by Jane Kurtz
I started doing author visits when I had exactly one book published. Of course I didn’t have the same tools to whip dramatically out of my toolbox that I have now, but I could talk about the many years I’d spent writing and the many times I had to fail before I succeeded– useful for everyone to hear, even someone who doesn’t have the slightest interest in being a serious writer. I would say, “Next time you take a flop, you can tell yourself, ‘I have a long way to go before I’m as bad as that author who came to talk to us!’” I showed students what the pieces of a book looks like as they are being printed. Kindergarten students would ask me, “How do you make the hard cover?” I listened to their theories (a stack of cardboard in my basement, a pile of wood in the backyard) and talked about how a writer’s job is to care a LOT about the words but not how to make the cover. As a former classroom teacher, I loved being in classes. Educators loved having me be comfortable with kids and able to put things in language that engaged and amused their students.
For years after that, I was asked to be part of the school’s “Africa unit.” Even though I was born in Portland, Oregon, my parents moved to Ethiopia when I was two years old. I had a box of things from Ethiopia that students could smell and touch and taste and hear and see. Some of my books were set in Ethiopia or other African countries and gave glimpses of real kids living in other places.
Now, though, what most schools are longing to hear about is how to help students be better writers. Many teachers use some version of the Six Traits in their classrooms, and it has been fun to figure out how those traits show up in my writing. That way I’m using the same vocabulary of words, ideas and details, organization, voice, sentence fluency, and conventions that thousands of teachers use. Even if you never bring authors into your world, consider going on a treasure hunt for those traits as you read our books. I now teach graduate students who pay tens of thousands of dollars to learn how to be stronger writers, and they often learn most the same way students will: by studying published books–what we educators sometimes call “mentor texts.”
I’ve done authors visits in all but 9 of the United States and in many other countries. From my experience, here are 5 tips you can use in reading an author’s work or preparing an author visit, especially if you want to make connections that will help students’ writing shine.
- Once I stepped into a school and saw a poster that said, “Jane’s Juicy Words.” The teachers were encouraging students to find juicy words in my books and then use those same words in their writing. Great! Though I’m often asked, it’s hard to explain how I find juicy words. I love words and I always have—and, as I say in every author visit, I was an avid reader, which is the best way to become a wordsmith! But I do have one specific tip that can immediately make a paragraph pop.Here it is: pay attention to verbs. My brother and I wrote a book, Water Hole Waiting, that School Library Journal called “a gem for writing teachers.” I’ve used it (as you can, too) for a mini lesson– brainstorming how different animals move, how waves move, how the wind moves, how insects move. We fill up a sheet with interesting verbs, and then I challenge students to take a draft of a piece they are already writing—great if it’s nonfiction like Water Hole Waiting because why should expository writing equal dull writing?– and replace some of their verbs with ones they love from the big sheet.
- Students always ask me where I get my ideas. It’s more important to know where I get my details. (Actually they come from the same places: memory, observation, and research, and I can illustrate by using my books. I’ll bet you can, too, if you start looking.) I know how busy you are. If you only focus on helping students discover vivid, convincing, surprising details, many other things about writing (no matter what the genre) will fall into place.
- “Explode the moment” is a phrase related to details that I borrow from Barry Lane. It’s such an important concept for narrative writing. When I’m in front of a class, I sometimes use my son’s sports photos to help students get the concept. A crucial moment of a game is like the high point of the scene where writers need to slow down and consider all of the five senses. The right sensory detail can grab a reader and pull her right into the scene.
- I have found it helpful to talk with my own students–including college students–about how research is a way to find surprising and interesting details. When I was working on my novel Anna Was Here, I started with thinking about what my readers might already know about Kansas. Now… how could I surprise them? I spent one day doing research by visiting an emu farmer. She was a hoot! I also did research by reading about the blizzard that killed so many children on the Great Plains. It might be fun to try to guess with any book you read in the classroom which details could only come from research.
- The right word, the right detail, the right organization doesn’t land on us when we snap our fingers. Nobody can talk about revision the way a published writer can. Revision is not mere editing. When I was working on my book about my writing process—Jane Kurtz and You—I described a draft as being like clay. You can’t make a pot without it. But once you have the clay, you still have to figure out tons of things. How will I shape it? How will I make it interesting? What do I have to throw away?
When I was young I thought being a good writer meant writing things in one draft. Believe me, I know how many terrific writers feel that same thing today.
How can we coax students to revise?
I’ll tell you what coaxes me to revise.
An intense and never-ending passion for words, stories, and books.
Let your passion shine for students—and maybe you’ll also have a chance to let an author stand beside you, all shiny in spite of the many times we’ve flopped.
About Jane Kurtz
Award-winning author Jane Kurtz spent most of her childhood in Ethiopia and most of her adult life trying to capture bits of that childhood in picture books and novels for young readers. She has also written about her own children’s lives in such books as Do Kangaroos Wear Seatbelts? (Penguin) and about people who change the world in such books as Martin’s Dream (Simon & Schuster) and the middle grade novels that accompany the 2010 American Girl Doll of the Year, Lanie, an outside-loving girl who discovers she can help the earth from her own back yard. Check out the NY Times review of her new book Anna Was Here! Jane lives in Portland, Oregon, and travels nationally and internationally to speak and to volunteer for Ethiopia Reads, a nonprofit planting the first children’s libraries in Ethiopia.