Saturday, July 20, 2013

Authors Demystified

5th grade - fourth row, fifth student. 

In 1984 I was ten years old and starting the year in a new school. While only moving seven miles away from my old home, it was to a new town with all new kids. I remember feeling terrified on that first day of fifth grade, walking in Mr. White’s room with desks that ran back for miles. There were twenty-nine kids in my class, and three sections of fifth grade. I had left behind two sections of fourth graders with about sixteen kids a class. To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement.

I’m naturally shy and not that great in new situations. My haven that first year in Monticello was books. Fortunately, I was surrounded by them. My parents always made sure we had books to read at home, and my new school library was a treasure trove as well. My teachers taught reading through whole class novels. I remember crying through Sounder, thinking a book couldn’t tear my heart like that one did. Then we read Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson and I knew I was wrong.

Just the memory of this book moves me to tears. I remember thinking how lucky Jess and Leslie were to have found their true friend; I wished so much that I could as well.  I recall with extreme clarity the moment that my heart broke in two. I finished the book, read it again, and again, and again.

In the next few years this book was one I’d go back to time and time again. I read all of Paterson’s books I could find. Her words filled me up and I idolized her. What an amazing person she must me to create these stories that seemed so real.

Flash forward to November of 2011. I was standing in the exhibit hall with John Schumacher at NCTE in Chicago. John pointed out Katherine standing at the Anderson’s booth and said we should go up and meet her. I froze. I tried to explain that she meant too much, that it wasn’t possible for me to even form words, much less a coherent thought right now. John did talk to her, I stayed back.

Once again, I am a chicken. 
This year at ALA I once again saw Katherine and snapped this photo to send John with a text stating I still couldn’t approach her. Imagine my surprise just two days later while standing in the line to congratulate Jon Klassen on his Caldecott and Katherine Applegate on her Newbery, when I realized that the last person in line to talk to was Katherine Paterson.  Paterson had been honored with the Wilder award this year. I briefly thought of jumping out of line, but decided that was rude.

Upon talking to Katherine I found her to be as I thought she’d be – warm, kind, and funny. When I told her that I’ve seen her over the years and hadn’t approached, she chastised me, saying, “I’m not a formidable woman.” I tried to explain that her books had shaped my childhood – and me – but couldn’t really speak.

Since ALA I have though a lot about this. I often say that authors are my rock stars. You know that game people play – what famous people they’d like to eat dinner with? No actors would be at my table. Today’s answer would be Jenni and Matt Holm. I’d like to congratulate them on their recent Eisner win and discuss graphic novels. Tomorrow could be another author. I still look forward to meeting Linda Urban and want to talk over margaritas about her writing. Meeting Anne Ursu made me want to go out to coffee with her and discuss books we loved. And when I finally got the chance to hug Kirby Larson, I had a strong desire to go on a cross-country road trip with her. The conversations, I believe, would never stop.

These authors I adore. I think they are brilliant. And while I am in awe of their books, I have no qualms about talking to them. So what makes Paterson different in my mind?

I think that when I was a kid authors were removed from us. I never for one moment believed that I could be one – that was something revered and special reserved for a chosen few. I didn’t know how you got to be that lucky, but knew that would never be in the cards for me.

I didn’t know any authors. None ever came to the cornfields of Illinois so I assumed authors lived in magical worlds – or at least not rural towns like mine.

My entire goal as a teacher is to change this for my students. I want them to know authors, and illustrators, as I do. To demystify this profession. To make them cherish their words – and beautiful illustrations, but also see them as people. This is why I Skype with as many authors and illustrators as I can. I tell them stories about the authors I meet, the articles I read about authors and the tidbits of their lives that I learn. I want these to be real people with real jobs so that one day, I hope, I can point to an author’s name on a book and say When he was a fifth grader in this room…

If you haven’t had a chance to read the articles in the Horn Book this month, check it out. It has the speeches from Klassen, Applegate, and Paterson along with a beautiful article describing each of them from someone who knows them well.

Klassen’s is here.

Applegate’s is here.

Paterson's is here. Thanks to wonderful author Louise Borden for sharing this one with me originally. 

Now that I've typed this all out, I'm wondering... if you could invite any three authors or illustrators to have dinner with you, who would it be? J