School Visits: Making History Come Alive

Albuquerque, New Mexico is celebrated for its red and green roasted chilies, fall hot-air balloon festival, and 120 years of microbrew pubs. It’s also where technology visionary Bill Gates got his start, which is why I was recently in the city—visiting schools and talking to students about my new picture book biography “Think Smart, Be Fearless: A Biography of Bill Gates,” just out from Sasquatch Books.

In 1975, Gates was a pre-law student at Harvard when he and Paul Allen spent eight weeks writing and selling a modified version of BASIC software to Ed Roberts of Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Roberts had designed and built the Altair 8800, a small personal computer kit and was marketing it to “hobbyists” for about $400. The Altair had no keyboard, no screen, 4kb of memory (compared to today’s smartphones which have about four million times that amount) and most importantly, no software to tell it what to do, draw, or count.

When Gates and Allen wrote the software for the Altair 8800—and it worked!—Roberts bought it on the spot. With the grudging support of his parents, Bill took a leave of absence from Harvard and cofounded “Micro-soft” with Allen, which they ran in Albuquerque for several years until moving the company to Bellevue, WA in 1979.

The first to third graders in the three schools I visited in Albuquerque knew none of these little details, but thanks to the efforts of their excellent librarians, they recognized the name Bill Gates and knew he had accomplished something important in the city where they lived.

What I love the most about visiting schools and talking to students about the topics of my books—whether it’s anti-bullying, orca pods, or Bill Gates—is how wonderfully open and ready they are to absorb and learn new things. Yes, writing about the life of Bill Gates for children is an ambitious project. But here’s a secret—and the kit-lit writers out there already know this—children’s books are all philosophy books in disguise.

I believe kids are inspired by big ideas, big stories. Even when they don’t understand all the details or the minutiae, the core ideas still resonate with them. At age eight, they may not fully understand the abstract concept of philanthropy or how Gates has made a commitment to give away 95% of his wealth in his lifetime, but when we talk about it in terms of having one dollar bill in your pocket, they get the “big idea” that if they made that commitment, it would mean they’d be giving away 95 cents and keeping only 5 cents. To me, that’s the power of storytelling.

Talking to kids about the life and accomplishments of Bill Gates is so much fun because it means we can talk about technology, philanthropy, fitting in (or not fitting in), following your dreams and more! Here’s a sample of some of the great questions they asked.

Why did he name the company “Microsoft”?
How did Bill Gates get to be so smart?
Were his parents mad at him for leaving school?
Why didn’t he stay in Albuquerque?
Is he with you here now?
Is everything in your book, even the silly parts, true?
Were the old computers as big as my desk?

The respective librarians chimed in with some questions of their own about primary sources, and what we can learn from reading about the lives of accomplished people, but my favorite experience from my Albuquerque visit has to be the story of one fourth grade boy. When it was announced that I’d be visiting his school, this student requested special permission to be excused from his math class to listen to my presentation. His librarian shared with me that he had been visiting the library for the last two years “asking if there were any new books on Bill Gates.” Before my talk began, he marched right up and introduced himself. Was this the book, he asked? Did it tell the story of the whole life of Bill Gates? Could he see it? Could he see it NOW? I wrote him a special note in the copy of his book that he was taking home. It was truly a moment to warm my heart, that I’ll always remember.

Visit bonus: I saw a roadrunner.

Thank you Albuquerque Public Schools and Manzano Day School for hosting me! And special thanks to Bookworks, Albuquerque for planning and helping me with book sales.

Picture Book Doubleheader

What is it about second grade? Ask friends and family for a special or important memory they can recall from childhood, and very often you’ll hear a story from around the time of second grade. Perhaps in first grade, kids are still navigating the transition from kindergarten, and by third grade, they’re all grown up. In second grade, our social character traits are beginning to blossom and the sting of failure, fears and flaws feels somehow magnified.

Deborah Hopkinson has written a gorgeous little paean to second grade in her new picture book, A Letter to My Teacher, with pictures by Nancy Carpenter (Schwartz & Wade, April 4, 2017), told eponymously by an unnamed little girl navigating the start of second grade.

