School Visit: Litchfield, Conn.

The first school visit for Hunt for the Hydra is in the books (ahem), and it was so much fun that I’m smiling just thinking about it, thanks to awesome teachers, media specialists and technical folks and classrooms full of great kids.

This visit had a little bit of everything. On Friday I talked to four classes at Litchfield Intermediate School and Center School, with students from Grades 3 through 6. Then on Monday, I talked with 7th and 8th graders at Litchfield High School before returning to Center School for presentations for more Grade 3 kids and an extra session we were able to squeeze in with some very enthusiastic kindergarteners.

Pirate ducks in the Litchfield Intermediate School library. Awesome!
Pirate ducks in the Litchfield Intermediate School library. Awesome!

So what did we talk about? I started with a bit about my career, then discussed my Star Wars books (now approaching two dozen!), the idea for Jupiter Pirates, and where ideas come from.

The teachers also wanted me to talk to the kids about my writing process, and that might have been the most fun of all. The kids listened attentively and had great ideas, and I think the teachers were happy because I preached the value of both outlining and revising, steps the kids and I agreed we often don’t like but that I emphasized are hugely helpful in writing. (I think some of my listeners were convinced.) I was thrilled when one teacher decided to revise an imminent assignment to accommodate outlining, revisions and the idea of letting something sit a bit so you can come back to it with fresh eyes — and I was even more thrilled to hear that his students thought that was a great idea.

A welcome fit for a pirate king. Thanks folks!
A welcome fit for a pirate king. Thanks folks!

We also talked about feeling like what you’ve written isn’t any good and you don’t want to show it to anyone. I told the kids that every writer — from little old me to Rick Riordan, J. K. Rowling and probably Shakespeare — has felt like that. A lot of what scares people about writing is fear — fear that they won’t like what they create and/or that it’s “not good enough” to show others — and hope I helped the kids realize that’s totally normal, and shouldn’t hold you back. People of all ages want to know what makes you a writer, and in my mind the test is pretty straightforward: Have you finished something and shared it with someone else? That’s it — not whether your book can be found in Barnes & Noble, comes between covers, has an ISBN number, or anything else. If you’ve finished something and shared it with someone else, you’re a writer — and from there it’s up to you how interested you are in writing and how much you want to apply yourself.

I read an excerpt from Hunt to the Hydra to several of the younger classes (if you’re curious, it’s the section starting on p. 183 when Tycho enters the Hydra with a group of retainers) and to my relief that went pretty well — the kids seemed to like my theatrical line readings, goofy hand gestures, and general overacting. Reading from my book also taught me something new: From now on, reading out loud will be part of my editorial process. It’s a great way to find parts that drag, repeated words that clang on the ears, and other imperfections. (I edited my excerpt on the fly. Shh. Don’t tell anyone.)

One of my listeners was inspired and made a pirate ship!
One of my listeners was inspired and made a pirate ship! Great job, Alana!

I tried something new with the older kids — a storytelling exercise. We took two minutes to watch the scene from Star Wars: Episode IV where Luke argues with his uncle about going to the Academy, then trudges outside to gaze at Tatooine’s double sunset. I asked the kids to list the science-fiction elements of the scene, and then to share their ideas about what Luke was feeling while staring at the suns. Then we compared the two lists, and discussed how much the science-fiction elements mattered to their understanding of what Luke was feeling. The answer we came up with: zero. The kids understood what was bothering Luke because they too have felt like their parents/step-parents/what-have-you don’t understand them. They’ve felt stuck and feared they’ll never escape their situation. They’ve wished they could jet off to discover what’s awesome about themselves. Everyone’s felt that, even if they’ve never repaired a droid, applied to a space academy or watched a double sunset. I then used that as a springboard to talk about how my own family and friends had shaped the cast of Jupiter Pirates, and how writers’ experiences can shape their work beyond diaries and journals.

Anyway, it was a huge amount of fun. Enormous thanks to media specialists Debbie Benedict, Jamie McDevitt and organizer extraordinaire Joanne Moore, to the teachers and tech folks who made me look good and had kind things to say, to Fran Keilty of the sublime Hickory Stick Bookshop, and of course to the kids for asking such great questions and giving me a dose of much-needed energy. (And last but far from least, huge thanks to my mother-in-law Martha Bernstein for letting me spend the weekend rattling around her house fussing with presentations and miscellaneous writer angst.)

* * *

I’m lining up future visits for this spring and summer. If you’d be interested in having me visit your school or library, please contact me at I’m comfortable with classes K-12 and can talk books, storytelling, tips for a happier writing process, or most anything else you can think of. Since time spent visiting is time not writing, I do typically charge for author visits — my baseline is $500 a day depending on location, situation, and so forth — but if that gives you pause, let me know what you have in mind and we’ll see if we can figure something out. I love watching kids get up from their desks excited about reading, storytelling, and writing, so if I can help, give me a shout!