Hi guys! By this time, most schools should be starting school, which inspired the theme for this month’s LILbooKtalk about instilling a love of reading in students. Today’s guests include a middle school teacher and a librarian who not only frequently work with children but also write for them! Please welcome the amazing Rebecca Donnelly and Jake Burt as we discuss turning students into big readers!
About How to Stage a Catastrophe
Sidney plans to be the director of the Juicebox Theater when he grows up. For now, he handles the props, his best friend Folly works the concession stand, and his sister May hangs out in the spotlight. But the theater is in danger of closing, and the kids know they need a plan to save it and fast. When they join a local commerce club to earn money, Sid and Folly uncover some immoral business practices, and it gives them a great idea for saving the theater. That is, if you can call extortion a great idea. Hilarious and heartwarming, the mission to save a failing community theater unites a riotous cast of characters in this offbeat middle-grade novel.
About The Right Hook of Devin Velma
From the author of Greetings from Witness Protection! comes another unforgettable middle-grade novel about friendship and family.
Devin wants to hit it big on the internet by pulling a stunt at an NBA game–one the entire nation will be watching. Addison can’t turn Devin down, but he can barely manage talking to his teachers without freezing up. How’s he supposed to handle the possibility of being a viral sensation?
Addi’s not sure why Devin is bent on pulling off this almost-impossible feat. Maybe it has something to do with Devin’s dad’s hospital bills. Maybe it all goes back to the Double-Barreled Monkey Bar Backflip of Doom. Or maybe it’s something else entirely. No matter what, though, it’s risky for both of them, and when the big day finally comes, Devin’s plan threatens more than just their friendship.
With memorable protagonists and a wonderful supporting cast, The Right Hook of Devin Velma is a one-of-kind knockout in middle-grade fiction.
The Right Hook of Devin Velma releases from Feiwel & Friends on September 25th! Pre-order it today!
Questions are in bold
Kester: The first author we have today is Rebecca Donnelly, author of the MG contemporary novel How to Stage a Catastrophe and her upcoming book The Friendship Lie. She also works at a public library in northern New York. Could you describe to us a little about you and your books?
Rebecca: Sure! I’ve worked in public libraries for about 12 years now in different roles, but being a children’s librarian is my favorite. It’s been great training for being a writer, since reading in your field is such an important part of both jobs. How to Stage a Catastrophe published in April 2017, and it was inspired by the time I spent as a middle schooler doing community theater. It’s about a group of kids who try, fail, and try again to save their community theater from closing down, going to great and scheming lengths to do so. The Friendship Lie is a quieter story about fifth grade friends who have fallen out with each other and are trying to find their way back to friendship, with the help of an old diary one of them finds. The Friendship Lie is set to publish August 2019. Both are with Capstone.
Kester: Both of your books sound awesome!!! I hope I’ll be able to read them one day! 🙂
Alongside Rebecca, we have Jake Burt, author of MG contemporary debut Greetings from Witness Protection! and The Right Hook of Devin Velma, which will release in just a few weeks. He is a fifth-grade teacher from Connecticut. Would you also like to tell us a bit about yourself and your novels?
Jake: Absolutely, Kester, and thanks for having us! Greetings From Witness Protection! debuted last October. It’s the story of Nicki Demere, a 13-year-old girl in foster care who gets recruited by the US marshals to join witness protection; their notion is that she’ll help hide a family by changing up their dynamic. The Right Hook of Devin Velma, out on September 4th, is about one boy’s quest to find out why his best friend punched him in the face. Both are MG contemporary, both are set in middle schools, and there are no vampires in either one. I’ve been told that’s an important distinction to make.
Kester: Thank you, Jake! It’s definitely my pleasure! And haha, that’s good to know about the vampires, especially since I’m about to start on Devin Velma soon!
Jake: Awesome. Can’t wait to hear what you think!
Kester: Thank you! Here’s my first question: Since both of you work frequently with young children and books, how do you promote reading and writing among your students? What do you when you encounter reluctant readers, and how do you turn them into avid bibliophiles?
Jake: Want me to take a swipe at this one first, Rebecca?
Rebecca: Sure, since our roles are a little different!
Jake: Cool. On it! I’ve found that the key to developing confident, invested readers is empowerment. Kids most frequently encounter books (at least, in the school setting) via gatekeepers, whether that’s me, our fantastic school librarians, or someone similar. While that can be a great way to introduce new books to a kid, there’s not a lot of efficacy on the part of the reader there, so students often come to me without a strong sense of how to find and, more importantly, enjoy their own books. So early in the year we work on developing an understanding of how to read for pleasure…it seems strange, but that’s actually a modelable and learnable skill. We talk about being able to quit a book if it’s not grabbing you, about comparing books, about discussing books with friends, and about the value of rereading old favorites. We talk about skipping ahead and watching the movie first and reading more than one book at a time – all the ways adults who have learned to love reading come at their TBR piles.
