Though my book Baba Yaga’s Assistant has been out for almost ten months now and I’ve been working on many other projects, I find that much of my time is still spent working for this book. For me, this takes the form of school visits. While writing a book is an isolating task except for occasional critique group meetings, school visits are my chance to meet my audience directly and honestly, they can be a lot of fun.
Last week I loaded my bike panniers with books and headed over to Arlington, MA, to meet with students. In the beautiful library, I set up my powerpoint and prepared. As students waited for the other classes to arrive, we talked about what they were reading. There was a list of what you might expect: Rick Riordan, Raina Telegemeier, and Jeff Kinney, but also some titles you might not expect. I gave some recommendations, and then we got started.
I always begin with a brief background, then move into the idea and research process. I spend a bit of time talking about the importance of revising. The kids’ eyes always get big here, their mouths dropping open as I explain just how many times I revised the piece; this is every teacher’s favorite part.
I’m at the point where I can do this presentation in my sleep, but if anything, that makes it better, because it frees me up to read my audience when I speak. I ask questions as I show slides, asking students to show their knowledge and connect my process with what they’ve been learning in their English and art classes.
Once I’ve established the writing process, we talk about the phases the art went through (again, revising is important here!) and I end with a final spread. This is my favorite part: asking students to break down how the different art elements are working. The students are always able to look at color and shape and indicate how it relates to mood, tone, and setting. Meanwhile, their teachers’ mouths are dropping. Unless one of the teachers is trained in art, they generally are not aware of how much visual literacy is a part of graphic novels and how adept their students are at analyzing it.
Then, of course, there’s Q&A. Always call on the random squirming boy in the back. Generally, his question is surprisingly relevant and insightful, not the run of the mill “will it be a movie?” Which is a question every author fields at school events and most would rather not.
With groups under fifty, I tend to end my presentation with an exercise, getting the students to practice their own writing and drawing. I love to see what the students make and what questions they ask, but it’s also a point at which insecurities arise. I’ve found that fifth graders will do pretty much anything but seventh and eight graders, especially those who are in advanced classes, worry about doing something wrong. We’ve all been in this situation, had this fear, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to wonder if this is directly tied to revision.
As writers, we’re aware of how much work, how many changes, will ultimately go into our final. Whatever we do for a first draft or pass can be shitty; it’ll get better (it might get worse first, but it’ll get to a better place eventually). Focusing on endless sketches and countless revisions, something I didn’t get to do until college, makes work less precious, more malleable. If we allowed for more of this in schools, would students be more willing to take more risks? Or is the time allotted to testing and prepping an impediment to this very important skill?
I don’t have the answers to these questions yet but what I can say is that I love visiting schools. I love being able to take time out of new projects to connect directly with my audience, to learn what they’re reading, what they’re excited by, and how they engage with the concepts inherent in my work. When a student lingers after an event to tell me about what they’re working on, or that they liked my book, well, then I know it was worth it. Luckily, I have some more visits planned.
-Marika McCoola, 2016 Ivan Gold Fellow