Connect your class with Catholic writers.
By Barb Szyszkiewicz
There’s nothing like inviting an author to class to encourage aspiring writers and motivate even reluctant readers. Bringing in a Catholic author offers even more benefits to your students. Catholic writers will share their writing journey without leaving out the spiritual aspect. They’ll demonstrate that faith is part of all facets of life. You won’t need to worry about content that might contradict Church teaching and the mission of the school, and your students will be introduced to writers and literary characters who strive to live their faith. TCT spoke with several Catholic authors who enjoy visiting classrooms to share their books with readers of all ages.
What’s an author visit like?
While the format varies depending on the age of your students and the author’s personal preferences, you can expect a visit to include a presentation or guided dialogue, time for a read-aloud (for primary grades), and a question-and-answer session. Many writers will share their experiences of becoming an author.
Virginia Lieto, author of The Adventures of Faith, Hope, and Charity: Finding Patience, first introduces the concept of the book, then reads the story to her primary-grade reading audience. Finally, she offers time for questions, “some from the children and some from me.”
Lisa M. Hendey’s visits to middle-grade students in Catholic schools are interactive and begin with prayer. Hendey, author of the Chime Travelers chapter-book series, breaks visits into 10-minute sessions in three categories. The first is “saints in the making: We discuss how every student is called to be of service to the world around them.” Next, the discussion centers on storytellers; Hendey shares her own experience of writing and explains the publication process, including the roles of the illustrator and editor. Her visits end with time for Q&A.
Students of all ages who meet Deanna K. Klingel get a hands-on experience as part of her author visit. Klingel’s book tours take her to Civil War reenactments and trade shows as well as classrooms, and she now has 17 bins of themed display items that correspond with her books. For example, Klingel offers book talks about her Civil War series, Avery’s Battlefield and Avery’s Crossroad. She might bring a soldier’s New Testament, bandages, a bullet, a miniature cannon, a jar of hardtack, antique medicine bottles, a feather quill pen, and miniature flags. “Nothing expensive or irreplaceable; nothing kids can’t handle. It’s not a museum piece. Its only purpose is to invite their interest, make them want to read more about it,” Klingel stated.
Cynthia T. Toney, whose Bird Face series and The Other Side of Freedom are written for upper-middle-grade readers, prefers an informal approach: a conversational format in a relaxed atmosphere with lots of interaction. Toney takes questions and answers “sitting among the students rather than at a podium or desk.”
Young-adult (YA) author Leslea Wahl offers several options for classroom visits: “If I’m talking about my own books, I share my experience of becoming an author and describe the books and the underlying messages. I show pictures and book trailers, as well.” Wahl, author of The Perfect Blindside and An Unexpected Role, enjoys spreading the word about other writers’ books in addition to her own. “I can also do a ‘book talk’ about a variety of Catholic books in multiple genres.”
Do you have to read the book before the visit?
Michelle Buckman, author of Turning in Circles (YA) and several books for adults, gears her visits with high-school classes to discussions of plot, character, and motivation. “I begin with questions to get them involved, and then I talk about the characters — how they came to be and who they are in my head. I like to press them for depth of how they reacted to events in the story, but even more so about what they got from it, what it made them think about. From there, discussion often leads to how they can expand on their own ideas — how to take a simple plot and create all the tiny bits that really make it into a story and how to make a character come alive on the page.”
While authors generally expect that your students will be familiar with their work, unless they plan to share a newly published book, there are ways to make author visits work when the students have not yet read that writer’s books.
“Even when the students haven’t read the author’s work, hearing an author speak can provide many practical lessons,” noted Carmela Martino, author of Rosa, Sola (middle grade) and Playing by Heart (YA). “For example, I discuss my ‘winding road’ to becoming a published author, emphasizing the important roles reading and persistence played in accomplishing my goals. This reinforces the value of reading but also inspires children to pursue their own dreams and callings, whatever they may be.”
Martino continued, “I also discuss the challenges of writing and revising. Students are often surprised to learn writing doesn’t always come easy, even for published authors. This seems to be especially helpful for students who struggle with their own writing. They can be encouraged to hear that writing does improve with practice and effort.”
What do authors enjoy most about visiting schools?
Sara Francis, author of The Terra Testimonies, a YA sci-fi trilogy, looks forward to the questions from students she visits. “It’s always incredible to hear how passionate they are.”