Rebecca: I love everything you’re saying here, Jake! I work in a public library, not in a school, so my work with kids is almost entirely around helping them find things they want to read. The piece I’m missing is having the ability to work with them in depth, the way a classroom teacher or school librarian is able to. When I visit schools, or when classes visit me in the library, I try to emphasize the importance of choice, and that browsing is a skill–modelable and learnable, as you say. It’s great to get recommendations from friends, but I love seeing a kid who has the time to browse the shelves and find something new on their own. That’s genuine empowerment! One of my goals is to work with my local school to help them build their community of readers, too!
Jake: That’s vital – the teamwork component. A network of adults, all of whom love books and reading, surrounding a child can do wonders, particularly as far as access is concerned. That’s often one of the first hurdles to developing a love for reading: just not having enough books to promote true choice. It helps so much when librarians can work with teachers and families to fill in gaps and expand availability.
Rebecca: Yes! I got a massive donation from Scholastic this last spring (1300 books) that I gave out to every kid 3-6 grade in three different local schools. I scoured my giveaway books to get enough to be able to give something to every kid pre-k to 2nd grade, as well. One thing we really strive for in public libraries is giving kids access to books over the summer, since their regular school library visits aren’t happening. I give away books as prizes for playing my summer reading Bingo game, when I do outreach visits, and every time I visit the local Head Start. Simply getting books to kids is a huge part of developing readers.
Kester: That’s so awesome to hear!! The work you’ve done is definitely commendable!!
I’m very curious about this, so what’s your stance on Accelerated Reader? I personally did not like it as an elementary student, but I would love to know your thoughts.
Rebecca: I’ve worked in a library where the local school district used AR, and it was incredibly frustrating to have to help kids find a book at “their level” that a) we owned and b) they were interested in. It seemed to be difficult for everyone, parents and children included.
Jake: We don’t use it in our classrooms, but I’ve taught at schools that did. Personally, I’ve never found much use for the data it provides…and that’s what it is, a data aggregation tool. It’s not designed to deepen understanding or enjoyment of reading. If a teacher or school was considering adopting it, I’d challenge them to ask themselves what they’re truly hoping to learn by collecting that data. Is it something they couldn’t get by having a meaningful 5-10 minute reader’s conference with a student?
Rebecca: Jake, you might know this better than I do, but isn’t there a quote from Fountas & Pinnell, who developed another leveling system, saying that reading levels have no place in reading assignments, book choice, or kids’ expectations of themselves?
Jake: Yes; we use the Fountas and Pinnell continuum for literacy instruction in our Lower School. They stress a genre-based approach (heavy on mentor texts and book discussions) rather than levels. It strikes me as a more authentic system, moreso now that I’ve seen things from the author side, too. I don’t write novels with any notion of what “level” it might be. If my character is the type of girl who would use the word “runcible,” she’s gonna say “runcible.” I’m not changing it to “spoon” so that it can fit cozily into a level. And I’ve certainly never gone to the library or bookstore as an adult thinking, “I’m fixing to snag me something at my level.”
Rebecca: Ha! Good point–we put all kinds of pressure & restrictions on kids that we would never put on ourselves, including what makes a “good” book.
Kester: I remember as an elementary student I felt very forced to read at a level higher than my grade… which knocked out many novels that I would have loved. There were so few books I could read that I eventually stopped reading a lot in middle school.
Rebecca: I’m so sorry! But obviously you were able to be a reader on your own terms, which gives every kid hope!
Jake: Yes, so glad you came back around to reading, Kester!
Kester: Thank you!
Rebecca: I was just tweeting with a couple of writer friends today about we all read comics (comic strips, even, not graphic novels) well into middle school. Whatever makes you a reader, makes you a reader!
Kester: I saw that! Certainly we can all agree! What is your favorite part of working with kids, whether it be in the classroom, in the library, or at book events and school visits?
Jake: Honestly? I have the sense of humor of a twelve-year-old. I still dig games, I do voices for every character during read aloud, and I like to burst in to song spontaneously sometimes. Fifth graders get me. A roomful of adults? Not so much.
