Thursday, February 16, 2012


by Chris Grabenstein

For me, every week is "Back To School Time."

This week I'm off to a middle school in Indiana.   Next week, I'll be at a middle school in Albany, New York.  And so it goes for the rest of the school year.  I limit myself to one school visit a week because of LOOMING deadlines.  Otherwise, I think I might try to go to a new school every day.

My "mission" is to make reading and writing fun.

First I talk about story structure, using examples from my books.  You know, the basics:  setting, protagonist, antagonist, conflict, resolution.

Then with suggestions from about 250 eager 5-8th graders crowded into an auditorium, I create an instant Ghost Story right on the spot, using some of the tricks and tools I picked up back in the early 80s when everybody had mullets, thought Miami Vice was cool, and I was doing improvisational comedy in a Greenwich Village basement theatre with these knucklehead.

Bruce Willis was also in the group but missed photo day that year.  (By the way, I'll be doing a talk on "Improv For Writers; Saying 'Yes, And...'" at Sleuthfest on Thursday, March 1st)

In one improv at a school, when I was looking for a name for our antagonist, a sharp fifth grader yelled out: "Ickleby!"

He is thanked in my newest Haunted Mystery THE BLACK HEART CRYPT as the inspiration for the villainous family's name.  If you squint, you can see Ickleby chiseled over the crypt doorway on the cover...

To get a sense for how much fun I have doing these assemblies, here's a little video I put together about my school visits.

In my travels, I have met all sorts of terrific teachers.  One, I remember, taught his students to clap whenever they heard alliteration when someone was reading aloud.   Imagine my surprise when I got a clap-clap-clap when I read about my hero Zack Jennings' "famous firebomb fandango fastball."

I remember that, at one school I visited, the librarian asked, "Will you talk to the 8th graders?"   Apparently some authors won't.  8th graders can be scary, I guess.  So far, I haven't met one I couldn't out-smart-aleck.

Mostly, the kids ask wonderful questions.  Why do you like writing so much?  When did you first start writing?  (That answer is easy -- when I was in middle school and was terrible at sports).   How do you make a character in a book?  How many books have you written?  

Ah, that question always leads us into a nice discussion of things like rejection letters.   Yes, I have published 17 books/stories/plays since September, 2005. But, I have written about 27, if not more.

At schools, I have also learned how to eat pizza topped with french fries.   Why the name "Bob" is the most popular name for a character in a story.  That fart jokes work every time.

My favorite schools to visit are the ones where the students have been studying one of my books in class.   Another great teacher I met read The Crossroads to her special needs classes.   There is one character in the book, a ghost, whose presence is always preceded by the minty scent of Brylcreem wafting on the air.  To make the book more vivid for her kids, she told me she would light a peppermint scented candle right before reading them those scenes.

At a school in North Carolina, the students had been working on The Crossroads for a month before I showed up.   They not only had questions, some had even constructed dioramas based on scenes from the book.

And how could I ever forget the school in Maryland where another great teacher dragged in all her Halloween decorations so the cafeteria would look just right for an assembly about ghost stories.

So, number me among those who greatly admire teachers.   I buzz into a school,  put on 3-4 shows, have a blast, teach a little something about writing, get kids jazzed about writing, and go home exhausted.  They do the same thing every day.

And it was a teacher, years ago, back when I was one of those smart-mouthed 8th graders, who scribbled a red-ink note in the margins of one of my theme papers saying, "You will make your living as a writer some day."

I remember thinking, "Hmmm, maybe I will.  Maybe I can."

All because of a teacher.

Oh -- and sometimes, the really cool teachers and media specialists  bake you a cake with your book cover in the frosting! 

If you're interested, you can read more about my Author Visits to schools here.


Jordan Dane said...

OMG, Chris! What a GREAT post. I would have LOVED you coming to my school. All your images are wonderful but I especially loved your video. You really had them on the edge of their seats. In an assembly, that's not easy to do. You make me want to be back in elementary school on one of your school visit days. Comedy Improv explains alot. Ha!

Anita Grace Howard said...

Wow, Chris! You're my hero! That's such a wonderful service you provide, and I loved watching you interact with the students. No doubt the teachers think just as much of you, as you do of them. Speaking as a parent, thanks for making writing fun for kids!

jenny milchman said...

Chris, I can vouch for what an incredible speaker/teacher you are, and why the kids must love your visits! I wish you'd come to my kids' school (K-8, a charter, here in NJ). For now I wanted to share an experience from my first class yesterday teaching writing to 3rd grade girls.

We were working on action scenes (the fun word for plot). One girl wrote about a big mess up in the art studio, materials being flung, supplies crashing. And she penned the line: The paint drips were chasing each other down the wall.

I sat back on the floor. Almost fell back.

I bet your teacher scribbled in that margin of yours for just about the same reason.

Chris Grabenstein said...

Thanks all! Jenny -- have the folks at the school get in touch. I am booked for the rest of this year but have already started lining up visits for September.

Jennifer Archer said...

Chris, I am in awe! I love to do school visits, but you are a PRO.