Thank you, Saranac Elementary School

Today was one of those amazing, amazing author visit days. I talked with kids about books, was given beautiful artwork, had a fabulously fun lunch with some fourth graders, laughed a lot, and even cried a tiny bit…  I’ll tell you why in a minute, but first, a HUGE thank you to the teachers, librarian, and kids of Saranac Elementary.

All these hands are up in response to my question about long car rides & whether anyone has ever asked "Are We There Yet?" (Sometimes writing a book can feel that way, too!)

When the third and fourth graders got to the gym, one of their teachers approached me with a copy of The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z.  "We have four pages left, and we wondered if you’d like to read the end."   She didn’t have to ask twice.

It was so special to get to finish up the book with these students, and they had great questions & observations about Gianna and her family.

Then it was off to a special lunch in Lisa Napper’s fourth grade classroom, where the kids had some surprises ready for me. Lunch, cookies…and art!

The class had read all three of my books in preparation for our visit today, and each student chose a scene from Spitfire to draw.  There are definitely some budding illustrators in this group!

After lunch, Mrs. Napper showed me something that gave me goosebumps.  If you’ve read The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z, you know that Gianna’s grandmother is struggling with memory issues and (mild spoiler ahead) her family makes a memory book — a sort of scrapbook to help her remember the things that are slipping away from her.  The scrapbook in my novel came from my imagination; I pieced it together in daydreams and notebook scribbles. 

But when Mrs. Napper was reading that chapter of Gianna Z. aloud to her class, she recognized that memory book.  She made one for her own grandmother.

Mrs. Napper’s Nana was 98 when she died.  Turning the pages of this book, I couldn’t help feeling a little sad that I never had a chance to meet her.  She was clearly a beautiful, beautiful woman and so very loved.  But like Gianna’s grandmother, she was having problems with her memory.  This book gave her back the story of her life, one loving page at a time.

She read it every day.

And yes…this is the part of the day that made me cry a little.  It is a beautiful, beautiful book, and I’m so thankful that Mrs. Napper brought it in to share with me and her students…and gave me permission to share it with you.

Thanks, Lisa…and Rebecca…and all the teachers and kids at Saranac.  It was a day I won’t forget.

Two States, Three Schools, & 350 Fantastic Readers!

Have I mentioned that talking with kids about books and writing is one of the absolute best things about being an author?   Today was one of those amazing school visit days, starting first thing in the morning here…

Students from Rouses Point joined the kids at Mooers Elementary School for my presentation "Firing Cannons and Kissing Frogs: The Truth About Author Research."  I love giving this presentation because the research process is one of my favorite things about writing, whether I’m holed up in a library searching through old journals and letters, rowing a gunboat replica, sampling chocolate cake at an Italian market, putting on a bee suit to learn what it’s like to tend honeybees, or (yes, it’s true) kissing a frog.  The kids had great questions, including one about writer’s block, which I’m going to discuss in a future blog post.

Then it was on to Highgate, Vermont, where the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders were waiting.  (They were at recess when I arrived to get set up, and there sure were a lot of jackets flung over the playground fence.  No need for them today!)   This group had asked for the research presentation as well, and again, the kids had amazing questions about the writing process. The 4th and 5th graders just started working on their own research project called Lake Champlain from A to Z.  One teacher kept his class after the talk to ask about planning and outlining, so I pulled up my current project, a funny new chapter book I’ve been working on in Scrivener, and showed them how I plan with virtual index cards that remind me what scene comes next.

After the presentation and book signing, school library media specialist Helen Bicknell asked me if I’d like to sign the library door.  This is a tradition she started with visiting authors, and I was just delighted to be a part of it. 

Here I am, defacing school property with my orange Sharpie.

And look!  I am in very good company on the library door. *waves to Linda Urban*

Thanks, Highgate, Mooers, and Rouses Point kids (and teachers, too!) for a terrific day in your schools!

Friday Five: The Author Visit Edition

Spring seems to be the busiest time for author visits, and since I’m both a coordinator of visits for my school and an author who visits other schools, I thought a special Friday Five was in order…

1. My students were lucky enough to have not one but two great author events this week!  The first one was a live-and-in-person visit from Rebecca Stead, the author of WHEN YOU REACH ME, winner of this year’s Newbery Medal. Here’s Rebecca talking with our seventh graders. 

She was lovely and wonderful, and I’m actually in the process of putting together a much more in-depth blog about everything an author can learn about school visits from watching her go through her day. 

2. Yesterday, our advanced creative writing class had a Skype visit with Deva Fagan, the author of FORTUNE’S FOLLY and the forthcoming THE MAGICAL MISADVENTURES OF PRUNELLA BOGTHISTLE.  (She showed us an early copy of that one!)

We talked with Deva about books and writing in general, but with a special focus on beginnings.  The kids in our group are in the early stages of new projects right now and loved having the chance to ask about outlining and brainstorming and those stops and starts that often go along with starting something new. Deva compared it to making soup…the gathering together of lots of ideas that start out looking like a big mess but eventually simmer into a lovely, coherent stew. I like that.