Heartbreakingly, she always expects the worst. Will her teacher scold her for stomping into school in the first day with muddy boots, stumbling over words when reading out loud, or wandering away from the group on a field trip? Instead, as we hope and delight in, her teacher is patient, supportive and always encouraging, if sometimes “exasperated,” which delightfully leads our little heroine to search for the word in the dictionary—a true teaching moment.

This story will hearten children and sweep adult readers back to recapture a special time in our lives, while reminding us how exciting it can be to teach children and how grateful we all should be to those who choose to do so.

Hopkinson, a prolific author, has a second picture book also being released in early May—

Independence Cake: A Revolutionary Confection Inspired by Amelia Simmons Whose True History is Unfortunately Unknown, illustrated by Giselle Potter also by Schwartz & Wade (May 9, 2017).

Independence Cake features another strong female character, Amelia Simmons, a “plucky patriot”—a little girl not prone to feeling sorry for herself—with creative ideas of her own to honor the birth of the 13 new colonies and George Washington’s visit. What is especially inventive about this tale is how Hopkinson created a story to surround the few known facts about the real Amelia’s life. The scant record shows only that Amelia Simmons, an orphan, very likely made her living as a servant or a cook, and in 1796 published American Cookery, the first cookbook published by an American. There is something quite satisfying in seeing how Hopkinson’s story details bring Amelia back to life.

Hopkinson sprinkles plays on words related to cooking and baking throughout the book that will delight both children and the adults who will surely be reading this story to them repeatedly. Children will love scanning all the activity going on in the background of Potter’s illustrations, whose style mimics the flat perspective of early Colonial art.

Although Hopkinson and Potter might have included some diversity in other characters who might have interacted with Amelia in real life, they offer us this one thin “slice” of time beautifully.

Thanks again to Deborah Hopkinson for offering me an early read of these titles. For other stops on the Hopkinson Double Blog Tour, please check deborahhopkinson.com

 

 

Review: It Came In The Mail

it-came-in-the-mail-9781481403603_lgOf all the delightful picture books out there, I keep a special place reserved for those that are author-illustrated. Maybe it’s because I’m a graphic designer as well as a writer. Most people just naturally assume that means I can draw. I cannot. Designing an exhibit or a publication, or even a book is a totally different animal than being able to draw and illustrate—anything. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to see what my drawing sketches look like—they’re frightening. 
 
So author-illustrated picture books always fascinate me. Not only for the twin sets of technical prowess they showcase, but also because I often wonder about the process. As a writer, I’m always revising and sometimes second guessing decisions I’ve made in an earlier draft. When you’re the one creating both the pictures and the story, those lines must inevitably cross over and blur. Are there internal battles that rage between words and images? Do you wake up in the morning, knowing n your heart that one of them has to sacrifice itself for the good of good of the whole?
 
I’ve been musing on this recently after reading a great new author-illustrator picture book, “It Came In the Mail” by Ben Clanton just out from Simon & Schuster. Ben’s story and images work together seamlessly. The result is a quirky, funny book that will entertain young readers and also satisfy parents who will be enlisted to re-read the story nightly with witty little asides. 
 
“It Came In The Mail” is the story of Liam, a boy who really, really, really, REALLY wants some mail. No spoiler alert-needed. As the title suggests, Liam gets his wish—in more wild and crazy ways than he could have imagined, and of course with surprising results. Bonus points awarded to Ben for the additional life lessons Liam learns along the way, including a new understanding of the joys of giving as well as receiving and how sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.
 
What’s exciting about the marriage of Ben’s pictures and words in this book is how he builds his world little by little, layer upon layer. The image spreads deepen in complexity along with the story as the book progresses. Empty to full. Scarcity to overabundance. Adding meaning are the postcard, paper and stamp ephemera that Clanton skillfully incorporates into his drawings that add a tactile feel and richness to the pages. 
 
