Arranging An Author Visit – ‘Who You Gonna Call?’

Suppose you are a teacher or teacher-librarian on the hunt for an engaging presenter. Or conversely, suppose you are a published author who wants to visit schools and classrooms. To borrow a line from the Ghostbusters theme, “Who you gonna call?”

If you live in Winnipeg or rural Manitoba, you might contact Prairie Bookings, an agency that connects teachers and teacher-librarians with local or visiting authors of children and teen material. Started a few months ago by two energetic Winnipeggers, Nancy Chappell-Pollack and Jen Franklin, Prairie Bookings is the only firm in Manitoba to provide such a service.

Chappell-Pollack is a sister to award-winning Winnipeg YA author, Colleen Nelson. When one of Colleen’s books was nominated for a White Pine Award for the Forest of Reading program in Ontario, Chappell-Pollack saw first-hand how an Ontario-based agency – Author’s Booking Service – expedited the process of connecting authors to schools. Believing there was a need for a similar service in Manitoba, Chappell-Pollack and Franklin founded Prairie Bookings.

“I strongly and distinctly remember author visits when I was going to school,” Chappell-Pollack, a mother of four, said in a phone interview. “I can tell you probably all of them and what they wrote or if it was a graphic novel or poetry. Those stick in my mind so I really feel strongly that it is important to have that in our school system.”

While Prairie Bookings might be the new kid on the block, it already has an up-and-running website (www.prairiebookings.ca) and a roster of willing and capable authors with more expected in the coming months. “We connect authors from Manitoba and beyond with interested educators and libraries for professional paid presentations,” Chappell-Pollack said.

Each author has a webpage on the Prairie Bookings site that features a biography as well as details about the author’s presentation, fee structure, and grade level suitability. To connect schools and authors, Prairie Bookings charges a 10% booking fee. This is deducted from the fees collected by the author. When necessary, Prairie Bookings will organize transportation for out-of-town authors. “We take care of the details,” Chappell-Pollack noted.

To communicate with schools, Prairie Bookings emails flyers and announcements to teachers and teacher-librarians on their mailing list. Currently, Chappell-Pollack and Franklin have 100 contacts in their database.  They expect the number to grow rapidly as word spreads. While they are currently targeting Winnipeg schools and rural centers close to the city, they plan to extend their service to other areas of Manitoba eventually.

Prairie Bookings prides itself on offering quality classroom experiences. Chappell-Pollack noted that not every author might have the right mix of ingredients to be a successful presenter. “You could be a strong writer, but not a strong presenter or vice versa. It’s finding that right mix between an author who has a strong product and can also present it well and keep kids engaged that is the key to a successful experience. So far, we have been lucky to have reached out to authors, or had authors reach out to us, who are really strong candidates.”

Prairie Bookings offers a diverse list of presenters, from authors specializing in dystopian fiction (Melinda Friesen) and historical fiction (Gabriele Goldstone, Marsha Skrypuch) to others who write non-fiction (Larry Verstraete) or  realistic fiction (Maureen Fergus, Anita Daher, Colleen Nelson). That said, it is difficult to pigeon-hole the offerings since many authors write in more than one genre and present to a variety of age levels.

Chappell-Pollack and Franklin are hoping to add other published authors to the roster, and those interested can contact them through their website. Teachers and teacher-librarians wanting to be added to Prairie Bookings mailing list can send an email request to prairiebookings@gmail.com. Prairie Booking can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.

The Story Behind Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’

Marley was dead: to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.  The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.  Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.  Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

All in all, 1843 was not a good year for Charles Dickens, especially late 1843.  American Notes, a narrative about Dickens’ travels to Canada & the United States, sold well the previous year.  In 1843, sales slumped.  Feeling that Dickens was poking fun at them, Americans steered away from the book.

In 1843, Dickens published Martin Chuzzlewitt.  Like other books, it was released through newspapers in chapter-by-chapter installments. English readers lost interest quickly.  Americans, already irritated, only became more annoyed.

Dickens’ reputation as a best-selling author took a hit.  So did his income. He had mouths to feed – 4 children with a 5th on the way – and writing was his primary source of revenue.  By late 1843, things were looking bleak.

Charles Dickens had been poor before.  In 1824, when he was twelve, his father was imprisoned.  John Dickens had run into debt.  Unable to pay his debtors, all his household goods – furniture included – were sold and John was incarcerated at Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison. Ultimately forced to give up their home, Charles’ mother and siblings moved into prison with his father.  To sustain himself, Charles pawned his own possessions, left school, and found alternate lodging.  He worked for meager wages in a boot-blacking factory, pasting labels onto pots of blacking.

The experience affected Dickens’ entire life.  Keenly aware of the social injustices and terrible working conditions facing the poor, especially children, Dickens advocated for change.  He toured the Cornish tin mines, wrote articles, and challenged parliamentarians to do something.

In the fall of 1843, Dickens travelled from London to Manchester to speak about child labour and the plight of the poor at a fundraiser.  On October 5 , 1843, he spoke to a capacity crowd at the Manchester Athenaeum.  The sight of healthy, well-fed people in the audience contrasted sharply with the poor, overburdened subjects of his lecture.  With Christmas not far off, the contrast cut even deeper.