3. On the author end of school visits, I’ve had a few requests for in-person events lately and should probably announce officially that I can’t book any more visits for this school year.  In May, I’ll start scheduling next year, so if your school is interested, just drop me an email from my website contact page any time between now and then, and I’ll be send out a note when I’m beginning to schedule 2010-2011.

4. I’m still doing Skype chats with classes and book clubs that have read THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. and those are much easier to schedule, so I’ll be continuing through the school year.

5.  Here’s where I’ll be over the next few months:

School Visits:

March 19 – Mooers, NY Elementary School (AM)
March 19 – Highgate, VT Elementary School (PM)
April 7 – Colchester, VT Middle School
April 8 – Saranac, NY Elementary School

Conferences: I’ll be giving workshops on Skype author visits  at both of these!

April 25-27 – International Reading Association
May 14-16 – New England SCBWI Conference

There’s also a good chance I’ll  be signing ARCs of my skating book, SUGAR AND ICE, at ALA in Washington D.C. at the end of June.  Please drop me a note if you’ll be at any of these conferences, as I’d love to say hello!

Thank you, Lake Placid Middle School!

I had a great morning visiting Lake Placid Middle School kids.  We talked a lot about books and writing, and they got a sneak peek at the cover for my upcoming figure skating book, SUGAR AND ICE.  Sharing that secret was extra-fun because the school is quite literally in the shadow of the Olympic Center, where much of SUGAR AND ICE takes place.

Another cool thing about this particular school visit?  The principal and I share a last name.  (No, we’re not related!)

Dr. Dave Messner, Me, and Sara Kelly Johns, awesome Lake Placid librarian who is also running for ALA President!

And the best part?  The kids.  These 6th, 7th, and 8th graders were enthusiastic, inquisitive, and downright fun.

Rachel & Jillian were especially good sports, modeling 18th Century clothing when we talked about historical fiction!

Thanks, Lake Placid Middle School, for a fantastic February morning!

“Coolest” thank you notes ever!

A couple weeks ago, I had a Skype author visit with a terrific group of 6th graders in Oelwein, Iowa.  We chatted about THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. and writing. The kids read GIANNA Z. as a class and did some great activities to go along with their reading, which their teacher Karla Duff (she’s the fabulous @teacher6th on Twitter!) posted on the class blogThey also blogged about our Skype visit!

This particular visit was tough to schedule because of trouble with snow days and winter weather, and when we finally managed to connect, I mentioned how jealous I was of everyone getting snow.  I live way up on Lake Champlain, where we are supposed to have several feet of snow by now, and my cross country ski trails are sadly barren and brown.  So what did I get in the mail this week?

I can honestly say, these are the "coolest" thank you notes I’ve ever received.  Thanks, Mrs. Duff and students! Your snowflakes made my whole day.

Skyping with 6th Graders

Have I mentioned how much I love the way Skype allows me to teach my own 7th grade students all day and still have time for a virtual author visit with kids halfway across the country before I make dinner?

Today’s crew of 6th graders, Mrs. Duff’s class in Oelwein, Iowa, read The Brilliant Fall of  Gianna Z. this fall and prepared some great questions for our virtual visit.  Here’s a quick sampling:

What was the inspiration for GIANNA Z? 
My students and their mandatory 7th grade leaf project.

How many drafts did you have to write before it was published?  18.  Then we did copy edits.

Are you going to write a sequel? 
Yes. I already did. Zig is the main character in that one. If you’d like to read it some day, please write a nice letter to my publisher to let them know!

What’s the last movie you saw?  Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, which was fun because I’d just been to the Smithsonian for research last spring.

What’s your favorite book?
It’s so hard to choose, but I have to say Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  And I loved When You Reach Me, too.

Hey! We’re reading that book now. Will you play $20,000 Pyramid with us?  Sure!

Ready?  Sleds. Shovels. Angels. Toboggans...    THINGS YOU DO IN THE SNOW!!!!!!!  **cheers and dances**

Turns out I didn’t actually win $20,000 but that’s okay.  Chatting with such a fun, interesting group of kids was priceless.  Thanks, 6th graders and Mrs. Duff!

Novels in verse, discovery drafts, writing music, & Skype

A few weeks ago in the advanced creative writing class that and I co-teach, one of our 7th grade girls had a question about writing novels in verse that stumped us. "Is it better for me to just write these poems as they come to me, do you think? Or should I have an outline first?" Having never written a novel in verse, I wasn’t sure how most people approach the process, but never fear… a talented author and Skype came to the rescue!

Lisa Schroeder, the author of I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME, FAR FROM YOU, and the soon-to-be-released CHASING BROOKLYN, woke up bright and early on the West Coast to join us for a 9AM class in Northern New York.

Since Skype is already installed on my desktop computer, we didn’t need to do anything special to prepare. When Lisa called us at the appointed time, we projected her onto the big screen, and the kids came up to the computer one at a time to ask their questions.