Some authors look forward to in-person feedback. “My favorite part is hearing the questions and reactions to the book from the students,” A.J. Cattapan, author of Seven Riddles to Nowhere (middle grade) and Angelhood (YA), explained. “Most authors don’t get to hear from their readers. As an author who writes for kids and visits them in schools, I get to do just that! I love hearing what they have to say about my characters!”
YA writer Karen Ullo, author of Cinder Allia, describes her favorite part of author visits simply: “seeing young people excited about books!”
T.M. Gaouette, who wrote the Faith & Kung Fu series for YA readers, loves when students “get to know the characters, calling them by name, and obviously creating a connection with them. During my last visit, the students had fun telling me how they kept reading beyond the scheduled chapters and teasing their friends about what happened next.”
Getting ready for an author visit
“Prepare your students for the visit by describing appropriate behavior and helping them to prepare questions for the author,” Lisa M. Hendey advised.
“Feel free to let the author know if there is anything particular you would like them to discuss,” A.J. Cattapan added. “You can share what kind of writing you are working on or what the students are struggling with.”
Karen Ullo focused on the practical questions authors will need answered in advance of a visit. “I appreciate knowing exactly where on campus to check in, and having a particular person’s cell phone number to call or text if I get lost or stuck in traffic,” she commented.
“Also, let us know what to expect from the students. Have they read the book beforehand? If other authors have visited, are there particular questions or themes the students tend to ask about?”
Cynthia T. Toney lists other nuts-and-bolts elements of the classroom visit: “Authors might need help with carrying books and materials. We get thirsty and hungry and need bathroom breaks. Not all authors have the ability to arrive and be ready to begin as soon as school starts in the morning. Speaking to three groups is a lot in one day.”
Also, ask the author ahead of time about whether copies of books will be available for purchase or order during the visit, so your students can be prepared to buy books if desired.
How will students benefit from an author visit?
Deanna K. Klingel observed, “This is a fun and interesting experience for all ages, and the value isn’t always in the moment. Recently at a bookstore signing, a young woman appeared at my table to tell me I’d visited her class when she was in fifth grade and she bought Avery’s Battlefield. She is now in 10th grade, has passed the book to a nephew, and told me that book changed her attitude about reading. So sometimes the author, the teacher, or the student won’t know the value that day.”
T.M. Gaouette added, “It’s a win-win for author and student, because both learn so much about each other. It’s motivating for both parties. It encourages students to read more because they see how much fun it is. And it encourages authors to write more because they see firsthand the impact their stories have” on readers.
Online author visits
When distance is a factor, let the internet bring an author to you.
Smartboard or projector
Access to Skype, FaceTime, or Google Hangouts
Reliable internet connection
Microphone for Q&A
What if there are technical difficulties?
Prior to your online visit, plan to complete a practice run with the author. A.J. Cattapan noted, “I usually run a very brief testing session with the teacher a day or two ahead of time so that we can work out any kinks. I’ve been using Google Hangouts more than Skype lately, since most teachers have Google accounts, and it’s super easy to just send a link to the ‘Hangout.’ When it’s time for the visit, the teacher just clicks on the link, and the video conference opens up on her screen.”
If connectivity or hardware issues interfere with your session, there’s usually a backup plan. Most authors will reschedule. Lisa M. Hendey sometimes offers to record a video presentation to send to the teacher, who can then play that video for the class.
Sara Francis shared her policy: “If the rescheduling fails, the school will receive a portion of their deposit back and free online resources in its place.”
Making author visits affordable
Most authors do charge fees for their visits. Carmela Martino explains, “Author royalties are typically only a small percentage of the book’s retail price, so school visit fees are an important way authors supplement their income. We also devote a significant amount of time to preparing for a visit, in addition to travel time and the visit itself.”
Often, schools in the same geographical area pool their resources to bring in an author, saving on travel expenses. Learn about other ways to fund author visits: todayct.us/2Tnsswq
Invite an author to class
These Catholic writers would be happy to visit your classroom! Visit their websites to request an author visit.
Michelle Buckman: MichelleBuckman.com
A.J. Cattapan: AJCattapan.com
Sara Francis: Sara-Francis.com
T.M. Gaouette: TMGaouette.com
Lisa M. Hendey: LisaHendey.com
Deanna K. Klingel: BooksByDeanna.com
Virginia Lieto: VirginiaLieto.com
Carmela Martino: CarmelaMartino.com
Cynthia T. Toney: CynthiaTToney.com
Karen Ullo: KarenUllo.com
Leslea Wahl: LesleaWahl.com
Barb Szyszkiewicz is managing editor of Today’s Catholic Teacher. Learn more about her writing at FranciscanMom.com.
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