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.

Happy Birthday Think Smart, Be Fearless!

Happy Birthday to me!

My new children’s book biography THINK SMART, BE FEARLESS: A BIOGRAPHY OF BILL GATES is out today from Sasquatch Books!

This is such a positive story to research and write. Thank you to everyone who helped make it happen. I look forward to sharing it with you. Kids and families welcome!

University Book Store, Seattle on Saturday, October 19, at 1:00 pm.
Phinney Books, Seattle on Saturday, November 16, at 3:00 pm.