Monthly Archives: August 2014

In the Classroom: Authors and Kids

I just saw something from author/teacher Andrew Smith about how he answered a letter from a kid asking him to explain his book to him. Smith replied that the book stood on its own and that that the kid should trust himself to figure it out for himself. Here’s what I wrote in response (slightly edited for clarity and such).

Thank you, teacher Andrew Smith. And I hope somehow you can keep teaching as there aren’t too many high-visibility authors like you who can also speak from the POV of a currently practicing teacher. I’m one for much younger kids (private school 4th grade) and I think some of what happens at these younger grades can create the sort of older readers such as the one who wrote you.

First of all, I think there can be a tendency to broaden our already over-fixated celebrity culture to authors. Teachers are often eager for kids to know that books are written, that authors go through the same trials that they do when writing. But by doing that they can sometimes make the focus be on the creator more than on the thing created.

Secondly, I think teachers at the younger grades such as mine can be so worried about kids’ “getting it” (comprehending on a basic level) that they can be rigid about the “correct” interpretation and aren’t always as open to varied ones as would be preferable.

Thirdly,  not all teachers have had positive experiences themselves in being honored for their own interpretation of a book and so if  they don’t truly believe themselves in this approach (having found it challenging for one reason or another themselves when they were students) it is hard for them to trust the wide range of what kids say. No doubt many kids who write these sorts of letters to authors are just lazy, but some may be legitimately terrified of being wrong for good reason.

Then, there are those teachers that encourage kids to write authors. I do get that this is to encourage the kids to be inspired, etc. But it also relates to our current focus on celebrities in general and the ease of online fan culture these days (as evidenced by Michael’s post). In my experience (admittedly with high end learners, by and large) the most intense readers tend to care very little about the author, it is the book that matters to them. Those that are curious about the author tend to be those who are passionate writers themselves.

Finally, I just have to voice a personal grip — the generalizing about teachers and students that I often see. We teachers are not all the same nor are our students. A bad experience with one shouldn’t tar all. (PS In addition to being a teacher, I’m a blogger and reviewer and last year became a published author myself of a book for kids so I’ve been on many sides of this situation.)



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In Switzerland with Dog: So Far

My family started visiting Hasliberg in the Swiss Alps when I was still in high school. We rented a friend’s summer house the first year, but after that we always stayed at the Hotel Gletscherblick, a small family-run establishment that was around a century old at that point. My parents continued to go for the rest of their lives, my sister has gone regularly, first with my father (after my mother’s death) and then with her family. After my first year in Sierra Leone we all met there — what a change it was for me after Africa!  I subsequently went a couple of times on my own to write, lastly in August 2001 (where I hung out with the coolest 105 year old woman).  Of late, I’ve been craving a return with my dog.  This year I finally managed it.

gletscherblick 1975

(This is our entry in the guestbook when we came in 1975.)

Lucy was a trooper as she traveled by taxi (from our home to JFK), plane (was an angel on the flight), train (two of them), and bus to get to the hotel.  And as I’d been led to believe, Switzerland is incredibly dog-friendly.  Lucy has been able to walk about just about everywhere — even in the airport terminal! The hotel has been lovely — she is welcome in the restaurant and they brought towels for her after our first wet wander.  Sure, she’s been a little nervous with so many changes to her usual routine, but every day she is more acclimated to it.

For me it has been excellent. My purpose in coming here for two weeks was to write without the distractions of home.  The hotel room is perfect — unchanged since my last visit. There’s a spacious desk, a wall of windows looking out on the mountains (and that glacier), reliable wifi (so far, at least), and is quiet. I’ve been writing every morning and going out on hikes every afternoon.  I wanted solitude and got it — that is, solitude with dog. As others of you no doubt know, an animal companion can be just what is needed in these situations — live company that doesn’t talk and so doesn’t distract. (By the way, I lived in Germany as a child, all of my family is German, and so I speak the language comfortably.  In fact, I recently got my German citizenship though not in time to get an EU passport for this trip.)

I’m not sure how many posts I will do because this isn’t an exotic destination. My family moved a lot when I was a child. We vacationed all over; this was the one place we returned to repeatedly and so it means a lot to me. I also think it is a great place for anyone who wants a true Swiss Alps hotel — simple, but comfortable — and an excellent retreat for writing. I highly recommend it.

And so, to end, here are a few shots of our travels so far:



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