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.

Patrick Jennings Writes for the Beasts

Guinea Dog by Patrick Jennings

Last night at Secret Garden Bookshop in Seattle, Patrick Jennings one of my favorite kids’ authors gave a reading from his newest book Guinea Dog. Guinea Dog is a middle grade book for 8-12 year olds and it’s my kind of book. It’s the story of a boy who desperately wants a dog. But his dad says oh,no. Dogs bark and whine. They gnaw. They bark. They scratch, beg, and drool. So his mom offers a “think-outside-the-box suggestion” and brings home a guinea pig. But this guinea pig thinks she’s a dog. She barks. She bites. You see where I’m going with this….. Continue reading

Believable Boys with Sundee Frazier

SCBWI Notes IV:

A follow-up session to Mitali Perkins presentation on race was Seattle author Sundee Frazier’s talk “Creating Believable Boys.” Sundee’s session was attended by a good number of men as well as women. On a side note, this year there was a significant increase in men at this year’s conference. With children’s/young adult books being a strong part of the publishing market, could it be that they want a piece of the action? 🙂 Continue reading

Writing Race with Mitali Perkins

SCBWI Notes III:

Mitali Perkins, a Bengali-born author whose family came to the United States when she was seven years old, presented a session entitled “Straight Talk on Writing Race.”

I attended this session with particular interest since the middle grade novel, Breathe to Both Sides, which I completed last August for my MFA thesis at the Whidbey Writing Workshop, is the story of a twelve-year old black girl who discovers a whites-only swimming pool that residents of her small Mississippi town buried in the 70s rather than face the prospect of integrated swimming.

As I was writing this story, it raised many questions amongst my colleagues and friends. Continue reading

Healthy Author-Agent Relationships

SCBWI Notes II:

Bainbridge Island resident Suzanne Selfors is the best selling author of the YA novels To Catch a Mermaid, Saving Juliet, The Coffeehouse Angel, and most recently the first book in a middle grade series, Smells Like Dog.

Suzanne is personable, lively and approachable and at last weekend’s SCWBI Western Washington conference she presented a session focusing on how to develop a healthy author-agent relationship. If you take a look backward at her career trajectory, you might assume she wrote, revised, got an agent and things took off from there. Wrong.

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It’s All Give and Take

SCBWI Notes I:

Michael Bourrett presented an entertaining, information session on social networking—how much, how often, and how can you personalize and customize your approach. Michael is a literary agent with the New York agency Dystal & Goderich and is currently working out of  Los Angeles. While scrolling his lecture notes on his spanking new iPad, he asked his first question: With Facebook, MySpace, blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and more out there begging us to participate, why wouldn’t you? It’s free isn’t it?

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SCBWI Conference Notes

This past weekend I attended what I think is my fourth SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) regional conference here in Seattle. My first one, four years ago was a one-day affair and a very different experience as a newbie writer. They’ve also expanded from a one-day affair to two days. There are pros and cons to both of their scenarios, not the least of which is if you’re going to hold a two-day conference, PLEASE DON’T SERVE THE SAME LUNCH TWO DAYS IN A ROW! Continue reading