Luckily, the first time I was asked I’d had oatmeal and orange juice. Parents, it seems, tell their darlings that ‘smart people eat good breakfasts’ — and the kids figure an author must be smart, so they’re checking the theory out.) How long does it take you to write a book? (Six months to a year to research an historical, which my published books for young people are; 5 to 6 months to write it; 3 months to edit it. Less time for a contemporary.) Do you use Wikipedia? (Rarely, and I always check any “facts” there.) Why is the boy on the hard cover edition of Wintering Well different from the boy on the paperback edition? (Different editors.) Doesn’t the author get to choose the covers? (No. And I don’t like that other cover either.) What are the names of your children? Well, then what are the names of your grandchildren? (Real question: do any of them have MY name.)
Once a young man stared at a necklace I was wearing and finally blurted out, “Is that a diamond?” I told him that, alas, it was a quartz crystal. But we agreed the quartz was pretty anyway. I’ve been told I don’t look like my author photo. I’ve been asked to write a book about the town/class/person asking the question. (I tell them they should write it; they know their subject better than I do.) I’ve been told secrets … either between classes or in passed notes or during the luncheons teachers sometimes arrange between a few students and the visiting author. Often the secret is that the child is adopted, since they know I’ve adopted children. Sometimes the secret is that they want to be a writer. Or that they don’t like to read, but they liked my book anyway. Or that their mom has a boyfriend, so that’s why they read a lot of books at the library.
Once a young man in the mid-west asked me for advice: he was living with his grandmother because both his parents were in prison, but his dad was getting out soon and he was afraid his dad would take him away so he’d never see his mom again. He was keeping a journal that he hoped his grandmother would give to his mother if he disappeared so she’d know he loved her. He wondered if I thought that was a good idea. I told him I thought it was a very good idea, but also suggested he share his fears with his social worker. I don’t know if he did, or what happened to him. Sometimes it feels safe to share a secret with someone you’ll probably never see again.
In Maine I spoke to an English as a second language class of fifth graders who’d read my Seaward Born. One young man who’d come to this country from Somalia was very restless, and finally could contain himself no longer. He waved his hand frantically. “Lady, lady? How much money you make?” he called out. I explained that if he bought the hard cover of the book he’d read, I’d get $1.70. If he bought the paperback, I’d get about 50 cents. He thought about that for a moment. Then his hand shot up again. “Lady, lady! You looking for new job, soon?”
An intelligent young man, to be sure.
That same class, having heard that I adopted older children who came to this country not speaking English, also had questions about that. (“How long before they speak good English?” “Did they marry people from their country or from America?” “Did they have same names at school and at home?” “Did they go to college?” “Do they have good jobs now?” “Did they miss their country very bad?”) Answering those questions for a little while was more important than talking about my book.
I’ve had sixth and seventh grade students shyly hand me inch thick manuscripts of the novels they were working on. I tell them I don’t have time to read them, but I suggest critique groups, or, in some cases, writers’ conferences in the area, or writers’ groups I know of, and writers’ magazines. I make sure their teachers know about their books. (Sometimes they don’t.) A few years ago, inspired by Harry Potter and other fantasy adventures, most young people were writing fantasies. Now, with the success of The Hunger Games and other dystopian literature, I hear more about futuristic books. A few young Danielle Steeles are focused on romances.
These are the young people who ask me about how to get published. How to get an agent. Whether they should self-publish or not. Some of them have surprisingly sophisticated questions.
My advice to any author who’s never visited a school is simple: never underestimate students, of any age, and never talk down to them. Let the students’ questions lead the way. You may be surprised at some of their questions, but you can be sure they’re serious questions. And there’s nothing more important than answering the questions of the next generation of readers, and writers. We owe them our best.
I only wish I’d had the chance to meet “a really, truly, author” when I was their age.