Making Connections with Authors by Kris Barr Paquette
When I was a kid, I had a penpal who lived in South Carolina. We sent letters and packages back and forth for years. We met at camp. Not to date myself, but this was before email and this was before texting and Snapchat. I loved it. I looked forward to running to the mailbox to get letters. In fact, I still do. We have grown up and gotten busy, but we still exchange Christmas cards. Kids do not know this feeling. Of holding paper in your hand. Of opening packages sent to them. This has sadly become a lost art.
Last year I was surfing through Twitter, when I saw Ann Braden’s tweet (@annbradenbooks ) about a new program she was envisioning #KidsNeedMentors partnering with author, Jarrett Lerner, and educators, Kristen Picone and Kristin Couch. I was intrigued. I remember clicking open her blog post, and reading about the program. It sounded great. I could totally picture how a classroom teacher might incorporate it into the classroom, but I struggled with how I might swing this with the revolving door of Title I students. So, I did not sign up. This was a decision I regretted well into the fall. I ended up on a waiting list, and assumed that was were it would end.
Meanwhile, I watched teachers tweeting about letters, Flipgrid interactions, books, and Skype sessions with a real “kicking myself” attitude. But I am happy to report, I got a second chance mid-November. I was partnered with the fabulous middle grade author, Diane Magras.
I will admit, I had only recently heard of Diane’s book and never had the chance to hold it in the wild, so I did a little internet search. She is a 2018 debut author of The Mad Wolf’s Daughter; a fabulous historical fiction book set in Scotland during medieval times. Drest, the female protagonist, has been raised by a war band consisting of her many brothers and her father, more commonly known as The Mad Wolf of the North. Despite Drest’s attempts to warn them, her brothers and father are caught off guard one morning, overtaken, and captured. They are headed towards a neighboring Lord’s castle to be hung. Drest jumps fearlessly right into action and is convinced she will save them. The book trailer looked awesome. I knew the kids would think so, too. Plus, Diane had an impressive author’s webpage, an active Twitter and Instagram feed. I knew this was going to be a good match.
I felt like we were getting a late start on things, so when we got back from Thanksgiving, we jumped right in. Diane and I had exchanged several emails, and gotten to know one another a bit. I decided to share this experience with the sixth graders I work with once a week. We created a Flipgrid board to introduce ourselves. We started off pretty simple, and I encouraged the kids to share their favorite book they read in the fall. I created a video to model. Diane introduced herself and her cat (the kids really seemed to get a kick out of this) via Flipgrid. She did a quick book talk on Takedown by Laura Shovan, which the kids were quick to point out that we had that book in our classroom library. Then the kids did the same. Diane followed up by sending us a generous package of books, including her own, and a lovely handwritten letter. The kids were excited. They had that paper in your hand, package in the mail kind of feeling now. The magic had begun, I could see it in their eyes. The next week, they came to class wondering if we had anything from our author. We got another package with enough bookmarks for each of them- they were quite tickled with that. As the kids finished up their books they were working on, they started checking some of Diane’s suggestions. This provided us with some interesting talking points. Sometimes, they would catch me in-between classes asking if anything had arrived. The week we left for Christmas break, we worked on a quick, creative writing piece to send her. I told the kids, she shared her writing with us, we should share ours with her! I was so impressed, for a quick write. . . they took time with the spelling and conventions. We shipped the box off, and headed home for winter break. I devoured The Mad Wolf’s Daughter over break, and I couldn’t wait to book talk it to the kids. I loved the past paced action, setting details, authentic character voices, Drest’s attitude and sharp tongue, and the minor characters delighted me as well. Diane and I had set up a Skype for the week we got back, and that seemed to really excite the kids. She shared an action-packed passage from her book reading in a wonderful Scottish accent, and the kids asked a few follow up questions. It was definitely an exciting day.
Another lovely box of books arrived with a hand-written letter, and a surprise. She sent each of the students a hand folded piece of beautiful origami, they looked at the delicate butterflies and dragons like special treasures. Many have told me what special place they put it. Slowly our bulletin board began to fill up with letters, book recommendations, and now there is even origami butterflies while our classroom and passing interactions have been filled with genuine enthusiasm for reading and writing.
Most of my Title I kids could use another adult believing in them and rooting for them. This is something they will remember forever. I encourage all teacher to make connections with authors. There are plenty of wonderful authors out there and willing! Whether you check out a program like #KidsNeedMentors, follow blogs like this one or Middle Grade at Heart, or connect with authors on twitter. . .try to make this happen for your kids. It’s magical. Truly. As for us, we are already planning how we are going to celebrate Diane’s upcoming book release! And authors, I would encourage you to join this partnership or something like it! You are reaching children, and making them feel valued and important.
Kris Barr Paquette has been a reading teacher for 18 years at Marshall Greene Middle School in Birch Run, Michigan. She currently is the Title I Reading Specialist servicing fifth through eighth grades. Her class participates in #KidsNeedMentors. She’s a Harry Potter fan, a true Gryffindor- if you must know, and an avid reader. When you don’t find her at school, she’ll most likely be reading on her front porch. You can connect with her on Twitter: @Readingteachkbp