Inside Out: Getting Kids Excited About Books by Shannon L. Brown
As the author of a middle grade mystery, I speak to groups of elementary and middle school kids. I’ve been surprised and delighted to discover that just about every one of these kids can get excited about books. It isn’t simply a matter of the story itself pulling them in; kids are used to hearing about the story. What’s surprised me is that they enjoy learning about every piece in the life story of a book. I believe that making books interesting and compelling is a great first step toward having kids who want to read.
The first part of my presentation is fairly traditional. I first show them where I got the initial idea for my book—driving down a busy Interstate in Texas – then step into where ideas in general come from—our lives, things we do, people we know. I talk about the different aspects of a story including characters, plot, and setting, then tell them about that element in The Feather Chase. I love watching the kids as they begin to see themselves as similar to the character. The girl has brown eyes and loves the outdoors—so do I!
Now that the kids have a connection with the book, I move onto book covers, which often have a story. Kids love having background story on books. I show them a couple of attempts at book covers that didn’t work. Then I show them the cover I used, taking them from black and white sketch through the various stages to the end. We all say not to judge a book by its cover, even a nine-year-old boy at my last event knew the saying, but we don’t usually take a good look at the covers.
A teacher may not have access to this sort of information, but before reading a book, she could show several book covers side-by-side, either from the same or different genres, and ask the kids to describe how they’re different or similar. After reading a book, kids could say whether or not the cover fit the book.
Though my book is available in both print and E-book, it’s the print side of things that kids are fascinated by, perhaps because they can touch it. When I spoke to the first group of kids about my book, they asked questions I had never considered having answers for, questions that went beyond the expected question of, where did you get the idea? The question asked was, how did it became an actual book. Once I understood that he was asking about printing, I began to describe the process and a group of more than 50 kids excitedly listened.
They didn’t understand all of the terminology but they certainly understood that I had typed it in a computer program. Many know what Word is and I now bring a printout of my book so they can see it in paper form. I found that explaining printing but with no point of reference isn’t an easy concept. After that day, I incorporated photos of the printing process supplied by my printer into my PowerPoint. Kids always love that part of the presentation.
Just when I thought I had covered the questions, both major and minor, one I received in my last presentation surprised me again. One boy asked about the pages of a book being stitched together and I told him that my books have glue in the spine. While this seems to be unimportant information, that’s what I thought after answering the question, the answer had an impact on at least one child. The mother of a girl I spoke to told me a week later that her 10-year-old continued to look at books and comment on how they were glued together. The mother is an English professor so books already held a high value in their home, but now the details of a book fascinated the girl who has begun talking about being a writer. Whether or not she continues on that course, she has learned to appreciate books even more.
Teaching about books from a structural point of view instead of just story can be done by a classroom teacher, a parent, or an author. When the details of a book’s life are taught, kids see the book in a different light. The book becomes something of value, something with secrets, and something they want to explore further.
Award-winning journalist Shannon L. Brown had the idea for a mystery for kids—a briefcase full of feathers—pop into her mind while driving on a busy freeway. The Feather Chase, the first book in the Crime-Solving Cousins Mystery series, was published in 2014. Though she’d written more than 600 articles about almost every imaginable subject, Shannon switched her focus to fiction and is working on the next book in the series. In writing for kids, her degree in journalism and communications combined nicely with her degree in education. You can find Shannon at www.cousinsmystery.com.