With two books on the wane, with the plight of the poor so evident, and with the Christmas season drawing near, Dickens plotted a new novel during his three days in Manchester.  When he returned to London, he started writing.  Within six weeks, he had a complete manuscript.

Released on the 19th of December in 1843, A Christmas Carol was an immediate success on a number of fronts. The book breathed life into Dickens’ fading career and restored his reputation.  The cast of characters echoed the deep divisions of society and highlighted the appalling conditions facing the poor. The tale of retribution rang true and reinforced the spirit of Christmas giving.

All the elements of success fit except one.  The book did little to buffer Dickens’ sagging income. The first edition was too lavish, the price was too low, and Dickens’ profit was marginal.

The rest, as they say, is history. Dickens’ story of tight-fisted, mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion to generosity and congeniality is a Christmas classic, told and retold now for almost 175 years.

Are there lessons to be learned from Dickens’ experience for those who write?  Probably there many, but for me, one stands out.  Dickens wrote about something that deeply mattered to him.  Passion drove his story, and that is evident on every page.  Find your passion – the subject you can’t wait to explore, the message you just have to deliver – and while you may not write in the style of Dickens, chances are that you will be able to write like the dickens.

For more about Charles Dickens check http://www.dickensfellowship.org

This post was adapted from another at Larry Verstraete’s The Story Behind blog.

For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.

Writing for Fickle Boy-Readers

When it comes to reading, boys tend to be less than enthusiastic.  Ask any frustrated teacher, librarian or parent who is trying to find enticing material for the young male reader.  If that doesn’t convince you, check the statistics. According to the International Reading Association, 39.9% of boys surveyed called reading ‘boring’; 11.1% said the stories they were asked to read were boring; 7.7% said they just couldn’t get into it.  Compared to girls, boys spend less time reading, prefer activities like watching television or movies, and score a grade and a half lower on reading tests. For many boys, reading is ‘something that girls do’.

The reasons for the dismal record are varied and complex, mired in genetics, social stereotypes and environmental influences at home and at school.  For writers of material for young people, though, the news is a silver lining of sorts. The market is rich in opportunities for those who know how and what to write for the fickle boy-reader. Witness the success of series books like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, proof that despite their lacklustre reading interests, boys can, and will become hooked if the material and approach are right.untitled

For writers up to the challenge, here are a few things that turn on – and turn off – boy readers, and perhaps editors who are looking for marketable boy material, too.

Guys lead…

According to Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope? (Robert Lipsyte, New York Times, August 19, 2011) while girls will read books about boys, boys – especially teenagers – rarely read books with predominately female characters – at least not willingly or openly.  Whatever the genre, a strong male cast with one or more central male protagonists encourages boys to read further.

Go big, go bold…

Call it stereoboy adventurertypical, but it’s often true: boys tend to be adventurous, competitive, and risk-takers when it comes to physical pursuits. In Why Johnny Won’t Read (School Library Journal, 08/01/2004), Michael Sullivan says: “Developmentally, boys view the world as a place filled with rules and tools, and their job is to understand how it works in order to get things done.”  All of this plays out in the topics that interest boys – sports, dinosaurs and daredevils, mystery and adventure, magical and supernatural encounters.  Boys dwell in worlds where heroes and superheroes live, where justice prevails over bullies, and where oversized deeds conquer seemingly impossible odds.

 Action first, then emotion….

Just watch a group of boys at play. Roughhousing and competition are mainstays.  Feelings and emotions, meanwhile, often take a backseat. While girls find satisfaction in internal reflection, dialogue and passages that strike an emotional chord, for many boy readers this is a turn-off According to www.guysread.com/about/, “boys aren’t practiced and often don’t feel comfortable exploring the emotions and feelings found in fiction”.  To grab boys’, action and plot – physical stuff – should be front and center.  Emotions and feelings – the things we often associate with character development – can follow but as a consequence.

Fast and sure starts …

No tortured and slow beginnings for boy readers who don’t have the reading skills or patience for this. The first few paragraphs must capture their attention, and embroiling boy readers in action from the start is one way to win them over.

Add sensory jolts…

brainBoy brains function differently than girl brains, and that impacts the way that boys process information.  Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently: A Guide for Teachers and Parents (Jossey-Bass, 2002) writes that boys’ brains engage in less cross-hemisphere activity than girls’ and to fully engage boys while they read, they need additional sensory input – a boost of sound, color, motion, or other physical stimulation.  Authors wise to this, reach boy readers by delivering extra doses of sensory detail.

Larry Verstraete is a Winnipeg educator and author of non-fiction books for young people.

For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.

