My first experience with the power of the Internet as a reader-to-writer-connection came about 10 years ago when my students read Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples. This book is about a 13-year-old girl in Pakistan named Shabanu whose sister is about to be married. She and her family live in the desert and raise camels. The story is one of arranged marriages and customs that create a mountain of questions for American students today. It is stunning in its simplicity of story, in its descriptions of the Pakistan deserts and that 13 year olds in the United States can identify with Shabanu, a character in a story that takes place a world away.
Two of my students, best friends, “found” Suzanne Fisher Staples via the Internet and emailed her asking if she would please come to our school. They quickly received a reply that she would be happy to. She told them to have their teacher contact her to discuss arrangements. These girls found me early the next morning and gave me her email address. I emailed her, and I must say I was a little intimidated to be writing an award-winning author! It wasn’t done in my days as a teenager, or at that point, as an adult. Writers were mysterious people we had little access to.
Staples did come to speak to our 400 7th graders, bringing with her beautiful slides of Pakistan’s Cholistan Desert and the camel that is she includes in the novel.
Students asked brilliant questions: “Is Shabanu a real person?” Actually, she is a composite of many girls and women Staples met while she was a reporter in Pakistan.
“Why did you write the sequel to Shabanu in first person but not Shabanu?” It wasn’t something she realized she was doing initially. It was the way it needed to be told.
She signed every copy of Shabanu for every student and then sat down with one last student who wanted to be a writer and was already a prize-winning poet. The student waited at the end of the line to meet Suzanne and said, “I want to talk business with you. I want to write.”
They talked for over an hour in the back of my classroom while her grandmother and her best friend waited outside. What Suzanne didn’t know at the time was that student’s mother was battling leukemia and she was living with her grandmother while her mother sought treatment out of state. That girl and her best friend dropped in for a visit last year. Her mom is doing well, she is in college and still writing and yes, that was one of the greatest days of her life.
Suzanne had lunch with the students who contacted her. Imagine! Dined with the families of the girls and spent the night at one family’s home. Absolutely a dream come true for two of her biggest fans and their teacher.
All these years later, authors have web pages, Facebook pages, blogs, and even Youtube channels. Kids have access that was unheard of 20 years ago.
Parents and and teachers need to take advantage of these resources and the access we have to our favorite authors. Google your child’s favorite author and you’ll find all kinds of great stuff including “book trailers” for their books, interviews, web pages with contact information for teachers and readers. If you know a reluctant reader, what better way to change that?
Really cool stuff I have found:
- Roland Smith, author of Peak and MANY other high interest novels, giving a video tour of his home office where he does his writing. He also has a website with monthly contests and a Facebook Page too.
- Neal Shusterman’s great website and a Facebook page where he posts contests and often asks readers to help him with character names.
- Judy Bloom’s website.
- Lois Lowry’s website with information on her final book in The Giver series.
- Nonfiction author Russell Freedman’s interviews on Youtube.
- Book trailers.
- Skype visits
The Internet provides readers a look into the writing process, their favorite writer’s life and provides publishing information for new books. Readers want to know about the life of their favorite writer, they want to identify with the writer and a web page provides the information. These days, it isn’t always possible to email the author directly, but the website will have that information. If you have Facebook account and are willing to LIKE an author page, you can share the posts with your child.
Suzanne Fisher Staples’ visit was a once in a lifetime event for many of the students. Live and in person author visits many be hard to come by, but via the Internet, we have lots of alternatives. Does Suzanne Fisher Staples do marathon school visits like the one she did back in 2002? Let me check her website….