More about what students write to authors

Apparently there is a discussion going on at some listserv about teachers assigning students to communicate with authors. I’ve talked about this here before. It can be wonderful (most of the time) and frustrating, especially if a reader’s grade hinges on hearing back from the author, or if the reader writes demanding the author explain all of the symbolism, setting, and themes of her book. But mostly it’s great.

I thought I’d post one day’s worth of notes so teachers could get a sense of things. Here is the email I got yesterday. (There was snail mail, too, but I am months behind on that.)

This comes from a teacher:
“I am teaching Speak in my Junior Honors class. As a parallel work, we watched the film version of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. My students found it a little weird that you named the wonderful art teacher the same name as Maya Angelou’s rapist. Since I didn’t have the answer (except to say it was probably more to demonstrate YOUR Mr. Freeman’s character and the connection to the other character was an accident), I told them I would ask you. So I am.”

A fairly detailed request, from a reader who hasn’t yet found the Biography or FAQ pages of my website:
“Hello…i m …. & im doing
a Author report on you and i was wondering
if you could help me and answer a few things.

like tell me thing what you liked to do in
your childhood?

How did you become intersted in writting?

What other degrees did you earn?

Did you earn one to become a writer?

how was your family?

anty brothers/sisters?

What are your most important awards/honrs?

What your favorite book?
[my speak]] very good!

Well i would apprecitate it VERY much if you took time to answer me these questions and tell me about your self!”

Ah, spelling. But you have to love the sweet tone of this one:
“Hey, Im doing a school project on you, we were told to pick an author and do reserch and i really couldnt think of the books i have read cuz im not a big reader and the frist that came to mind was speak, i have read the book 2 times and have watched the movie plenty, it was a touching story, now i have got most of my info from writer lady, but thiers one thing i really coundt find and thats qoutes… i need a few qouets that u may say or live by and if u could reply back to this it would be much help and i would appreciate it tones!!!”

Never been asked for this before:
“Hi Laurie…. During our English 12 class, we have to choose one particular author and write an author study on our choice. I decided to write about you. I have read mostly all of your books besides a couple, only because our school library does not own them. But, I am hoping to buy them this summer. The reason I am emailing you is because we have to find a short story that our author wrote. I have looked long and hard and have not found a short story written by you. I was wondering if you have ever written any short stories. Sorry if that offended you, but in my search, every sight told me you have not written any. If you have, I was wondering if you had the time, if you could email me a short story you have written. I would appreciate it greatly. Thank you for reading this email. I understand that you have a life of your own and do not want to be a burden. If you’re too busy, I understand. I hope to hear back from you.”

Students are not the only ones writing:
“My name is… and I’m a bookseller at… my manager and I are trying to round up prizes and giveaways to put in our goodie bags. I have been given the unenviable task of e-mailing every YA author and/or publisher I can think of and asking for help. I read Speak when I was about 13 or so, and it made quite an impression on me, so of course, you were one of the first authors I thought to e-mail.

Do you have anything—and I mean anything—that you could send me to help me out? Anything from signed books to a stack of bookmarks would be fantastic. Not a lot goes down around here, so we are trying to make this as fun as possible. Let me know, and I can send you the store address and my manager’s name.”

This one is wonderful… she forgot to include the link to the site she was talking about, but did so in a post later in the day:
“i know you have no time for any of this, or maybe just no brain-energy left, but life is short & really what else matters?
so anyway i wanted to thank you for ‘twisted’, which i just read in one sitting / lying (sprawled, in someone else’s empty bed, in someone else’s empty house-)

i read ‘speak’ in high school, maybe when i was more part of the Target Audience, but now, finding ‘twisted’ at 22 i wish more than anything my (older) brother could have read it when he was most vulnerable.. it could have really saved him. you are doing immensely important work, i hope you know that..

though i understand you are terribly busy & probably inundated with emails like this, i would really be honored if you would look at something i made / am making… just a little nothing in the forest. click the house when it lights up.

if you find a moment, thank you, it takes awhile to load, i hope it’s worth it. oh, and your website is beautiful, by the way.”

This is simply lovely:
“I have recently read your book speak. I found it very interesting and i could connect with it in many different ways. Throughout my school years i have endured some very tough times, and reading this book brightened my life a little bit, and made me realize that anything is possible. I wanted to personally thank you for writing an excellent book, that is also very meaningful to me and many other readers. You are one of my all-time favorite authors and believe me i do not say this to everyone! Well once again thank you so much for the insight that your wonderful book provided me.”

As is this:
“hi laurie i’m yvette, i read three of your books and i loved them, i actully finished them it usally takes me a whole semester to finish a book but not this time. so far i read “speak” “fever 1793” and “twisted” i liked them all and i can’t wait to read the rest of your books!”

Gotta love this, too:
“that your book Speak is by far the best book I’ve read, and I’m sure you’ve heard this a lot, but I am an absolute slowwww reader and I have a very difficult time just sitting down and concentraiting for a solid ten minutes. So like I’ve said before, I know you hear this a lot but i couldn’t put this book down, and this book has also inspired me to speak up. thank you.”

My conclusion:
Beefing up the website has definitely helped stem the tide of reasonable requests for information. (Though I have no plans to post essays about the themes in my books!) Answering reader mail is mostly a very nice problem to have. The only thing I ask teachers is please don’t make a student’s grade rely on my ability to respond in a timely fashion.

Any thoughts?

I’m back in the Cave of Revision, BTW. Will be crawling out for my booksigning in Oswego on Thursday evening.

5 Replies to “More about what students write to authors”

  1. From where I sit

    Dear Laurie,

    I thought your blog posting was ironic today. I just received an email this morning from a child saying they’d selected me for an interview. The student asked if she could send me some questions. I agreed, but told her to please make sure that she couldn’t find the answers on my website first.

    The questions arrived an hour later. She could have found many of the answers on my website. She also gave me a deadline of this afternoon.

    This happens to me often and it is very frustrating. I do my best to answer mail and email although it is clearly stated on my website that my schedule keeps me from giving quick replies. I am already late for an important deadline–one that was given by my editor. I appreciate my readers and one of the reasons I invested in my website was to help students who are doing reports on me or my work.

    I love hearing from students. And it means so much to me when teachers use my books in the classroom. But my job is writing books. I can’t always drop everything and answer an email or a letter because of a class assignment. When I first started writing, I could answer those kind of requests quickly. But now my plate is full. Sometimes it takes me months to answer, but I usually do. I hope this sheds some light on how it feels from a writer’s view.

    Kimberly Willis Holt

  2. Does it irritate you when people keep asking for freebies like signed books? I can’t imagine that you have stacks of Speak (and other book related merchandise) just ready to send out to people.

  3. Teachers asking kids to contact authors

    It is irrational for a teacher to attach a grade to an assignment that hinges upon the response of an author. Doing so places the grade in hands of someone who is in no way responsible for the assignment nor obligated to respond in any fashion whatsoever.

  4. Me too!

    “”My name is… and I’m a bookseller at… my manager and I are trying to round up prizes and giveaways to put in our goodie bags. I have been given the unenviable task of e-mailing every YA author and/or publisher I can think of and asking for help.”

    I just got this EXACT same e-mail tonight (minus the reference to Speak)! The interesting thing is that the event is for an author who is a multi-millionaire. Shouldn’t they be asking said author for freebies??

    I’d love to know how you responded.

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