Lisa chatted about her writing with my 7th grade writers with a genuine thoughtfulness and warmth that stayed with the kids long after their Q and A session was over. (In fact, I saw the girl from this photo in the library later on. "That Skype chat was awesome!" she said. "I was thinking about it all through math class.")

Some highlights? Lisa shared her process for writing novels in verse, including the fact that music plays a role. She mentioned bands like Lifehouse and Evanescence that help to inspire her words. She encouraged our young writers to read and read and read some more and shared some of her favorite authors, too — like John Green, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Sarah Dessen. I saw a couple of our kids smile great big smiles when Lisa admitted that she doesn’t always know all the answers when she starts writing a book. It felt like she was giving them permission to do that "discovery draft" as well, to figure things out along the way and then go back to revise.

After our Skype session, our students tweeted what they felt were some of the key points on our class Twitter account (@MessnerEnglish), so that schools that haven’t tried Skype chats could get a sense of how valuable (and fun!) they can be. Thank you so much, Lisa, for sharing your time and talent with our kids!

If you’re a teacher, librarian, or author looking for more resources on how all this works, here are a few links to check out:

Lisa Schroeder’s Skype an Author page (And she’s fantastic with kids!)
The Skype an Author Network
School Library Journal technology feature on Skyping authors: "Met Any Good Authors Lately?"
An updated list of authors who Skype with Book Clubs

Thankful Thursday: A Visit with Vermont Home Schoolers

I spent yesterday morning with a group of home schooled students in Williston, Vermont.  They ranged in age from six to fourteen — something that usually makes me a little nervous when I’m presenting, but with this group, it worked.  The younger students were incredibly well-informed, and the older ones were generous and patient and had great questions of their own.  I gave one of my newer presentations: Firing Cannons and Kissing Frogs: The Truth About Author Research, and I’ve decided this might be my new favorite because it talks about all the different kinds of research authors do and allows me to look back on just how many fun and challenging and downright strange things I’ve done in the name of research for all my books.

Best part of the day?  After my presentation, as I was winding cords and shutting down my laptop, one of the younger boys came up to me with a huge smile on his face.  

"Thanks!" he said.  "That was a LOT more fun than I thought it was going to be."

I was very happy to have surprised him.

Thanks, kids (and parents!) for such a great morning with your group!

Three Cheers for Peru Intermediate Readers!

I spent part of Friday afternoon celebrating with Peru Intermediate School 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders to mark the end of their big reading incentive month.  While reading is always important, Peru decided to give it some extra attention in May by asking kids to set personal reading goals.  (I set one, too, and finished my 8th book just last night!)  And I wasn’t alone in meeting my goal – check out all these successful readers!

I loved the way the school celebrated.  Since their theme for the month was Lake Champlain, they created a lake in the front hallway and gave each class a ship.  When students met their goals, they put their photographs on the ships and signed them.

The school also gave away 30 copies of SPITFIRE and CHAMPLAIN AND THE SILENT ONE in a drawing for students who met their goals.  By the end of the afternoon, my voice was hoarse from cheering, my hand was tired from signing, and my head was full of great book suggestions from these awesome readers. 

Congratulations, Peru kids!!  I hope you find just as many fantastic books to read over the summer.  If you need some new suggestions, here’s the latest ALA Notable Books list with plenty  of great choices.  Happy Reading!

Celebrating Children’s Book Week at Peru Intermediate

I spent my Children’s Book Week Wednesday at an extra-special school visit. All this month, the kids at Peru Intermediate School are reading my Lake Champlain historical novels, Spitfire and Champlain and the Silent One with their teachers, while they read other books at home to work toward meeting personal reading goals for the month.  Today, I gave presentations to the third, fourth, and fifth grade classes.

Here are some very enthusiastic third graders.

The kids all had terrific questions, and when I left the presentation area, I found a surprise…

Hallways with beautiful student artwork, inspired by Spitfire and Champlain and the Silent One!  This is one of the things they don’t tell you about when you are about to have a book published…how some day, you’ll be walking down a school hallway and see the scenes you wrote brought to life in color by amazing young artists.  This has happened to me a few times now, and every time, I fight back tears. (Good ones… so thanks, Peru kids!)

This illustration shows a scene where some of the members of Silent One’s tribe are sick from eating flesh from an old pig carcass they found at the French settlement.  My favorite part? Silent One’s speech bubble… "I told you not to eat the meat."

After my two morning presentations, it was time for a luncheon in the library, where I ate cookies, talked with kids about their favorite books, and signed lunch napkins and books (most that I had written and one that I didn’t, but its owner insisted that I sign anyway).  Really, lunch time doesn’t get much better than that.

I’m looking forward to one more visit to Peru Intermediate at the end of this month, when we’ll be celebrating meeting our reading goals and giving away books.  For now…it’s time for me curl up with tonight’s reading.  I still have three more books in my pile to reach my goal!