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Inspiring Middle School Readers & Writers

2 Mar

Today is Read Across America Day, a celebration of reading on Dr. Seuss’ birthday. Some students in my class will truly read across America in a Skype reading session with students in Madison, Wisconsin and Portland, Maine. The high point for me was yesterday when I took my last period class to hear Rosanne Parry talk about her writing life.

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I first met Rosanne when her first book, The Heart of a Shepherd,  came out. Her dad came by the school to drop off some copies of her book and let me know she had attended our school when she was young. A published alumnus, I thought, we must get her in! And so we did.

I saw her around at bookish functions and at school board meetings where she lobbied hard on behalf of school librarians. I am now at a new school and Rosanne has just published her fourth book, Turn of the Tide.  When I heard she was coming, I jumped at the opportunity to take my class.

She started off by telling the stories that inspired each of her novels.She told of a college trip to Eastern Oregon where you left you key in the car’s ignition in case someone came by and needed it. She told of her experiences teaching in the Olympic Peninsula at a school operated by the Quinault Indian Nation and of the history of whale fishing among the Makah.

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She talked about the difficulty of navigating the Columbia River Bar. She held the rapt attention of the students as she retold the story of an American army captain visiting with Russian soldiers in the former East Germany, after the Berlin Wall fell. I’m sure they were all visualizing naked Russian men running down the street wearing each other’s prosthetics. I was most touched at how she teared up when she described the hardships these men had suffered during the Siege of Stalingrad.

She truly showed the students how a slice of life can be an inspiration for their writing.

A heavenly evening

5 Feb

Marissa Meyer came to Powells yesterday to promote  Stars Above, a Lunar Chronicles story collection.

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My teaching partner, Nina, and I had told the kids about the event and announced that we’d be there. Knowing the event would be busy, we arrived about 45 minutes early and it was already packed. One of our students had beat us there. She and her dad were sitting in the second row. The Powells personnel were busily handing out tickets for a drawing and setting up more chairs.Three more of our students arrived. Then a fifth. We caught sight of a sixth in the stacks. By the time Ms. Meyers arrived, all seats were filled and the stacks along the sides of the seating area were packed with fans and their parents. There was an excited buzz in the air.

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She began by talking about The Lunar Chronicles and her love for fairy tales. She told the audience about her love for the Disney movie The Little Mermaid. This made Nina and I laugh. We might not have been the oldest people there, but we are a lot older that Meyers, who will turn 32  later this month.

Because of her love for fairy tales, her grandmother gave  her a collection and she had us laughing at how horrified she was when she read Hans Christian Andersen’s original version of her Disney favorite. Then she told us his version, with some funny commentary.

I had my question ready when she opened the floor for questions. I don;t often ask questions in large gatherings like this, but I had a good one and I was thrilled when she called on me. I told her that I thought she’d created a fantastic villain in Levana and how much I disliked that character. So, I told her that because I disliked Levana so much, I didn’t want to read Fairest  and feel sympathy for such an evil queen. So, I asked  her to tell me why I should read it.

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She queried the audience to see how many people had read it. Then she asked them how many felt sympathetic for Levana after reading it. Not many hands stayed up. She went on to explain that her intention had not to make readers feel sympathy for Levana, but to explain what happened to her and the bad choices she made, that turned her into the evil queen I hate so much.

The other answer she gave that I really liked was to the young person who asked how to become a writer like her. Yes, she encouraged  them to read and write. What I found most significant was that she also encourage them to let themselves daydream, let their minds wander. She told them to take a walk and not think about what they are writing. She encouraged the to keep with a hobby or activity they enjoy so that, while they are engaged in it, their brain can rest from working on the story,letting the story swirl about in their subconscious so they come back to it with fresh eyes. Amazing!

Finally, it was autograph time. I can hardly wait to read my new book. And yes, I put Fairest on hold at the library. 

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Randy Ribay

YA author, teacher, nerd

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