Rebecca: I’m going to give you more than one answer because I work with kids of all ages. Hands down my favorite thing working with preschoolers is when they’ve come to storytime often enough that they start to get into the routine. They know the welcome song, they get into answering questions I ask about the book we’re reading, and then they go home and “play Miss Rebecca” by trying to read to their parents or toys. Cue my happy tears. Working with older kids, too, I love getting the chance to get to know them as readers and learners, particularly in my afterschool program. I also love telling them dumb jokes.
Jake: When you walk into a classroom, especially in elementary school, there is an implicit understanding that play is okay, that wonder is fine, and that magic might really exist. I adore working in that kind of space. It’s a beautiful area for an author to operate in, too. Affirming in all the best ways. And yes, dumb jokes are critical.
Rebecca: That’s a beautiful description of an ideal learning environment!
Jake: I’m fortunate to work at a school that promotes it. Or, at least, that tolerates my promotion of it.
Rebecca: I also have a giant fortune teller that I bring to school visits or Skypes to talk about where my ideas come from. I’m always trying to give kids a sense of what’s possible–which is to say, anything!
Jake: Giant fortune teller as in one of the foldy ones you stick your fingers into, or like a ten-foot-tall Zoltar machine?
Rebecca: The paper kind you stick your fingers in. It has prompts on the inside like “something you wish you had” or “somewhere you wish you could go.” I wish I had a 10 foot tall prop!
Kester: Haha, that would be funny! It warms my heart to hear all of your stories! I love working with kids, so I definitely know the joy of having fun with them.
Rebecca: As Michelle Obama said, “Kids are good. Kids make everything better.”
Kester: Do you ever promote your books to your own students or to your visitors?
Jake: Well, my students know I’m an author, so they tend to seek my stuff out on their own, just to see if I can really hack it. I don’t plaster my own book poster on the classroom walls or anything. I will admit, though, to promoting the heck out of my friends’ books.
Rebecca: I didn’t even use library funding to buy my book–I donated a copy to my library! But my supervisor has no qualms about pointing out my book to people! I do offer free local class visits where I’ll read a little from the book and talk about being a writer, but I can’t imagine telling a library patron that they should check out my book, unless they asked first! I’m with Jake, though, on promoting friends’ books! (That was a lot of exclamation marks.)
Kester: The MGlit community is full of great people and great books, and I love promoting all of my friends’ books, too! Even at my own school library when we’re ordering new books!
Jake: We appreciate it!
Rebecca: We appreciate it!
Kester: I have just a few more questions to ask both of you if you don’t mind. Did your occupation and encounters with children influence your stories or you as a writer in any way? How have your personal experiences—from both as a child and as an adult—shaped your novels?
Rebecca: I always tell kids that I had no hobbies when I was a kid except a) writing and b) doing those 3 plays with the community theater, so it was only natural that I would write a book about kids in a community theater. Being around kids and books really helps me to develop my sense of what kids like to read, and what a children’s book can be. It also stops you from getting too far out there. Kids will keep you grounded. The Friendship Lie also draws on my memories of some of the Judy Blume books (and similar books from the 70s and 80s) that I read as a kid. There was a certain voice in those books that I wanted to pay homage to with the diary entries that my MC reads.
Jake: I’m entirely certain that my students have influenced my stories, in ways I can both easily articulate and in ways I’ll never understand. The chief thing I’ve taken to heart about children, and that has become an integral part of my novels, is that they’re joyously, uninhibitedly, openly /weird/. If you look out at my students while they’re having lunch, you’ll see two trying to make a song out of the ingredients on the back of a Capri Sun bag, one swinging his arms back and forth to slap himself in the chest and back at the same time, another lining up fruit snacks along the table so she can tongue them up like a frog, and the last one simply repeating the word “spleen” over and over again in different accents. And I’m not kidding on any of those – I’ve observed them all at some point in the past year. To create an authentic kid on the page, I think you need to embrace the fact that kids are quixotic. They move because the impulse struck them and it feels good to do so. They make noise because they want to hear what it sounds like. And they make mistakes constantly, sometimes for no better reason than the mistake makes for a better story afterwards.
Rebecca: Yes, there’s nothing like direct observation to remind you how there’s no such thing as a typical kid!
Kester: With a recent article on public libraries sparking a lot of controversy, why are libraries—whether they are classroom, school, or public—critical for students? How can people help support them? How have they impacted you personally?
Jake: I’ll let Rebecca tackle that one first. She’s the expert (and I have to type the response I want to type about that article, then delete it and type something more appropriate and less stabby).
Kester: I think we’re all a bit angry about that article, haha.
