Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Answering the Hard Questions at School Visits

Last week it was my good fortune to visit with 4th graders and the Reading Club at John S. Jones Elementary School in Gadsden, Alabama. We had a great time, and I was warmly welcomed by librarian Lisa Richards and the entire faculty and staff at the school. Carol York, librarian at Gadsden Public Library brought pizza for the group (and whose lovely father helped fund the visit - thank you, Mr. Roark and grandson Alex), and I enjoyed chatting with the kids, who were wonderful and curious and asked great questions. Thanks to everyone who made it a great time!

Now for those hard questions:

One thing the students often want to know is how old I am. This is not a new question. In my experience students are very curious about basic facts like age and where you live and how many kids you have. It helps them see you as a real person, and I suspect, helps them realize that they, too, can achieve their dreams, if given enough time.

Some folks I know have handled the age question with responses like this:
"It isn't polite to ask a woman her age."
"29 is always a good guess."

Here's what I tell all students: "I was born the same year Walt Disney World opened in Orlando. Look it up."

When someone figures it out, I give them a signed bookmark. :)

Other more serious questions often come from librarians or teachers. One librarian wanted to know if DON'T FEED THE BOY was an appropriate read-aloud. She said she got worried when she got to the part where we meet Phil, who pops pain pills and keeps a gun under his chair. She said the last thing she needed was to be challenged by a parent over this book!

It's a great question, and I understand the librarian's concern. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to give a terribly succinct or reassuring answer. That's because I am not the one to ask.

Please, teachers and librarians and parents, take the time to read a book first yourself, so you can make your own decision. What I deem appropriate, you may not. What's right for one reader, may not be right for another. It's really impossible for me as the author to give a useful answer. And while I could argue that realistic fiction should be realistic -- which means including things that exist in our world like pain and addiction and bad things happening to good people -- I understand that the urge is strong to protect our children from these realities as long as possible. I'm a mother, too.

Another question I often get asked is about the financial part of being an author. I use two volunteers positioned on opposite ends of the room to illustrate the answer: One is a poet, who gets a copy of the magazine as payment. The other is Suzanne Collins, who writes a series that becomes a blockbuster movie franchise. I place myself somewhere in the middle and explain that there are authors anywhere and everywhere in between. It's a tough business, and not everyone can be Suzanne Collins! So, without ever offering a dollar amount, I am able to give kids some valuable information.

And that's all for today. Connecting with students is one of my favorite parts of being an author. Thanks to all those who help facilitate those experiences!

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