Happy Reading, Peru Intermediate School!

May just might be my new favorite month.  Not only are my tulips about to burst into bloom, but it’s also Reading Celebration Month at Peru Intermediate School. I’m their guest author, which means I get to spend time talking books with a crew of excited kids who love to read. 

This poster in the front hallway made me smile.  I’m so glad I could visit on an outdoor recess day! 

What could be better?  More than 500 enthusiastic Peru kids were at the assembly where I spoke this afternoon to kick off their May reading extravaganza.

Note: That’s not me up front.  It’s Mr. Storms, the principal of Peru Intermediate, who chose David Wisniewski’s GOLEM as his favorite book for the faculty/staff slideshow.  This is, in my book, solid evidence that he is a very cool principal.

I love how this school has set up its reading incentive program, making room for all kinds of readers.  Students are meeting with their teachers to decide on their own individual reading goals.  When they meet their goals, which they can choose to make public or keep private, they get to put their names up on one of these way-cool ships in the front entrance display.

Why ships?  The theme for this year’s reading incentive program is Lake Champlain. Since my historical novels are set on the lake, all of the classes are reading at least one of them.  I’ll be spending a full day with the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders later on this month to talk about the research and stories behind Spitfire and Champlain and the Silent One.   They’ll also get a super-sneak preview of my new book, The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z (Walker, Fall ’09), which is set near the lake in modern times.

Today, though, it was all about the reading.  After a slideshow of their teachers’ favorite books, I talked about some of my favorites, past and present.  We talked about how books let us travel through time, show us ourselves, and bring us together. And I shared my own reading goals for the month of May.  I’m planning to read a mix of picture books, poetry, novels for younger kids, high school novels, and books for adults.

Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon
by Jeannine Atkins (I have a shiny new, signed copy from the NESCBWI Conference!)
Masterpiece by Elise Broach (I’ve been wanting to read this for ages – can’t wait!)
Border Songs by Jim Lynch (I loved his novel The Highest Tide and was happy to pick up this advance copy of his latest.)
The Amaranth Enchantment by Julie Berry (I read an early draft of this book and can’t wait to dig into the final version!)
Bug Boy by Eric Luper (Is it cheating that I’ve already started reading this ARC?  I was going to save it, but it just didn’t work out.)
Nine Horses by Billy Collins (This is the book of poetry that I was so excited to find on the library book sale cart for fifty cents.)

I’ll be sure to post some thoughts as I finish each one.  And if you’re a Peru student reading this…know that as I work my way through my pile of books, I’m cheering for you to meet your goal, too!

Thank you, Grand Isle School!

A couple weeks ago, I had the good fortune to spend a day with the terrific kids at Grand Isle School and their equally terrific librarian, Susanna Paterson, who is both a fellow teacher and a fellow writer. 

Susanna was an amazing hostess who kept me right on schedule through three presentations and a lunchtime book signing, and her students were delightful, smart kids with fantastic questions.

Two of them made me smile within minutes of my arrival.  The first one, a seventh grade boy  who was helping Susanna get the library arranged for my presentation, stopped setting up chairs, walked right up to me and said, "Hi.  I love your book!"  I’m sure he didn’t realize at the time just how much that means to an author who’s just about to start a full day of presentations, full of too much coffee and nerves, but I hope he knows now that he absolutely made my day.

The other kid-who-made-my-day was a second grader who grabbed a front row seat for my presentation to the younger kids. 

"’Are you Kate Messner?"  He bounced up and down a few times.

"Yes, I am,"  I told him.  "It’s nice to meet  you!"

"We went to your website with our teacher!"  More bouncing.


"Yes…"  (pause)  "You look older than I thought you would."

I laughed.  "Well, that happens sometimes, huh?"

He nodded.  "But don’t worry.  Not much older.  Just a little bit older."

He and his classmates proceeded to tell me all about some of the other things they learned at my website.  You ate fried crickets once! You keep pet worms in your basement!  We had a grand time talking about my upcoming picture book, OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW (Chronicle, 2010), animal tracks, and which critters might be hiding under Vermont’s winter snow pack.

They were a fabulous audience, just like the older students I saw later in the morning.  Thanks, Susanna and all my other new friends, for a great day at Grand Isle School!

3rd and 4th Graders Want to Know…

The third and fourth graders at one of my recent school visits sent me off with a big packet of letters at the end of the day, and I honestly have to say this is pretty much my favorite thing about being an author.  Here’s a peek at what they had to say…

Michael writes:  I like biographies because I like to know about people that I like the best.  Could you write one biography about someone you know or that you want to learn about that you think is the best?  Or maybe you could write a biography about the person in your family you like the best or write a biography about your whole family so I could read it once it comes out after being published by the publisher.

