Back in the days before the emergence of Skype and other magical methods for getting a writer’s face in front of young readers (and writers), back when school budgets and curricula had more room for “frivolous” stuff like hearing from and talking to the author of a book that students have read and enjoyed, I did a lot of in-person school visits. I got to see places I would never have otherwise gone. I got to experience all kinds of towns, neighborhoods, schools, teachers, librarians, administrators, parents. But the most enjoyable and memorable part for me, unsurprisingly, was meeting the kids.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that although the schools wanted their students to “get” something from my presentations, and I wanted to accommodate them, most of the kids just wanted to have fun. So I developed ways to wrap the “serious” information I gave them—writing stuff, research stuff, book stuff, publishing stuff, even personal stuff (“How old are you, anyway?”)—in fun activities. I put together slide shows that were (and are) partly tongue-in-cheek, I came up with skits, and lighthearted exercises, and games, and audience participation activities, and book giveaways, and question-and answer sessions. All the while, of course, I’d be sneaking in “real” writer-related inside information for the students who were seriously interested and the adults who were just plain serious.
Part of my slide show presentation has always touched on briefly showing and talking about my books. This was true even in the early days, when slides were really slides, riding around on a Kodak Carousel. Not long after my first book, SOMEONE WAS WATCHING, was published, the German rights were bought by a German publisher. Soon the book was published in Germany with a new cover and a German-language title. A box of the German editions arrived on my doorstep one day. So in my presentations I began showing photos of the US and German covers and telling the kids that it was exciting to know that my book was being read thousands of miles away across the ocean by young readers who read and speak only German. I’d ask them to tell me which cover they liked better, and tell them that the German title, NEIMAND HAT ETWAS GESEHEN, was obviously German for SOMEONE WAS WATCHING. Serious writer information.
It wasn’t until after several years of using this self-assured bit of show-and-tell that I visited a middle school where a teacher in the audience brought me up short and caused me to revise my future presentations. In a good way. More story. More humor. And I still got to use my two book cover slides. It turned out that the teacher was a German-language speaker. And reader. So she didn’t have to take the word of a know-nothing author about what NEIMAND HAT ETWAS GESEHEN means. She raised her hand and stood up and told me (and the audience) in her authoritative teacher-voice that the German publisher had pretty much turned the title of SOMEONE WAS WATCHING upside down. What those four foreign (to me) words actually mean, she said, is NOBODY SAW ANYTHING.
Funny, right? The audience (kids, especially) thought so. So did I. And from that point on, the story I told was still about the German edition and the two covers and the two titles, but it was also about what I’d mistakenly assumed and what I learned from a teacher that set me straight, because that’s what teachers do. And that’s one of the great things about being a writer and writing and doing research and figuring out how it’s all going to come together. Sometimes you think you know something about the world or a story or a character or yourself and then all of a sudden you realize you don’t. The truth lies somewhere else. And you need to go another direction. And serendipity happens.
Much like the sometimes imprecise translation of one language to another, the format and content of in-person school visits don’t translate precisely to the format and content of online visits. But that’s not necessarily a criticism. For instance, a prima donna author (there are a few) on the other end of a Skype connection can’t demand a lunch of organic greens and line-caught Chinook salmon sushi and French sparkling water served at exactly thirty-eight degrees. More important, the kids still “get” something from online visits. The information comes through; the inspiration comes through; the smiles come through; the fun comes through. And if that prima donna author begins tooting his own horn too loudly, the teacher/librarian can simply turn down the volume.