Thursday, January 6, 2011
Each year, the Hewitt School in Manhattan selects a theme for the school year. This year's theme is UBUNTU, an African concept of community focusing on the essence of being human. UBUNTU embraces hospitality and caring about others. Each January, when school resumes after the holidays, the standard curriculum is suspended for the first week back so that the students may engage in experiential, hands-on learning through a multitude of activities. This first week back is called Winterim. This year, all Winterim activities are connected to the school theme of UBUNTU or community. I was asked if I could arrange for two children's book authors to speak to the 4th, 5th and 6th graders about the influence of community in their writing and as a theme in their books. One of our daughters is a student at Hewitt and I truly love this school - both because our daughter is exceedingly happy and thriving there and because, well, because of amazing programs like this - so, naturally, I said I'd do what I could.
Yesterday, the extraordinary Jon Scieszka came to speak to the Hewitt students about community in his writing. Anyone who has ever met Jon or heard him speak knows that he is magical.One of the kids actually asked if he might, in fact, be an alien. Jon charmed the Hewitt students and they charmed him right back. He talked about his community of Scieszka brothers (6 "knuckleheads" in all!) and the community of Spaceheadz he invited the Hewitt students to join. Jon made writing accessible and reinforced community as a hearth of creativity and comfort. For me, as a parent and a book industry insider, the whole experience was magical. I never tire of watching children engage with an author. I truly believe there is no more effective way to get kids excited about reading than to introduce them to the people that write books for them.
Today, the incomparable Jacqueline Woodson came to speak to that same group of students. She is an outstanding writer and a disarmingly open and compelling speaker. I'd be surprised if most of the kids in that assembly didn't leave wanting to read her books. Jacqueline's voice is unique and authentic and her love of writing and young people so genuine. Community and hope are recurring themes in her books and that would have been enough to make her the perfect guest today but, in reality, it was her charm, her message and her immense talent that blew everyone, myself included, away.
Jon Scieszka and Jacqueline Woodson are award-winning (several times over, in each case) celebrities in the world of children's books and when you see either one in front of an audience of young people, their respect and appreciation for their audience and craft is palpable. I thought I had helped set up these visits to benefit the students and was surprised to realize how much this meaningful experience moved and meant to me. Ultimately, when a published author talks to children about their inspiration for a book or the painstaking process of writing and editing it and trying to get it published, it's almost as if you see and feel the aha moment experienced by each child in a room as they wonder if, maybe, they could become a published author too. When asked how she became a successful writer, the country's current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Katherine Paterson, always tells her fans, "I was a reader". People like Jon, Jacqueline and Katherine make kids want to be readers. Among those readers are our future writers and leaders.
Kudos to The Hewitt School for this amazing program and to Sir Scieszka and Lady Woodson for sharing their contagious spirit with the community of young people who matter most to them. Many school and library budgets are so thin that they don't allow for author visits but I think these visits should be viewed as a priority rather than a luxury (and I do think authors should be offered some stipend or honorarium for their time; as much as they love what they do and most love to visit schools, this is their livelihood and they deserve some compensation). The opportunity to meet an author, ask questions and make a connection can do more to help cultivate a lifelong love of reading in a child than you might think. And a lifelong love of reading can take that child further than you can possibly imagine.