I don’t have any immediate plans to write a biography, Michael, but I have some author friends like Tanya Lee Stone and Kerry Madden who have written great ones recently. You may want to check out their websites with a teacher or parent.

Ellery writes:  I normally don’t enjoy historical fiction or nonfiction, but your book Champlain and the Silent One was great!  I loved how you added a sense of humor to a very serious situation.  Like the way you described Stinking Dog!

Thanks, Ellery!  The nickname “Stinking Dog” is fictional, but it’s based on historical documents that describe the Frenchman Pont Grave as a large, loud man who sat around all day, eating and…well…passing gas.  It’s pretty amazing what you can find in those primary sources sometimes.

Danny writes: I liked your book.  It almost felt like I felt myself sitting in a canoe with the wind blowing in my hair in the 1600s.

Thanks, Danny.  I felt that way when I was writing it sometimes, too. I think historical fiction is a great way to time-travel!

Austin writes: Once I was fishing.  It was a calm night, water not moving at all, no fish biting.  I was about to give up fishing.  All of a sudden, I thought I had a weed hooked, or at least until my pole bent down like a bridge.  I almost had the fish on the dock.  I was reeling so fast that I felt like my palm was on fire!  Sounds pretty interesting, right?  It must have been for me to write a narrative about it, because I just did.

Wow! And you chose such vivid words, Austin!  I felt like I was right there at the water with you and the fish.  Keep writing!

Patrick writes:  Are you only going to write about history?  If not, what else are you going to write about?  My favorite genres are realistic fiction, fantasy, and animal stories. Maybe you could write about one or two of those.  Only if you want to, of course.

My next book, THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z, is realistic fiction set in Vermont.  It’s the one I told you about when I came to visit, where the girl has that HUGE leaf collection project where everything goes wrong.  I’ll give some thought to the fantasy and animal books…

Haeli writes: When did you start writing stories?  I was four years old when I started writing stories.  When I began, I wrote stories like “Where Is Little Dog?” because I have two dogs.  If you wrote stories when you were five or six, what did you write about?

One of my earliest memories of writing is in first grade, when I wrote a story about two kids having a snowball fight.  I still remember the first line.  “Suzy threw a snowball at her brother.”  Pretty exciting, huh?  I don’t remember the rest of the story, but I do remember how my teacher, Mrs. Arnold, put my paper up on the board and said, “Now this is a terrific story!”  It helped me start to see myself as a writer.

Josh writes: I hope you never stop writing because you are a very, very, very, very , very good author.

Gosh!  Thank you!

And thanks to all of my new 3rd & 4th grade reader friends!  A letter to all of you is in the mail, along with some bookmarks to use with whatever books you are enjoying now.

Thank you, Folsom School!

It’s been my experience that when you walk into a school, you get an immediate feel for what the place is all about.  When I walked up to the door of Folsom Educational Center in South Hero, Vermont this morning with my arms full of equipment and papers and artifacts, two young men rushed to help me right away.  When I got inside, I saw students sitting around reading before class and hallway walls covered with kids’ work.  This, I thought, is going to be a great day.

It was, thanks to the fantastic kids and teachers at Folsom, particularly librarian Sharon Hayes, who organized the visit and was my guide for the day. 

And you have to check out this project in the 5th-6th grade room.  They’ve been working with number concepts and trying to figure out what a million looks like and different ways to represent it visually. 

                        One million cubic centimeters

                        One million pieces of birdseed
(Doesn’t this look like fun? I wanted to stay and play with the birdseed, but eventually, they convinced me to start my presentation!)

I loved visiting with the kids about my historical novels, and I also did a new presentation for the 5th & 6th graders, about how I handle different steps in the writing process. At the end, I read from my upcoming novel THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z (Walker Books, September 1, 2009).  You know what?  It’s still a little scary sharing something out loud for the very first time.  But the kids were great and even clapped when I finished the chapter. 

The 3rd and 4th graders sent me off with a wonderful surprise — a packet of letters they wrote after they finished reading CHAMPLAIN AND THE SILENT ONE.  I’m in the process of reading those now (enjoying every minute!) and will post some excerpts and answers to their questions later this week.  Thanks, Folsom kids and teachers, for a great, great day!

NAC and South Burlington School Visits

Before heading off for a weekend writers’ retreat, I spent Thursday talking books with more than 400 kids spread over three schools in two states.  First thing in the morning, I visited with middle schoolers at Northern Adirondack Central School to talk about my Lake Champlain historical novels, Spitfire and Champlain and the Silent One.  Here are two of my brave volunteers, trying on 18th Century outfits.

