Can We Talk About Connecting Authors to Students?

(Note – this is a long and important post. But there is a chance to win books for your classroom at the end, so keep reading.)

Oh. My. Goodness.

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A couple of days ago I tweeted a photo of a letter I’d received.

In follow-up tweets I explained that it breaks my heart not to have the time to answer letters like this. I love engaging with readers, I love that they reach out to authors. But I’m on deadline, and won’t have time to write back until this student is halfway through 9th grade.

Plus, I’ve already provided many of the answers to these questions on my website; writing advice and interviews and general questions.

I always make time for correspondence (written letters, email, and private messages on social media) from readers who are victims of sexual violence, bullying, eating disorders, depression, etc. In addition to that, this year I have to write two books, spend months on the road giving presentations, hold Skype visits, do other author-business things, as well as hang out occasionally with my family. There are simply not enough hours in the day to do it all.

This makes me feel HORRIBLE.

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It was a hard thing to admit publicly, but I write a lot about hard things. My alternative would have been to keep ignoring the problem, which I’m sure frustrates the letter-writers who are waiting on a response, especially when their grade hinges on it.

I tweeted this because I wanted to interact with teachers to see if we could figure out a more practical solution. I did not expect my timeline to blow up.

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Most of the comments were kind and supportive. A number of my fellow authors retweeted the original post, and added their own frustration with this situation. One received 150 letters this week. Another had to remove all of her contact info from her website to stop the flood of mail that she has no way of answering. Every author has had the experience of getting letters which explain that hearing back from the author is a requirement for the student to get a good grade. Finding the time to answer student letters is a huge problem for many kidlit writers.

Some commenters were not supportive. I don’t think they like me very much.

“It makes you look like you’ve stopped feeling really lucky to have what you have and enjoy the acceptance and bridge you’ve forged between girls and their secrets. Seriously.”

“Young writers often have these questions and want a personal reply not info from a website.Take the time to give it instead of complaining. Nurture young writers!”

A few people responded defensively, angry that I had “blamed teachers.” Which was not my intention at all.

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The thing is, we all care about kids; kidlit authors and illustrators, educators, families – we dedicate most of our lives to creating and/or providing books to children and teens because we value literacy and care deeply about young people.

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The model of students writing to authors is several generations old now. It started long before social media, author websites, book festivals, or Skyping. It began when authors stayed home to write books, and publishers took care of marketing and publicity. The world of publishing has changed drastically since then. There are few authors who have the time or resources to answer every single letter that comes in.

What hasn’t changed is the need for students to connect with authors.

So, my friends. Can we talk about this?

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A number of educators provided solutions in my Twitter feed. Some have their students write notes to authors in which the students say what they felt about the book, but without questions, or the expectation of a response. Others tweet class projects – if the authors see the tweet and Like it, that’s a bonus. Still others take advantage of the resources on author websites and other places (for example if your students are researching Jacqueline Woodson, be sure to check out  Poetry Foundation  and CBC Books ).

A couple of years ago I made pre-printed postcards that thanked the student for writing, but explained I didn’t have time to answer questions… but honestly, it felt kind of cheesy to do that.

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Given that authors do not have time-turners (except possibly J.K. Rowling), how can we best engage with students? What kind of classroom model makes sense, given the changes in publishing and technology of the last decade?

I’d love to know what you think about this. Please leave suggestions and comments below. And thank you for listening!

PS – for those of you who read all the way through this, here’s your reward. I will give a book to the first 10 classes who post a comment to this blog with at least 10 good questions that I haven’t yet answered on my website. Teachers, if you respond to this, please include a mailing address.

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4 Replies to “Can We Talk About Connecting Authors to Students?”

  1. I am half librarian and half English teacher. I met you at two of your book signings. You are as wonderful as your books. As half a teacher, I did not see you as blaming the teachers. I saw you as helping the students. Adults should not require kids to write to authors. They certainly should not hang a grade on the author’s response, which is not in the control of the students.

    You also provide students (and the world) with enough information about you and your writing process. I shared a draft that you posted on Twitter of Fever that included a brother. This gave the kids a glimpse at the fact that writers draft and change their writing. Everything we need to know is in your blog or your Twitter.

    Thank you for what you have given our students. You have given them books to teach them and touch them. Rather than writing letters, we want you to write books!

  2. I am a 7th grade language arts teacher and I had my students connect with Susin Nielsen via twitter. I used my account and tweeted some original book jackets that the children had made. She “liked” them and after a few back and forth tweets, she offered to answer a few questions that the students had for her. It was a perfect way to share our projects and connect with the author. I didn’t expect it, so it was especially exciting for me and the students.

  3. I think teachers (full disclosure: I have been a teacher for 25 years) need to rethink what we hope students will take away from this sort of project. If it’s learning about writing as a profession, contacting an individual writer (or even numerous writers) is not the best research strategy. If it’s a love of reading, the answer is BOOKS and magazines and comics and graphic novels and newspapers. If it’s learning to be a writer, our students should be writing. Let them create the comic or do their stand-up set in front of the class or write and illustrate a picture book. Asking an adult – even an adult students admire – to fill in a questionaire has limited educational value.

  4. Hi, Mrs. Anderson. I do have a few questions regarding your writing process (and I really appreciate you addressing the concerns of lacking writing inspirations to speak in schools):
    1. How do you generally incorporate symbolism in your novels? Especially in Wintergirls, you compare, as the title implies, a lot of winter qualities to the physical and emotional state of one suffering from an eating disorder. Is learning to incorporate symbolism, especially that which is not recognized as symbolistic until around the novel’s ending, particularly difficult? Do you have to return to previous portions of the novel to incorporate symbolism?
    2. Do you have particular methods which you use to better connect with your characters. For instance, I often must ask myself various questions about my characters in order to feel as if I recognize them as individuals separate from myself.
    3. I have recognized that many writers either base single characters entirely on themselves, while others spread characteristics throughout their characters. Do you believe yourself to relate to either of these stereotypes? If so, which one?
    4. What are your general tactics in describing dreams? Are they especially supernatural or seemingly impossible. How do you imply where and when these dreams are significant to the characters’ lives?
    5. Do you have any characters which are connected in any way? In which ways? A few of my characters, for instance, have personalities which can be very closely related to minor characters in my other stories.
    6. Do your characters ever play roles in your dreams once you have recorded them? (I do know some authors’ stories originate from dreams, but do their dreams every have to do with their stories afterward?)
    7. What reading tips do you have for an aspiring author? For example, do you suggest a certain number of books read in a time period or a way to develop an advanced vocabulary?
    8. What are some of your favorite words?
    9. What are your most essential tools (other than a pen, pencil, paper, or a keyboard, of course) when it comes to writing. What do you require to influence your own inspiration?
    10. Do you believe your stories to have a main intentions of helping yourself overcome certain debilitating thoughts, others from overcoming their toxic thoughts, or both? Do you think an author’s genre determines his or her general interests or personality? How did you discover which genres you were interested in writing?
    11. Do you ever pick favorite characters? Are you ever required to pick favorite characters in order to assist in getting to know them as well as possible during the writing process?
    Thank you,
    Emily Carter, student

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