It’s hard to say whether, by the time Clanton’s intended audience grows up, there will even be anything sent by snail mail. But at least for now, kids can enjoy running out to their own mailbox to see what’s arrived. Kudos Ben, for giving parents extra work.  
Ben will be holding a book signing on Sunday, July 10 at Queen Anne Books in Seattle, WA 

“Maddi’s Fridge” by Lois Brandt

As children’s author Lois Brandt tells it, years ago, she peeked into her best friend’s refrigerator and found empty shelves and one small carton of milk. The family didn’t have enough money to buy more food. Maddi’s Fridge, Lois’s first picture book, published by Flashlight Press, is the result of that moment.

maddiLois was one of the first writer-friends I met when I began my studies in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, Whidbey Writers Workshop on beautiful Whidbey Island. In fact, I’ve now convinced myself that Lois read from an early version of this very manuscript as our small group sat huddled in one of the snug cabins at Fort Casey during a blinding snowstorm in one of our first workshops, led by local Newbery honor winner Kirby Larson.

I tell you this as an introduction to confirm what so many writers know (and so many of our friends and families hate to hear us admit)—many of the stories we write take years and years to germinate, develop, write, revise, revise again, and finally, hopefully publish and bring out into the world.

I asked Lois if she would share a little of what she’s learned about writing and readers in her first foray into the publishing world.

Q: “Maddi’s Fridge” has been praised as a picture book that tackles a tough subject without making it an “issue” book. What are you hearing that readers enjoy most about the story?

Lois: Like all picture book authors, I have both kid and adult readers. When I ask kids “What is Maddi’s Fridge about?” the first hand in the air often says “friendship.” A lot of young readers respond to the friendship between Maddi and Sofia and Sofia’s attempts to help her friend. We talk about friendship, what being a friend means, and how these are our friends and neighbors who are finding themselves without enough food. Young readers also rave about Vin Vogel’s illustrations, especially the egg and fish scenes. And all kids ask me about Cheesy Pizza Bombs. Here’s a link to a recipe for Cheesy Pizza Bombs on my website.

Adults have a different response. Some get teary-eyed, I believe, because the depth of the issue hits them, and maybe perhaps because adults are more cynical. We’re thinking in the back of our minds “this is too big to solve.” The beauty of children is that they dream the impossible, that we can and will eliminate childhood hunger. We need to let the kids take the lead on this one.

Q: You’ve been doing a lot of school visits since the book has launched. Was that always part of your plan as a children’s book author or did you undertake them specifically because of the themes of Maddi’s Fridge?

Lois: A few years ago I was in an artist in the schools program and found that I loved working with small children. School visits were definitely part of the plan. However, Maddi’s Fridge is different. Schools and youth organizations hold food drives around my visits. Kids proudly tell me that they gathered, say, 357 food items (two third grade classes in their school) or 1,621 items (Brownies and Daisies going door-to-door). Kids want to help. The power of their small hands and big hearts is really making a difference.

Q: Do you feel that a visit from an author makes a difference in students’ attitudes towards reading and writing, or in any other way?

Lois: I hope so! The theme of my school visit is the importance of stories. I share that Maddi’s Fridge came out of something real that happened to me as a kid. I then talk to the students about the power of the stories that stick in their heads—funny, sad, weird—whatever stays with them is worth writing about.

Q: Does any one comment from one of your readers stand out that make all the work that’s gone into writing Maddi’s Fridge worthwhile?

Lois: The response has been unbelievable, from young boys running up to me with the book held tightly in their hands, yelling “I love Maddi’s Fridge!” to kids all over the United States organizing their own food drives.

The most shocking revelation for me, even though I know the statistics, is the number of adults who tell me about a time when either they had no food as a child or when as parents they were unable to properly feed their own children. I have the impression that for some of these people, this is the first time they’ve shared their stories. Childhood hunger and poverty is rampant in the United States. Even in prosperous Washington State – home of Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon, Costco, Starbucks, among others – 44% of school-age children are on full or partial federal subsidies for school lunch. Nationwide the number is closer to 51% of American children. That’s 14 million children right now in the United States who are growing up in households struggling to put food on the table. Those are 14 millions stories that we as a nation need to pay attention to.

Q: What’s your next project?

Lois: I am working on a couple of picture books that make my heart soar, and a middle grade historical novel that is testing every writing fibre in my being.

Thank you Lois!
For more about Lois and her writing projects, visit her website where you’ll also find information on ways that you can help fight hunger  in your community as well as some fun activities for kids.