Then I hurried next door to the elementary school for two presentations.  The 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders had terrific questions about the American Revolution on Lake Champlain and the encounters between Native Americans and French explorers and fur traders in the early 17th Century.  At the end of my presentation, there was a rush to sample the hardtack!

                                     Not one lost tooth this time!

I also talked with the NAC kindergartners, 1st, and 2nd graders about the process a book goes through to become a book, using my upcoming chapter book, Marty McGuire, Frog Princess (Scholastic, August 2010) as an example.  The kids had lots of questions about ideas and words and illustrations when we talked about picture books, and I showed them some photos of the snowshoe trip where I got the idea for my upcoming picture book, Over and Under the Snow (Chronicle Books, Fall 2010).  The students helped me out with a quick puppet show to illustrate the animals that live under the snow and those that cruise over it, searching for prey. 

There were wonderful questions about book-making and books in general. One girl asked me which books she should read in order to be smart.  I suggested that she read whichever books she loves the best — and lots of them!  Another student asked if I ever have to go back and change things for an editor. (My editors are likely having a good laugh over this now.) She was amazed to hear that Marty McGuire has been through 13 drafts already!  One girl raised her hand and recommended to me that if I’m reading and I don’t know a word, I should try "tapping it out," and I promised her I’ll add that strategy to my toolbox.  All the kids had great questions and thoughts to share, but I have to say one of my favorite moments of the day came from this little guy.

His librarian did a drawing to give away some of my books after the presentation, and when his name was called, I’m not sure he understood exactly what was going on, but he came up to get his book signed.  While I was signing and he was waiting in line, I overheard this conversation:

Boy-who-made-my-day:        You mean this book is mine?  I get to take it home?

Awesome librarian:                Yes!  And the author is going to sign it for you in just a minute.

Boy-who-made-my-day:        And I get to keep it for the rest of my LIFE??
I’m going to remember that for the rest of my life.

After school, it was off to South Burlington to meet with a terrific group of kids who read Champlain and the Silent One in with their library book club at Chamberlin School. 

Talk about thoughtful questions!  I was temporarily stumped more than once.   The kids also had a beautiful craft project waiting for me when I arrived.

The students loved how the characters’ names in the book grew out of their histories and personalities, so they made puzzle pieces — collages with images and words that reflected their own personalities. 

After we talked, I tried guessing which puzzle piece matched each student.  (I got at least a few of them right!) 

Many thanks to these friendly book-lovers, Marje Von Ohlsen (left) and Cally Flickinger (right), as well as NAC librarians Jessica Gilmore and Jamie Gilmore, for arranging all this book-magic.  I had such a wonderful day with your kids!

A Visit with Cynthia Lord

Students at my middle school spent an amazing Thursday with Cynthia Lord, the author of the Newbery Honor Book RULES.  I met Cindy at the New England SCBWI Conference a couple years ago and had so hoped that I’d be able to have her visit with my kids someday.  She gave three presentations, sharing with kids the time line for the publication of RULES as well as the inspirations for some of the characters and settings. 

The kids loved seeing the Chinese, Korean, and Braille versions of RULES, but they were especially excited to see her Newbery Honor Plaque. One of my very favorite things from the presentation (and there were many) was what Cindy said about how plaque reminds her of "the powerful combination of wishing and work."  What a powerful message for our kids, too! 

Cindy passed her Newbery Plaque right around the auditorium and invited students to put their hand over the Newbery seal and make a wish for their own dreams to come true.  You might think 7th and 8th graders would consider themselves too cool for something like that, but they weren’t.

I watched as just about every student held his or her hand over the seal before handing the plaque to the next person.  I smiled even wider when the math teachers in the audience got a turn to see the plaque — they all held their hands over the seal for a moment, too, before passing it on.

After school, Cindy signed books for students in the library.

         There’s an author at the end of that long line of RULES fans!

Thanks so much, cynthialord , for a day our students will never forget.  Cindy also took some great photos Thursday, so please stop by her LiveJournal to see them if you’d like!

An Author Visit in Vermont

It’s been a long day, but I’ve promised some new friends that I’d post blog photos tonight, so here are some highlights of my author visit to Lothrop Elementary School in Pittsford, Vermont.

A town hall full of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders greeted me as soon as I arrived.  We talked about Spitfire and the American Revolution on Lake Champlain.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a room of kids with more questions!  Good ones, too – those Lothrop readers are astute.

