Wednesday, November 10, 2010
In association with PEN Children’s & Young Adult Book Committee
I entered Ms. Bryant’s first grade class at 9:30 am armed with my computer notebook, and a big red bag filled with props, books, and paper handouts. My idea was to set up the computer with my PowerPoint presentation, read from either Bright Eyes, Brown Skin or My Friend Maya Loves to Dance, answer a few questions about how a book is actually made, and then explain in 10 minutes or less how my job was actually 3 jobs in one: an author who write stories, a creative director who puts authors’ words and artists’ illustrations together to make picture books and a business partner with my husband to market and sell books and get them to readers.
It was an ambitious plan to cram into 50 minutes and 18 anxious faces were eager for me to start. After Mrs. Bryant and the IT manager hooked up my notebook to the big screen projector, I realized that it was keyed to the wrong PowerPoint presentation. Jazz music was playing as background to a trailer for another title, Clothes I Love to Wear and the children were responding in unison, “Ooooh!”
So what did I do? I chucked my original plans, improvised and asked questions: “How many of you use your imagination?” “How many of you like to play dress up or make pretend?” I began reading Clothes I Love to Wear instead of the title I had originally planned.
The students were so enthusiastic, I barely had a chance to get the props out of my bag. (derby top hats, magic wands, tutus, masks butterfly wings, and kente cloth that I planned to use for My Friend Maya loves to Dance.) Then the students volunteered to help me hold the big book version of Bright Eyes, Brown Skin. They joined in the call and response:
Bright eyes, brown skin
They demonstrated along with me skin, eyes, ears, fingers, nose, toes, and very special hair and clothes. I was energized and impressed by the students because they had read several of my books before I came. They and their kindergarten schoolmates had even prepared individual drawings to illustrate that book.
When it came time to read My Friend Maya Loves to Dance, I asked for volunteers to dance with me. One young man shouted out, “I didn’t know that dudes could take ballet!”
“Of course they can and they do,” I replied, showing them the detailed and realistic paintings done by Eric Velasquez. Before I could say, “Laissez les bons temps rouler,” I was surrounded by boys and girls demonstrating dance positions with me. Boy was that fun!
Briefly, I explained the differences between concept books, board books, paperback picture books and hardcover titles using title such as AFRO-BETS ABC Book, Good Morning, Baby, and Construction Zone to demonstrate.
When the students saw the photograph of the big caterpillar on the cover of Construction Zone they immediately related it to construction equipment in the Ninth ward and all over New Orleans where buildings were being razed, rehabilitated and constructed from new foundations.
After talking about my writing process as an author, I told the children that my other job was to help other people tell their stories by publishing them as books through our publishing company, JUST US BOOKS. That concept was a little bit harder for them to grasp, but showing them a little mini-biography of Wade and myself and our company helped to make it our role a little clearer. Using an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper folded twice, I demonstrated the covers, copyright page, title page and formats for interior pages of a book.
The hour flew by so quickly, but there was still time for everyone to stand and one-by-one share the title of a story or a book that they had recently read. It was clear that these students loved to read!
Mrs. Bryant’s entire class could have been poster kids of Bright Eyes, Brown Skin. I was inspired by their warmth, curiosity, enthusiasm and genuine joy for reading books. I can hardly wait for them to share their creative writing assignment with us in the future.
For my presentation for the 2nd grade, two classes of about 40 students filled the space in another classroom down the hall from Ms. Bryant’s. The 2nd graders had read Glo Goes Shopping. And they were familiar with My Friend Maya Loves to Dance as well. For this group I went into a bit more detail about the value of brainstorming an idea and the importance of telling your own story. (Who indeed could tell it better? Who could best tell it from your point of view?)
We talked about the building blocks of stories; how alphabet letters are basic; letters form words; words form sentences; sentences form paragraphs and together they become the vehicles for writing and telling a story that may eventually become a book.
Every story begins with a seed of an idea and the 2nd grade students had plenty of them! They knew stories could be about family, friends, neighbors, pets, field trips, or something entirely imaginary!
For example, the students liked Glo’s story because she went shopping (something they all liked to do) for a friend, but during the process she found out a few interesting things about herself and learned about the value of sharing and of friendship. The students agreed that the best gift that Glo could give was something that she could really share with her friend, Nandi.
When I asked the children if they used their imaginations to think about their individual gifts and what they wanted to become when they grew up, a young lady sitting directly in front of me replied without hesitation, “I want to be the president of the United States!”
Other children wanted to be a princess, an African chief, an entertainer, a doctor, a lawyer, a king, a tap dancer, a writer, an illustrator and a mayor. Together, they enthusiastically acted out each scene for their fellow classmates as I read My Friend Maya Loves to Dance.
Toward the end of our session, one young man, Julian, volunteered to share a story he had written about a big pumpkin. He retold a story they had studied in class but gave it with a different ending and rewrote it using new vocabulary words. We agreed that one day he might become a published author. If he took his story, re-wrote it and put it into the template, made copies of it and distributed it to a larger audience his work would be “published” or made available to the public. It could be a printed book or even an e-book if it were published online!
I ended the session by handing out templates the students could use to create their own mini-books, awarding certificates of participation and taking photographs of Ms. Kelly, Ms. Ford and all of the students. I’m not certain that I made all of the points I had planned for this presentation, but I certainly learned a lot by sharing with all of the Martin Luther King Charter School students. I’m anxious to come back to New Orleans so we can share even more stories that the children have created themselves.
Next Blog: Photos of 1st and 2nd grade students at author visit, MLK Charter School, New Orleans, LA