17 May

I’m visiting schools in the Mid-Atlantic states in 2018!

My largest school audience ever. I’m pretty good with smaller groups, too.

Details are still coming together, but I’m going to be making my first-ever author visits to schools in the Mid-Atlantic states in spring 2018. If you’re in Delaware, Maryland, eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, northeastern Virginia, and thereabouts and would be interested in booking me, I’d love to hear from you.

My Author Visits page has more information about my presentations. I can expand or condense my “Write What You’d Love to Learn” presentation to suit a wide range of audience ages and sizes, and I’ll be tailoring it for each of my upcoming books (Dazzle Ships, Book or Bell?, and What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?, my 2018 picture book biography of Barbara Jordan).

I’ve also got lots more photos of me in action at my school visits. Those all represent great memories for me, and I do my best to make that true for the schools I visit, too. How about if we make some more of those memories together?

22 Mar

In which I am interviewed by students from Bradfield Elementary

Following my most recent batch of school visits, I received a bundle of cards from Bradfield Elementary in Dallas. Including these:

In addition to a lot of nifty artwork, they had a few questions that I hadn’t addressed in previous installments of In which I am interviewed…, so I thought I’d answer those. Thank you, Bradfield, for the creativity and the questions!

How does it feel to be an author of fiction and nonfiction books?

It feels like I’ve lucked into having the best job in the world, and I love that I haven’t had to choose between writing fiction vs. writing nonfiction, because they both make me happy.

What’s it like writing books for the world?

I haven’t thought of it that way. My books go into the world, and the whole world is welcome to enjoy them, but I write my books for a more specific audience — readers your age!

Are you ever under any pressure while you write?

Most of the pressure on me comes from myself. I have high expectations for the books that I create and the work that I do, and I’m always striving to meet those expectations and make the best books I can.

What’s it like being a famous author?

I wouldn’t say that I’m famous, but being an author has meant that I get to spend my life interacting with people who love books or have stories to tell, and that makes me feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be.

Were you scared of going on stage?

Nope! I was well prepared, and I also knew that everyone else in the room I wanted me to do well. That’s a pretty good combination. What was there for me to be afraid of?

What was your childhood like?

Slow-paced, safe, generally happy. Not perfect, but populated with good people who kept an eye out for me.

Do your children read the books first?

My kids used to be the first audience for my newest stories, but the youngest is now 13, and he and his siblings seem happy to wait until the book is finished. Now, Jennifer is usually my first reader, and it’s always exciting for me to show her a new story nobody else has seen yet.

How old were you when The Day-Glo Brothers came out?

On its publication date, I was a a few days away from my 38th birthday.

At what age did you truly decide to become an author?

I was 29 when I realized I wanted to write children’s books. I’m glad nobody told me it was going to be eight and a half years before my first book was published, though the wait sure turned out to be worth it.

Any tips for escaping writer’s block?

Go for a long walk, pay attention to the world around you, and when you get home, write about something you saw, heard, smelled, imagined, etc., while you were out.

When will you write another book?

I plan to work on one tomorrow. Or maybe right now, since I’ve answered the last of these questions…

09 Mar

On segregating author-visit audiences by gender

I’ve never had a school segregate my presentation audiences by gender, but I know of authors who have experienced that.

I’m not aware of schools keeping girls out of presentations by male authors, only of hosts keeping boys out of female authors’ sessions.

For any author who wants to use it, I’m going to share the wording I include in the letter of agreement for my school visits. It is:

“Also, please note that I will not speak to an all-male or all-female student audience at a school that enrolls both boys and girls.”

21 Aug

In which I am interviewed by fourth graders from Graham Elementary

When I visited with the fourth graders at Graham Elementary here in Austin this past April, they followed up with many questions — and artwork. Such as this recreation of one of Don Tate’s illustrations in The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch:

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That drawing of John Roy Lynch is just an example of the great stuff they sent. I believe I’m overdue in answering their questions. So…

Do you enjoy making children’s books?

Yes, I do. I think it’s the perfect job for me.

