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Author Visits Create Excitement About Books
By Margriet Ruurs 06-May-20
Two hundred primary students file into the theater and settle, expectantly, into their seats. Images of people reading books around the world keep their attention focused on the screen before I start my talk. “How many of you love books?” I ask, and all hands shoot up. “Do you read books in bed every night?” Most hands shoot up again. “How many of you speak two languages?” I ask. To my amazement almost no hands go up. But I know that these kids come from many different cultures and speak a wide variety of languages. I realize that I need to rephrase my question. “How many of you speak two or more languages?” All hands go up. Even first graders at international schools speak English, Spanish, or French. Or English, Korean, and German. As a visiting author in international schools, I am grateful that I received my elementary education in The Netherlands before moving to the U.S. and Canada. It enables me to now speak German when in Austria, French when in Switzerland, and Dutch while visiting students at Nord Anglia International School Rotterdam. The students and I discuss our favorite books. I explain how reading Pippi Longstocking as a child made me want to write my own stories. “How many of you write stories?” I ask. Half the hands shoot up, depending on the age group. A student in Grade 10 in Rotterdam is producing a video of his story idea and I can give him some guidance about plot resolution and how he might add nonfiction information to his fictional story. I love being able to encourage students like this. I recently toured five countries in Europe with my book Stepping Stones. Every book that gets published is exciting for a writer, but some have more surprises in store than others. I am always looking for ideas that can be turned into unique books. Writers—even authors of picture books—are usually not involved in the illustrating process. It’s the publisher who chooses the illustrator. Some of my books have been illustrated with gorgeous oil paintings. One is illustrated with 3D paper sculptures, others are done in acrylic, paper collage, or photos. A few years ago, I came across an intriguing image on Facebook. It was a piece of art made entirely of stones. I immediately thought, “Wouldn’t kids love to see this kind of art?” It took me three months to contact the artist. It turned out he lived in Syria, where he had a habit of collecting rocks on the beach and making emotional images depicting refugees and the torment of war. Nizar Ali Badr agreed that I could use his art to write a story and, hopefully, find a publisher. I based much of the text on my parents’ memories of experiencing World War II in The Netherlands. When their city was bombed, my father had to live in hiding. Orca Book Publishers in Canada loved both text and art and created a beautiful book called Stepping Stones, A Refugee Family’s Journey. Since its launch in North America, as a bilingual book in both English and Arabic, the book has been published in many languages including Portuguese, Korean, Japanese, and Italian. Now I receive letters like the one from Grade 5 student Ashley Sanchez from Mexico, who says, “This book reminds me of when I was seven and had to leave my grandmother and my cousins and never got to see them again.” I recently received videos of elementary students in Vietnam sharing the book as “the story of their history.” It made me realize that, thanks to the stone art, this book is not about any particular race or culture. Rather, as good books should, it transcends skin color and makes the story a universal one in which children can recognize themselves or find compassion for others. Nord Anglia International Schools around the world are currently using the book as basis for their annual Global Writing Competition. “What does home mean to you?” I recently asked students in international schools. “Home” can mean the actual place where you live, or a place you had to leave behind. It can be your favorite place to return to, or simply a place of memories. It is exciting to think that so many young writers are now encouraged to write poems and stories based on this theme. The effects of an author meeting young readers can be staggering. Lucas Maxwell in his BookRiot article titled “Positive Impact of Author Visits on Students” says “Bringing in authors to meet students humanizes them, it tells students that they can aspire to be creative and successful and put something great into the world. On a base level, the author’s books will be borrowed at a higher level than before.” In a National Literacy Trust article, Man Booker Prize-nominated author Wyl Menmuir explains the powerful impact author visits to schools can have on children. “Author visits can be transformational. When authors reflect back at the children their interests and backgrounds, when they convey their passion for writing and reading, they can inspire, through their interactions with young people, increased motivation to read and write, and improved attitudes towards reading and writing. At their best, author visits leave children inspired to engage more deeply with texts.” And author visits are not just enriching for students; ideally, they also enrich the writer’s life. I love to travel and feel privileged to visit students in many countries. When I started, I had no idea how exciting my life would be because of author visits. My first invitation came from schools in Indonesia. I packed my bags with books, computer, slide presentations, and props and set off to share my love of writing with students of all ages. Little did I know the adventures that would follow. I’ve shared books with children in Israel, written poems with students in The Philippines, ridden a camel through the Gobi Desert bringing books to nomad families, helped stock a school library in Mexico, and I’ve worked with emerging illustrators in Pakistan. While visiting international schools in Zambia, I visited an elephant orphanage and found material for a new book. The Elephant Keeper is based on a true story of rescued elephants. In Africa I also volunteered, after my work in an international school, with The Book Bus. This British NGO brings books to schools in remote locations. I read picture books to several hundred eager children sitting on grass mats in the bush. I often conduct Parent Talks while at an international school. And it never ceases to amaze me that parents often don’t realize the importance of reading aloud to their children. “My son can read, so why would I read to him?” a successful business owner in Korea asked me. When I explained how sharing the joy of reading together will enrich his son’s mind, set a great example, and help create lifelong reading habits, he was amazed and vowed to read to his child that very night. “It doesn’t matter in which language you read,” I tell parents, “The rhythm, repetition, and joy from stories will send a message to your child that reading is important and fun!” In my book My Librarian is a Camel, I show the extent to which librarians and teachers are prepared to go to bring books to children around the world. This book prompted schools in North America to donate money and books to libraries in need. One year, children in a remote village in the Arctic sent books and teddy bears to children in Pakistan who had just lost their schools in a terrible earthquake. My book Stepping Stones, A Refugee Family’s Journey has led to raising over US$100,000 for refugees, but it also raised awareness and increased compassion for others. One young reader wrote me, “The story has shown me to be more kind to others.” If this is what books can accomplish, I want to keep writing and sharing. The theatre buzzes with excitement as I finish sharing background stories explaining where my ideas come from and how I conduct research. Eight years of collecting information for My Librarian is a Camel! More than one hundred edits for a simple picture book like Emma’s Eggs! The students can’t wait to get back to class to jot down their own ideas and to start writing their own stories. And so we write: creating poems and nonfiction pieces that reflect their lives. Because they just learned that all of those books they love in the library were created by real people. Just like them. Margriet Ruurs is the Canadian author of many books for children, including My Librarian is a Camel and Stepping Stones, A Refugee Family’s Journey. For details on author visits check out: www.margrietruurs.com
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05/07/2020 - Colleen
How wonderful! You're reaching children and making a positive impact. Congratulations on your book, this article, and for all the ways you are encouraging children!