Vertical, Horizontal and Other Writing Habits

Early in my writing career, I discovered Perkins.   Life was complicated then.  I was a full time teacher with a young family and hardly a spare minute.  To add writing to the mix meant that I had to squeeze an extra hour or two from an already crowded day.  So I started getting up earlier than normal, well before my wife and kids, and designated that time for writing.imagesCADIP4L2

Each morning for the first week, I brewed a pot of coffee, slipped into an empty room, and stared bleary-eyed at a computer screen making little progress.  The house was too quiet, the air too still, and there were oh so many distractions far more interesting or important than writing. And then I discovered Perkins, and a routine that made all the difference.

Frustrated by my lack of progress at home, I headed to a nearby Perkins restaurant early one morning.  The place was just a few blocks away and open 24 hours for my convenience.  There the tables were large, the coffee hot and plentiful, and the restaurant was mostly deserted, save for five grizzly men, all retired I assume, who had gathered to debate politics and life’s sad state. I chose a table near a window far away from them, and soon I was lost in a caffeine-fueled world of my own.  There, with the comforting hum of voices in the background, with few distractions to impede my progress, I sat at my adopted desk and, for the first time in a week, made some headway.imagesCAPZIKIV

For over 20 years now, I’ve started each morning in a similar way.  The nearby Perkins closed a few years ago so the venue has changed but the routine hasn’t varied.  Seven days a week, even on vacations, I find a cozy cafe or restaurant, and immerse myself in writing for an hour and often more.

My routine isn’t for everyone, but I can’t help but think that for serious writers some kind of routine is important.  From what I can tell, the greatest writers of all time had their own well-honed, though sometimes quirky practices, so maybe I am on to something.

Like me, for example, American poet Sylvia Plath started her writing day early, up at 4 a.m. and writing feverishly until her children demanded attention. John O’Hara, on the other hand, wrote between midnight and 7 a.m. and then crawled into bed for the rest of the day.

For others, it was water that beckoned the muse. Benjamin Franklin liked to write while immersed in the bathtub.  So did Ann Landers, the famous columnist, Edmond Rostand, the French playwright, and Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita. I am not sure how they kept their pages dry, but for them it worked.

Truman Capote wrote best in motel rooms and called himself ‘a horizontal writer’. Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote lying down, too.  Not so for Lewis Carroll, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway who all wrote standing up.

Virginia Wolfe wrote in a converted basement billiards room, surrounded by old files and stacks of books. J.K.Rowling famously wrote large portions of Harry Potter aboard a train, soothed by clattering wheels and swaying cars.  Stephen King, one of the most prolific of writers, works at the same desk every morning, surrounded by familiar writing tools, keeping butt in the chair until he reaches his target of 10 pages.images

It seems to me that one secret to a successful writing career is not that we all have the same habit, but that we have habits of some kind that work for us – a place, a time, a favourite pen, a comfortable chair.  Habit can induce consistency, offset writer’s block and lead to productivity, be it a paragraph a day or Stephen’s King’s enviable 10 pages.

For me, the habit is early morning coffee at a place nearby.  What, I wonder, is yours?

Larry Verstraete is a Winnipeg educator and author of non-fiction books for youngsters.

For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.

The Kid Inside

Eighty grade 5 & 6 students filled the library of an Ontario school where I was the guest author a few years ago. I love visiting schools, in part because I was a teacher for many years so I feel like a prodigal son returning home. But I also love visiting schools because as an author of books for young people, students provide me with a healthy dose of reality. Students, like the ones at this Ontario school, are my target audience when I write. What they say, how they feel about my books, what questions they ask – all of these things matter.

boy readingAfter the session, one student lingered longer than most and the librarian asked if I might have a few words with him. Josh had read my book, Survivors, cover to cover, she explained. Why, he had even gone a step further. He had prepared a survival kit, a backpack filled with emergency supplies. Josh kept it under his bed at home just in case the house caught fire, or a tornado struck, or some other disaster like those portrayed in the book put his life in danger.

At first, I was concerned. Had my book provoked unnecessary fear and damaged Josh for life? But after a few words with Josh I breathed easier. He wasn’t traumatized or frightened, just ambitious. He’d figured out a way to process the information in a useful way that made sense to him. Kudos to Josh.

Besides relief, I felt something else at that moment. Satisfaction. Somehow the stories I had toiled so hard to get right in my office at home had transcended time and place. Across many miles, they had touched a young reader, fueled his imagination and sent him on a quest of his own.

I’ve reflected on that experience a number of times and wondered just what magical combination of ingredients makes such a strong connection between author and young reader possible. Probably there are dozens of factors, but for me one keeps rising to the surface. While writing for kids like Josh, I had somehow reached deep inside myself to find my own inner kid – that boy of long ago who had dozens of questions, who wondered in awe at new-found things, and who had tasted first-hand the fear, confusion and angst of growing up. I had tapped into that well, found my footing and when I wrote it was from that place, one kid connecting with another.

To connect with their readership, I think all successful writers of children’s material do this. They remember as vividly as yesterday what it was like to be a kid. Whatever their genres, they write from that place, invoking childhood emotions and experiences that are universal, mindful of the wonders and worries that drive all youngsters no matter where they live.

kids playing

Larry Verstraete is a Winnipeg educator and an author of non-fiction books for young people.

For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.
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