Do you like animals?

Not all of them, but I like a lot more animals than I dislike.

What inspired you to become an author?

My toddler son wanted me to tell him over and over the story of how I installed a smoke alarm in our house. I wrote that story down, and it was awful, but it got me going.

How long have you been writing?

Almost as long as I’ve been reading. The first story of mine that I know of is one that I wrote in second grade, “The Ozzie Bros. Meet the Monsters.”

Will you make chapter books?

I sure hope so. I’ve written a nonfiction book called Can I See Your I.D.? that had ten chapters, and I wrote a short story for a YA collection, and I hope that I will have more longer-than-a-picture-book fiction published.

How many books have you written?

88 Instruments, which was published just yesterday, is my tenth published book. I’ve written many more that have not been published.

Where do you get your ideas from?

All over. Things I see, things I read about, ideas that pop into my head while I’m running, suggestions from friends and editors — these are just some examples.

How old were you when you started to do books?

I was 29 when I realized I wanted to write books for kids, and almost 38 when my first book was published.

What inspired you to write the book “The Ozzie Bros. Meet the Monsters”?

Star Wars, the Muppets, and Abbott and Costello movies where they meet famous Hollywood monsters.

Do you have any books about your dog?

Not yet, but there are dogs in some of my manuscripts that sure remind me of Ernie.

Do you talk in a different language?

I’ve started relearning the Spanish that I began forgetting after my sophomore year in high school. Duolingo says I’m now 4% fluent.

Have you ever visited different countries?

I went to Mexico and Canada when I was growing up, and this past spring I traveled to Singapore to visit the Singapore American School. That trip included some time wandering around an airport in Qatar.

Have you been on tour?

Yes — to schools in Utah last December to celebrate my nonfiction book The Nutcracker Comes to America, and to cities in Texas and Oklahoma this past spring, in support of my book Mighty Truck.

Have you ever experienced difficult, frustrating times?

I sure have. I’ve been lucky to have family and friends to lean on during those times.

How many awards have you won?

I don’t know how many, but I can tell you the biggest: My first book, The Day-Glo Brothers, won a Sibert Honor from the American Library Association.

And that’s it! Thank you for the great questions, fourth graders — now FIFTH graders! — at Graham Elementary.

07 Jun

My 18 days in Singapore

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Until the very end of April, I’d never been outside North America, but I corrected that in a big way when I took a 14-hour flight from Dallas to Doha and then another flight — this one a mere seven hours — to Singapore.

The occasion was my 12-day stint as author-in-residence at the Singapore American School. I conducted two-day writing workshops for the second- through fifth-graders and got to read a book or two to the schools first-graders, kindergartners, and pre-K students.

My view from SAS each morning as I made my way from the cafeteria to the elementary library.

My view from SAS each morning as I made my way from the cafeteria to the elementary library.

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Among my hosts was librarian Kate Brundage. I brought her a gift from back home -- a copy of Sarah Bird's A Love Letter to Texas Women -- without having any idea that Kate herself is technically a Texas resident.

Among my hosts was librarian Kate Brundage. I brought her a gift from back home — a copy of Sarah Bird’s A Love Letter to Texas Women — without have any idea that Kate herself is technically a Texas resident.

A few glimpses of what one of those writing workshops looked like.

A few glimpses of what one of those writing workshops looked like.

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One of the students laminated my autograph!

One of the students laminated my autograph!

The school days were full, but there was much I wanted to see in my downtime, so I got out and about a lot. Besides, I figured I could sleep on my long flight home. (This turned out not to be true.)

On my first Saturday there, I had lunch in Little India, visited the Sultan Mosque —

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— took a break for Japanese ice cream and coffee, went to a festival at the Thai embassy, and ended the day with an IMAX screening of Captain America: Civil War with Chinese subtitles.

Singapore offers a marvelous mix of cultures, history, natural beauty, and adventurous architecture. Here are a few of my favorite sights:

Marina Bay Sands from the south in midafternoon

Marina Bay Sands from the south in midafternoon

Me on the 55th floor of Marina Bay Sands, looking south

Me on the 55th floor of Marina Bay Sands, looking south

Another view from the top of Marina Bay Sands, of Gardens by the Bay

Another view from the top of Marina Bay Sands, of Gardens by the Bay

A few up-close views of Gardens by the Bay

A few up-close views of Gardens by the Bay

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(Yes, those are made of LEGO.)

(Yes, those are made of LEGO.)

Inside the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown

Inside the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown

The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India

The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India

Inside the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator

Inside the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator

Most of the signage was in English. Some was less familiar to me.

Most of the signage was in English. Some was less familiar to me.

I picked the right day to follow my mom's suggestion and go to the modernism exhibit at the National Gallery Singapore.

I picked the right day to follow my mom’s suggestion and go to the modernism exhibit at the National Gallery Singapore.

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What else? Let’s see — there was a wet market:

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The MacRitchie Reservoir Park, with Kate Brundage…

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…and monkeys:

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The Singapore Botanic Garden, with an Evolution Garden that I especially liked:

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Though this guy was also a highlight:

But my favorite place to photograph was, without a doubt, Haw Par Villa:

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The centerpiece of Haw Par Villa is the Ten Courts of Hell, the representations of which are a bit extreme. There are serious punishments for more infractions than I knew existed. Trust me, you don’t want to suffer the consequences of misusing books.

But I can’t end there. I’ve got to go back to SAS and one of the campus cats. Because campus cats.

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02 Feb

A special guest in the audience

The first slide in my school-visit presentation lists a number of things I am in addition to being an author, and one of them is “son.”

“Usually,” I told an audience of second- and third-graders last Friday at Holiday Heights Elementary, “you have to take my word for it.”

But not that day. Friday marked the first time that my mom has ever seen me do a school presentation. She’s a former teacher herself, and she was the guest of a Holiday Heights third-grade teacher whose own mother taught with my mom in Lubbock in the 1960s.

(I’ve known that third-grade teacher practically since she was born, which seemed to make quite an impression on the students at Holiday Heights.)

The presentation went as smoothly as you could hope a presentation would go when you’d like your parents to see how much you love what you do. The 200 or so kids were attentive and enthusiastic — a great bunch.

At lunch afterwards the principal told my mom, “Thank you for sharing your son with us,” which pretty much made my day. And which, I suspect, may have had a similar effect on Mom.

26 May

6 tips from 6 years of school visits

With terrific visits last week to Carrollton and Midland, Texas, I’ve wrapped up my sixth year of school presentations. I’ve learned a lot of things along the way, and for the benefit of other visiting authors, here are half a dozen of them — one for each year I’ve been at it.

1. Find out what the school wants you to talk about.
If you’ve got multiple books, don’t assume that your host wants you to focus on your newest one. Your host might not know much about it, and in fact may have led their students to expect something else. I’ve found that schools can be pretty flexible in accommodating authors, but that flexibility ought to go both ways. If it’s practical for you to tailor your presentation to the school’s preferences, do it. But at the very least, be aware of what those preferences are.

2. Get to the room before the kids do.
Getting there first allows you to deal with any kinks in the technical setup (laptop, projector, etc.) without a crowd observing your troubleshooting skills in action. It gives you a chance to request any particular configurations of the audience (I like having an aisle down the middle so that I can get closer to students not sitting on the front row). And one of my favorite parts of any visit is standing by the door as the kids enter the room, greeting them, and watching them realize (maybe 33% of the time) that I’m “the arthur.”

3. Learn the school’s hand signal or magic phrase for getting a crowd to hush.
Pretty much every school has something they use, be it a gesture or a call-and-response chant. Learning this — and good-naturedly letting kids know that you know what it is and how to use it — is an essential tool for restoring your audience’s focus on you and what you have to say.

