How to Get YA Authors Into Your Classrooms
How did a young man from Washington, DC, who didn’t read a book until he was 17, become a multiple award winning author and poet for middle grades students and young adults?
Because of a few revelations and one professor’s unintended motivation:
- He discovered that Queen Latifah’s rap lyrics were poetry.
- A high school English teacher gave him a copy of Black Boy by Richard Wright.
- A college English professor told him he’d never be successful as a writer.
And now Jason Reynolds is writing the books he wished he’d had available to read when he was a kid.
Thanks to a grant from our local education foundation, Jason visited our middle school, and one of the high schools in our district, this past October. He spoke to the students about his life, books, and writing.
Well-prepared students had been devouring his titles, were enthralled with his stories, and were able to ask good questions about his life and writing. Jason autographed books for students and took extra time to talk with them one-on-one. In short, he was a reading and writing rock star to my kids!
Our students followed up by making video clips answering “What did I learn from Jason?” and sharing them through our school’s daily news and on Twitter. They are now devouring his newest book Long Way Down. Best of all, they were inspired to write their own stories, and they continue to talk about his visit and his work.
One author visit leads to others
This didn’t just happen in a vacuum. Having served on the 2015 and 2016 Coretta Scott King Award juries, I helped give Jason his first three book awards ever (for which I am very proud) and had several opportunities to meet him. Arranging his visit started a year and a half ahead of time, with lots of work, planning, budget adjusting, and advance preparation with my students.
But what an amazing impact he made! My school is very white middle class, and I wanted Jason’s visit to do several things, including giving my African American and Latinx students someone to identify with, while challenging my European American kids’ view of the world. We have discussions now about white privilege, and African American students (one in particular who bragged about never having a book) are asking which of Jason’s books they should read next.
But beyond this community of readers he helped create, an unexpected side effect occurred. As a co-advisor to the GSA, I heard my kids one day discussing LGBTQIA+ books they’ve read, when one student said they so wished they could talk with Meredith Russo, author of the 2017 ALA Stonewall Award winning book If I Was Your Girl.
It just so happened that I’d helped get Meredith to appear at our state organization’s fall conference, and I asked if she might come to the area a bit early to meet with my kids. And she did! What an amazing example she was for the students.
At one of our book club meetings, the students chose the book When to read and noticed that the author, Victoria Laurie, lived in Michigan, just north of us. I emailed her on the off chance that possibly she might be able to visit us, and she readily agreed! Victoria kept the kids’ rapt attention as she talked about the book and her writing life.
These successes set off a quest to see how many local authors we could find who wrote middle grades or young adult books. I discovered that many will visit for free or a very small fee. I have the kids sign a thank-you card and include a gift card for the author. I also purchase a few copies of their books and hold a drawing among the kids. Then the author graciously provides autographs for the winners.
Local authors Jody Casella, writer of Thin Space, made an appearance in October, while Edith Pattou, whose latest book is Ghosting, is visiting in January. Erin McCahan, author of The Lake Effect, plus other titles, is coming in March. In each case we’ll gather after school to have a fabulous book club meeting.
While I was at NCTE this past October, I reconnected with author Brendan Kiely, co-author with Jason Reynolds of All American Boys. He’s also the author of The Last True Love Story and his upcoming book is Tradition is Not an Excuse. He and Jason are appearing in our general area at another school district in February, and Brendan agreed to come to my school for a half-day visit. What a perfect pairing that will be for my students who have already read All American Boys and heard Jason speak in the fall!
You can do this too!
So how can you start a parade of authors coming to visit your students? Here’s a few tips I’ve learned through the years:
- Make connections through conferences, workshops, library and bookstore contacts;
- Don’t be shy — reach out and ask;
- Be flexible, but also ask if they are willing to take less of an honorarium because of financial constraints;
- Piggyback off of other school or library author visits – sharing the cost is a huge benefit;
- Think about and search for local authors;
- Write grants, partner with other organizations, fund raise, ask your PTO or PTA to help;
- Prepare kids well ahead of time;
- Regardless of how curriculum changes or how standards are rewritten, champion reading in every way possible;
- Provide access fearlessly. I obtain any children’s or young adult book my students want through an educator card issued by my public library. If they’ll read it, I’ll hand it to them;
- Look for ways to feed kids’ interest (not reward them); like giving away books to be autographed, choosing kids to introduce authors, providing treats when they come into read or listen to audio books. Be creative!
Middle grade students crave role models – and great stories. Authors provide both in a very tangible way. I have some colleagues who think I’m crazy for putting in the extra time and effort needed to pull in authors to visit. I’m just doing what’s right for my kids.
The extra effort is rewarded every time I see a kid literally jump up and down when I hand them a book they’ve been waiting for. Or come running in to talk to me about a book they’ve just finished. Or hug me and tell me how much of a difference an author visit made in their life. Or receive a parent email with these words:
In a million years I would have never predicted that our [daughter] would be such a fan of [Jason’s] books as she has never really made a big connection with books the way [our other daughters] did, but she finally found her love of words/stories/dreams.”
Will we ever have another year full of author visits? You bet we will – it’s now a top priority in sustaining and growing our community of readers.
Dr. Christina Dorr is the Media Specialist at Hilliard Weaver Middle School in Ohio. She’s also an adjunct faculty member at Kent State University and an author, speaker and consultant. Her first book Linking Picture Book Biographies to National Content Standards was co-authored with media specialist Liz Deskins. Their second book LGBTQAI+ Books for Children and Teens: Providing a Window for All will be published in February. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter.