“Have you ever seen popcorn pop? That’s what it’s like in my head.” Laurie Halse Anderson is addressing a group of 150 middle-school students, one of whom has just asked the author where she gets her ideas. She adopts a cartoon baddie voice. “Mere mortals would be destroyed!” The audience laughs. The kids are riveted by her lively presentation, which is by turns funny, inspiring, and informative — a pretty good description of Laurie herself.
Halse Anderson (pronounce “Halse” like “halts”) is an author a wide range of kids can relate to, from budding authors to reluctant readers. She’s forthcoming about her early academic foibles, her bad spelling and back-of-the-classroom daydreaming. She tells anecdotes that make it clear she did not grow up in the kind of lofty, rarefied atmosphere one assumes might breed successful authors, but in a regular, struggling family, not flush with funds. She commends the great community college where her “brain turned on,” which led to a subsequent scholarship to George Washington University.
She talks about the importance of learning history, of knowing where we come from, of being shocked to discover that Ben Franklin and ten of the country’s first twelve presidents owned slaves. She talks about her passion for our nation and her hopes for the future: “We got a lot right [with the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence], and we still have a little work to do until all people are treated equally and enjoy the same opportunities for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” She talks about researching history, and the writing process and revision, and the fruits of all that labor. And she does it passionately and purposefully, with kid-friendly pizzazz. In short, Laurie Halse Anderson is a school’s dream guest.
“I feel like it’s author Special Ops day,” she says, referring to the precision timing required to orchestrate her very full schedule of three school visits and a store event, to be followed by travel to her next destination, Boston. That’s enough to make most authors wilt, but Laurie seems as energetic at 5 pm as her morning self at 8am. It’s probably all the exercise; she’s a marathoner, splits wood throughout the cold season, and generally is in motion all the time (making it difficult for some booksellers to get good candid photos, ahem).
It’s impossible to do justice to the day, but here are a few ‘snapshots’ of some key moments:
Laurie is facing an audience of about 100 fifth- and sixth-graders. “Has anyone read Chains?” she asks. Every hand rises; they have all read the book. Hooray! Not only that, but the school has made it possible for each kid to own his or her copy. This is a first; usually, multiple copies belong to the school. In the autographing line, I overheard one girl say, “Now they’re giving us books! How great is that?” Teachers shared how much the kids loved being able to keep their books, which also means the freedom to make notes while they read.
Same group. “Has anyone read Fever 1793?” A few hands shoot skyward; Laurie calls on a boy in a black shirt. “Sheer awesomeness,” he raves. She beams. “Did you have a favorite part?” He describes the scene where the main character, Mattie, is looking for her mother, and the people pretending to help her betray her instead. “That’s heart-pumping, right there,” he says. That kind of peer-to-peer review can’t be bought, manufactured, or forced; it’s priceless. We found out later that Sam is a new student at that school, and so his enthusiastic, confident participation — in front of 99 other students — both surprised and gratified his teachers.
Laurie bonds with her audiences over sports. Baseball and basketball have popped up here and there in her presentation, with enthusiastic response from the kids. (They groan as a group over her joke about the Browns. And “Hoya Saxa!” has been shouted out happily to her by someone.) So when a boy in a baseball jersey comes up to get his book signed, Laurie asks him, “Who are you rooting for in the series?” The boy scrunches up his brow and thinks for a moment, then replies, “I’d say Isabel.” Isabel is obviously not a baseball team, but the name of the main character in Chains. Home run!
A boy gets his book signed, hugs it briefly to his chest, then raises it to the sky with a double fist-pump. “Yessssss!” he crows, and bursts into a run across the library, stopping once on his way out for another fist pump. That makes an author feel good.
Two girls do a loosely narrative interpretive dance based on Chains, and another group has made a short film dramatizing a pivotal scene in the same book. Laurie is moved to tears by the fact that these kids in semi-rural Vermont had connected so deeply to her characters. Her A/V helper is a student named Brick whose status at the school is forever elevated by Laurie’s asking him to be her PowerPoint (actually, Keynote, for you sticklers) right-hand man, and when she mists over, he offers to get her a tissue, and then brings her a box. Awww.
The students at the three schools Laurie visited today are just a handful of the 500,000 kids (!) who have had the pleasure of hearing and meeting her in person. Half a MILLION kids. That’s a lot of influence, and there couldn’t be anyone better to wield it thoughtfully, engagingly, and brilliantly.
On the way out, we overheard one student say to a teacher, “Mrs. Muroski? Have you ever heard someone talk and then you just really feel like writing a story?” We could practically see the popcorn popping.