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.
What a great post, Lea. I admire the work you are doing with the next generation(s)! I sometimes speak with students at “Career Day” and it is rewarding to tell them that yes, they can still be writers if they a) like sports, b) wear colors, and c) enjoy life. These were all things I wondered when I was their age, because the stereotypical writer was a depressed, clad-in-black chain smoker.
Wow! Such a great post. I love doing school visits, even though they can be daunting–facing down a couple hundred middle-schoolers? Yeah. And I do, like you, try hard to answer their questions.
One of my favorite, if most exhausting gigs, was visiting a technical school. It was two all-day visits, organized by a librarian who believed that her students needed to be exposed to authors. They were the best behaved bunch (they came in groups of 60-100 at a time) of kids I’ve ever seen, and it was clear that their teachers cared about them. They were really interested in true crime.
I hope hundred of people read this post today. What a wonderful appreciation you show for your readers and your audience, and it’s great to have insight into the world of today’s young readers.
Wow! That’s my lady and I recognize the caring in this post. This is “no foolin’ around,” as Dom Delouise (sp?) used to say. What you see is what you get. I sometimes share her grudgingly, but I know it’s what she’s gotta do.
– Proud husband of the author.
For the record: I’ve spoken to groups as small as six or seven … and as large as eight or nine hundred. (Clearly, not the same sorts of presentations!) Although any visit is better than none … I’ve found the best are when the students have read at least one of the author’s books before he or she arrives, and when they meet in a comfortable setting, probably a library or classroom, when they have enough time to ask questions, and they aren’t with too many other students. I think the ideal size for a student group is probably 25-35, which usually means 1 or 2 classrooms. Up to 45 is OK. Up to 60 can work. But the larger the group the less likely the students will know each other, and therefore be more self-conscious about asking questions. They’ll also have less direct time with the author. Sometimes in a large school that can be worked around by the author making an auditorium presentation to a very large group, and then visiting classrooms for shorter periods of time to meet the students. A lot is up to the school’s schedule. It’s also important that the author not make a lot of demands – we’re there to be adjuncts for the day. No matter what the kids think — we’re not celebrities! If we act like them, we won’t be invitied back.
You sound like a remarkable speaker. I know lots of kids that would have benefited from hearing you speak.
It was an author, Kathryn Worth, at my school when I was in 6th grade, that made me realize that authors were REAL people – that I could be an author if I wanted to. Now that I am an author, I hope to inspire other young people to dream and write, too.
Love this post about your visits to schools. The one time I accepted an invitation to a 5th grade class at a local school I did so because Liz Zelvin was about to visit, and I realized that together with my neighbor Pat Meller, a tech writer, me, an editor and ghostwriter, and Liz the novelist, we three might be able to juggle whatever unknown challenges awaited. What a worthwhile experience! The kids’ were highly engaged and their questions were similar to the ones you list, Lea. Here’s the list Liz later posted on her blog:
How long does it take to write a book? What was the first book you ever wrote? Are you famous? Have you met any famous writers? How many books have you written? Have any of your books been made into movies? Do you write about things that you already know? [I wonder where the 5th grader had heard that one?] How do you find out about things you don’t know? Do you ever have to rewrite your book? What does a ghostwriter do? [That one was aimed at me.] When you interview someone, do you do it on a computer or in person? What kind of pen do you write your books with? [That one was my favorite.] How did you get the pictures on the covers of your books? [If you saw Liz’s first book cover you’ll know why that question came up.] Finally, How do you make more copies of a book? [I took the printing question, giving a little demo of folding a sheet of paper into 8ths to simulate a signature of 16 pages, then binding and trimming, etc.]
But the one high school class in journalism I visited as part of a distant writers conference project taught me to stick with adults. My admiration for the skills of teachers and YA authors soared.
Chris, you have the questions down, no doubt! Although there always are a few you can’t anticipate .. which is what makes it all so much fun! I’ll admit a few times I’ve been a little nervous … the charter school in Brooklyn, New York, where discipline was so strict no student was allowed to ask a question if her or she had taken their eyes off me for a second. The first time I spoke to a classroom where every student was taller than I was. The time I was speaking to a classroom of eighth graders (in Vermont) who were “discipline challenged” and an alarm sounded. The teacher excused himself, left, locking the door behind him, and the students explained, with glee, that the combination of bells that had rung meant someone in the school had a weapon and their teacher was one of those assigned to go and get the weapon away. We were on lock down until that took place. happened. But all worked out in those situations … and I could make long, long, lists of wonderful memories of school visits. I love to do them, even if my feet do hurt and I’m exhausted at the end of the day! Teachers deserve every ounce of respect we can give them.