After a quick break, I met up with the 5th graders again in their classroom for a second presentation: Encounters of 1609.  I read from my new historical novel, Champlain and the Silent One, and we talked about the Champlain Valley as it existed 400 years ago, when French and Native Peoples were meeting one another and encountering one another’s cultures for the first time. 

After lunch, I spent some more time with the 6th graders for my historical fiction writing workshop. The kids tried out 18th century games, foods, and tools and brainstormed sensory details about their experiences that they’ll use in writing their own stories later on. After spending the afternoon with these kids, I can assure you that the future of historical fiction is in very good  hands.

Before I hit the road, I stopped by one last classroom — this one in the home of a fifth grader whose health concerns have prevented him from attending school lately.  Jamee had read Spitfire with his mom and was waiting with it in his lap when I arrived.  After we talked about the Revolutionary War and the fur trade in New France, we took time out for a photo with our favorite historical hats — one that I promised Jamee I’d post tonight.

Thanks, Jamee and family, and everyone at Lothrop Elementary, for a fantastic day of reading, writing, history, and learning!

best tracker

The smell of new pencils

It’s a sure sign that summer is winding down…

Not only am I spending time in my own 7th grade classroom this week, working on some curriculum with colleagues, but I’ve also gotten a sudden surge of requests for information about my author visits from teachers and librarians who are planning for the new school year. 

I’ve just updated the part of my website that deals with school & library visits, and I’m excited about some new presentations I’ll be offering this year.  One is the hands-on, historical fiction writing workshop that I piloted last year with these terrific kids in South Burlington. 

Another new presentation ties in with the Champlain Quadricentennial — the 400th anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s voyage from Quebec to what is now Lake Champlain to encounter the Iroquois.  It focuses on the first contact between Native Americans in this area and the French explorers and fur traders, using my upcoming historical novel Champlain and the Silent One as a jumping off point. 

Click here to check out my updated list of school and library presentations.

If you’re a teacher, librarian, or home schooler looking for more 400th anniversary resources, here are some additional links:

Vermont’s Celebration Site

New York’s Celebration Site
The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum’s Quad Curriculum (includes Chapter 1 of Champlain and the Silent One)
A Quadricentennial Site hosted by Champlain College

If you’re a teacher picking your last few batches of blueberries and sneaking in those last morning swims this week like I am, I wish you all the best in these getting-ready days before the desks fill with students again.

Sample hardtack at your own risk

I visited with a great group of kids at the South Burlington Community Library today — a perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon.  I read from Spitfire as well as my upcoming release, Champlain and the Silent One.  We imagined ourselves as French and Native fur traders in the early 17th century, and we worked our way through an 18th century sailor’s haversack to see what kinds of things they carried during the Battle of Valcour Island in the American Revolution.

As part of my Spitfire presentation, I often pass out samples of hardtack so kids can see what kinds of rations the sailors had in the weeks leading up to battle.  I always pass the basket around with a warning….  “Be careful not to bite down quickly because it’s really, really hard.”

Well, today it finally happened.  If you look closely at the right side of Alaina’s mouth, you can see the hole where her tooth used to be before she sampled my hardtack.

Actually, the tooth fell out a little while after the presentation.  Alaina and her mom drove back to the library to show me.  She even let me take her picture so she can be the “be-careful-eating-hardtack” poster girl forever more.  Thankfully, the tooth was already very loose before today’s author visit, so I don’t think there will be legal action.

Thanks to librarian Marje Von Ohlsen for inviting me today, to Alaina for being such a good sport, and to all the South Burlington kids and parents who made my rainy Thursday afternoon so much fun.

Full of Questions!

Talk about an interested, enthusiastic group of readers!  I spent a terrific day with the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders at Ogdensburg’s Madill Elementary School last week.  They had great questions during my visit and sent me even more questions & comments today, and I promised them a blog post.  Curious minds want to know…

How old were you when you wrote Spitfire?
What was your favorite book when you were in school?
When you wrote your first book, were you nervous about what people would think of it?
Have you made those horns into powder horns yet?

If you were Pascal, what would you do in the middle of battle?

I’d probably feel scared and try my best to follow orders, just like Pascal did.  I’d like to hope I’d have some of the same courage that Abigail showed, too.

Spitfire is a really good book.I liked the part when Pascal discovered that Adam was a girl. I still wonder why they couldn’t just buy canned food instead of eating hard tack.

There was no “canned food” like we’d buy at the grocery store.  Hardtack and dried peas and beans were the best options they had at the time when it came to food that would last a long time on a ship.