Rebecca: I know the article you mean! It sounded like it was written by the one guy in the village where I used to work who resented paying $30 a year to support the public library. What neither of those guys wants to understand is that communities function because people come together in support of communal goals, education and lifelong learning being part of that. People WANT to have access to books and other media, people WANT a space that belongs to the community. As a librarian friend of mine points out, the public library is pretty much the only taxpayer supported entity that allows you to choose your level of service. Do you want to ignore it completely? Go ahead. Do you want to come in every day to use the computer and get a book? Fine with us. To me, the library is an ideal. It hasn’t always been an equitable place (see: the history of segregated libraries under Jim Crow) or a place that made everyone feel welcome (see: children’s libraries weren’t established until well after libraries for adults were commonplace), but the library represents the best part of a community, the best part of democracy. People can support libraries by using them, by voting for increasing their budgets, by volunteering or running for the Board of Trustees, by frequenting library book sales, and by letting us know what we can do better.
Jake: I’ll speak a little about the symbolic value of libraries, since I think the utilitarian value has been addressed wonderfully by Rebecca and others. There’s something deeply powerful to me about having buildings full of books, real edifices of knowledge, as cornerstones of our society. I like being able to see one and think, “That’s how much we as a people value information, and learning, and understanding.” Those are particularly important now, given the assault on them in the public discourse. And the fact that, by their nature, libraries provide that information in such an egalitarian way – you want it? Come and get it! It’s free! – really underscores in a way nothing else can the vital nature of communication to us as a species – not just interpersonal, but between the artist and the artisan, the past and the present, and the observer and the world around her.
Rebecca: I always get a little spark of happiness when I’m driving through a new place and I see their public library. Small or large, it’s a sign that this is a place that values access to books.
Jake: Also, I’ve found that librarians appreciate brownies.
Rebecca: Brownies, cookies, tea, it’s all an important part of the job!
Kester: I definitely agree with the both of y’all! Before we end this LILbooKtalk, would you like to share any advice to any young readers and writers reading this discussion?
Jake: Sure: You know that book you love? Your absolute favorite? Carve out a little time every year to re-read it. If it falls apart, buy a new copy. Keep it around. Doesn’t matter if it’s a 600-page novel or a picture book or your grandpappy’s old fishin’ journal. If you feel at home in those pages, make some time every year to visit. It’ll refresh you. It’ll comfort you. And it’ll remind you why you started reading in the first place.
Rebecca: Reading and writing are both solitary activities most of the time, but guess what? If you love books, you have a community–other readers and writers who want to share their love of books with you. They might be your friends, your parents, your teachers, your librarians. Find those people. Recommend books to them. Ask them for book recommendations. And if you think you’re not a reader, come to the library and talk to me. I guarantee you that if you take enough time, you can find something you’ll want to read, whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, comics, I Spy books, whatever. It’s all reading, it all counts, and it’s all good.
Kester: Thank you so much, Rebecca and Jake, for joining me today! It was so fun talking with the both of you!
Rebecca: Thank you for having us! This has been great!
Jake: No problem, Kester! Thank you! And Rebecca, best of luck with The Friendship Lie! It sounds great!
Rebecca: Thank you! Happy upcoming publication day!
Thanks so much to Rebecca Donnelly and Jake Burt for joining me in this month’s edition of our LILbooKtalks! Please go out and support them by checking out and reading their books!
Did Someone Say… Giveaways?
Rebecca, Jake, and I are holding not one but TWO special giveaways to celebrate our LILbooKtalk! Here’s what is up for grabs!
On Rebecca’s Twitter account, you can win signed finished copies of How to Stage a Catastrophe and Greetings from Witness Protection!.
On Jake’s Twitter account, you can win a signed ARC of The Right Hook of Devin Velma and a signed finished copy of How to Stage a Catastrophe!
Here are the links to the giveaways!
Please no giveaway accounts. Both giveaways last from Monday August 20th to Monday August 27th. You must RT and follow me, Rebecca, and Jake on Twitter to enter.
Rebecca Donnelly was born in England and has lived in California, Florida, and New Mexico. She has an MA in Humanities and a Master’s in Library and Information Science. These days she writes and works in a small public library in northern New York. Her debut middle-grade novel, HOW TO STAGE A CATASTROPHE, the story of a children’s theater in the Florida panhandle, was published by Capstone Young Readers in April 2017.
Jake Burt is the award-winning author of Greetings from Witness Protection! The Right Hook of Devin Velma is his second novel. He lives in Connecticut, where he also teaches fifth grade, plays the banjo, and runs around on the ultimate frisbee field. Check him out at www.jburtbooks.com and on Twitter @jburtbooks.
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