4. Even if they treat you like a big deal, you don’t have to act like one.
Your visit may be a highlight of the school’s year. It may be the first author visit they’ve ever had, or the first they’ve been able to afford in a long, long time. As such, they may treat you like a rock star — going so far as to use the phrase “rock star. But that doesn’t mean you need to act like one. For one thing, deflating and demystifying yourself will help make what you do seem more accessible and more attainable to the kids you’re presenting to — and we all want that, right? For another, if you’re gracious, humble, helpful, flexible, and generally easygoing, word-of-mouth to that effect will spread among librarians, and more schools will want you to come visit.

5. They may not treat you like a big deal.
But that’s not why you’re there, so no problem. Be a pro, and speak up for your needs — and for things that will make the experience better for your audience — but keep your focus on connecting with those kids and giving them a good, meaningful show that at least some of them will remember for a long time.

6. Q&A just may not happen.
I love the question-and-answer portion at the end of my presentations. I get a lot of insight into which aspects of my books — and of my presentations — made the biggest impressions on my audience. But sometimes the conditions just aren’t right — say, if your presentation is the last thing scheduled for the day and kids have already moved on mentally to their departure. Or if the audience you’re speaking to just isn’t clear on the difference between a question and a statement (e.g. “I like sharks.”). When that happens, don’t get frustrated — just accept it. You can generally go out on a high note by asking if any of the adults in the room have a question.

Other authors, I’d love to hear what you’ve learned. And the same goes for those of you who have hosted authors during school visits — let me know in the comments any advice you’ve got to share. The next school-visit season is just three months away…

09 May

More (from me, and from my host) about last week’s Twitter chat

So, a little more about last week’s Twitter chat

Librarian Colleen Graves has written about the chat from her perspective. Here’s a bit of that —

I loved, loved, loved being able to take teachable moments while Chris was typing to talk with students about what he was saying. At one point, the students asked Chris, “What do you do when you don’t know what to write?” To which he so eloquently said, “Pay attention to what you can’t stop thinking of.” So while he was typing up his next response, I told the kids, “What great advice! Think back to your research, what was something you learned that you can’t stop thinking of?

— but I think her entire post is worth your while, especially if you’re a librarian or educator and think you might be interested in doing this with your own students.

From my own perspective, here’s what I told Colleen afterwards (pieced together and lightly edited from a series of private messages I sent her via — what else? — Twitter):

My thoughts on our chat: It was a lot of work! In our standard presentations, we authors can more or less stick to a script. Not here!

And I don’t mean “a lot of work” in a negative way. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. But it called for constant engagement and thought.

It had a big advantage over the Q&A sessions with an in-person audience: I knew that each question you chose to include was widely relevant.

The challenge for me was in distilling my answers into 140 characters but also in having to decide for myself when I’d sufficiently answered.

We didn’t have the immediate, glazed-eyes feedback loop that you get in person when an answer is going down the wrong track.

But then, that’s what follow-up questions are for, right?

Following up on my “widely relevant” remark above: You never know if the kid who asks a question in person is the ONLY one who wants it answered.

As for structure, I think it worked out great having main questions come from you and visual questions from students on different account.

I don’t think I could have stayed on top of questions from more than two accounts, and having the visual from students reinforced the fact that it was the kids doing the asking so that I could keep them in mind as I answered.

As for attempting a chat between a classroom and multiple authors simultaneously, I’d recommend against it, unless it’s two authors or an author and an illustrator who collaborated on a project. In that case, I can see how their comments would complement each other. Otherwise, I think it would be cacophonous for authors and students alike.

This chat was an experiment for Colleen and me alike, and I’m extremely happy with the results. So happy, in fact, that I’m henceforth adding Twitter chats to my school-visit offerings.

If you think you might be interested in scheduling one for me and your students, just drop me a line!

04 May

My Twitter chat with an 8th grade class

I’ve done in-person school visits and Skype presentations, but this past Friday School Librarian of the Year finalist Colleen Graves and I tried something new: a Twitter chat between me and a roomful of eighth graders needing some help transforming their research into a story:

How did it go? I thought it was terrific, but you can see for yourself in this handy Storify recap of our conversation. I’ll be back soon with some additional thoughts on the experience.