I thought the stuff you researched was really cool like the ship that was at the bottom of the Lake Champlain.

Thanks!  I love learning about shipwrecks!

I really liked you spoke loudly and and didn’t act as nervous as you really were.

Hey!  How did you know I was nervous?!

My favorite thing in Spitfire was when Pascal found out that Adam was actually Abigail and he didn’t tell anyone she was a girl. When you wrote your first book were you nervous about what people were going to think of it?

Yes – and I’ll feel that way about the second book, and the third book, and probably all the rest.  When you write a book, you put lots of yourself into it — lots of pieces of your heart — and hope that readers connect with the story you had to tell.  It’s very, very exciting when they do, which is why I so loved visiting your school.

How old were you when you wrote Spitfire?

When I started or when it was published?  (It’s a big difference!)  I started researching Spitfire seven years ago, so I was 31 then.  I’m 37 now.

Why did you choose to write a book about the Revolution?

Remember when I told you I used to daydream a lot in school?  I still daydream, and now that I live on Lake Champlain, I think a lot about what happened out on the lake before I was around to see it.  I was fascinated by the Battle of Valcour Island, especially.

What was it like being on the ship during the reenactment?

It was really fun and really interesting.  I had to listen carefully, too, to understand the orders I was being given.  Most of the people there had much more experience reenacting than I did, so I had to work extra hard to follow directions.

How did you come up with all the different characters?

Many of the characters in Spitfire are based on real historical figures.  That’s one of the great things about writing historical fiction; you don’t have to make everything up.  Others, like Abigail and her Uncle Jeb and Aunt Mary, were fictional.  I spent time writing about them — their lives and what they were like — before I wrote the book so I’d know that they were acting in a realistic way for their characters.

You said some characters are like you and the people you know. Who is Philip based on?

Philip wasn’t based on anyone in particular.  He’s really a character I invented to try to capture the fear that all of these men must have felt, being thrown into a naval battle when few of them even had experience sailing.

I liked your book Spitfire because it has a lot of facts and details. What does it feel like to be an author?

It’s wonderful.  Especially after working so hard  to have a book published.  And especially when I get to meet real live kids who have read my book – so thank you!

Do you like writing children’s books or would you rather write books for adults?

No offense to your teachers…but I’d much rather write for kids.  I believe the books we read as kids are books that help shape us, in a way that adult books can’t quite do, no matter how beautifully they’re written. 

I’m really interested in Spitfire. it was cool in the book when they had to cut Phillip’s,then put his arm in tar and when they tried to sneak around the British ships. How lond did it take you to write Spitfire?

It took me about a year to do the research, a year and a half to write, another few years to send out the manuscript and get feedback with rejection letters, and then another year to do final revisions and edits after I found a publisher.

Why did you put Pascal in the book?

Because I was amazed by the idea that a real boy who was just twelve years old fought in that battle.

Did you make those horns into powder horns yet?

Er….umm….well, no.  Not yet.  The truth is, it turns out they’re kind of small for real powder horns.  And I’ve discovered that I like taking them around to schools to show kids like you.

I think you are really brave to do all the stuff that you did for us all the Madill kid students.

Well, gee… thanks!  You were all so friendly that I wasn’t all that nervous, even though there were a lot of you!

I love the pictures you showed us because you gave us a lot of details of what you do for a living. I like you because you gives us a lot of details about your life.  Not everybody does that so we are so lucky we found and met you.  I love your personality because you’re really nice, nicer than anybody I’ve ever seen or heard from.I like the hard tack you gave us because you took time to let us try those so thank you for everything.

Wow!  Thank you!  You were all very nice, too!

Kate Messner, thank you for coming. I really like your book. Is the Josh person a real person?

No.  Josh was a fictional character I invented for that early draft of the book that I told you about.  Poor Josh never even made it into the final draft.

What was your favorite book when you were in school? How old were you when you read it?

When I was in elementary school, I loved ALL the books I could find by Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume.  As I got a little older, I discovered The Chronicles of  Narnia by C.S. Lewis and loved those books, especially The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.  And I loved Harriet the Spy.  That’s one of the books that made me start writing. I had a notebook that I carried around when I spied on people, and I took notes on them like Harriet.

My favorite book was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer`s Stone. I was 9 years old when I read it.

Sadly, Harry Potter wasn’t around when I was a kid. But that’s okay because I read the whole series as an adult and loved them just as much. The fourth one, Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire, is my favorite.

Thank you, Ogdensburg students, for your fantastic questions!  

I loved visiting your school, and I hope you have a fantastic spring!