Snapshots from Laurie Halse Anderson’s Vermont Visit

Elizabeth Bluemle -- October 28th, 2010

Laurie Halse Anderson in motion.

“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.

LHA talks to the kids about revision.

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).

Students made this "Isabel" sculpture for Laurie.

It’s impossible to do justice to the day, but here are a few ‘snapshots’ of some key moments:

Laurie holds a student's copy of Chains. All those paper clips mark sections the reader especially liked or found important.

A student who can't bear to write in her books uses sticky notes instead. Can you say, "future editor?"

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.

LHA reacts to a student's comment.

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.

The kid loves baseball, but he's rooting for Isabel in the series.

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!

LHA wows the afterschool crowd at The Flying Pig.

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.

LHA enjoys a student-made film based on CHAINS.

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.

"Books free minds," writes Laurie Halse Anderson on the half-title page of FORGE, as a boy uses his fingers to keep his place in the book.

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.

5 thoughts on “Snapshots from Laurie Halse Anderson’s Vermont Visit

  1. Pingback: Rasco From RIF » FORGE Book Tour in DC…a few photos

  2. Allison

    We had Laurie for two school visits and a public event when she came to Boston. WOW. She was fantastic. The day was made even more special by the fact that all the students were dressed up for Halloween, so Laurie was taking questions from princesses, aliens, and Dr. Seuss characters! It sounds like she inspires everyone no matter where she goes. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Heather Ivester

    My daughter and her friends all love FEVER. One copy got passed around so much we had to buy our own so my other kids can read it when they got older. That’s a story I didn’t know much about, and Ms. Anderson made the event so real to us. Thank you for sharing this great author!

  4. Brian Kelleher

    Thank you, Elizabeth, for this wonderful and thorough description of Laurie’s day in Vermont. You made it seem like we were all there with you, sharing the excitement and energy. And I think your candid pictures of a constantly moving (I agree with you on that point!) LHA were great. Bravo to you, the kids, the school and especially to Laurie.

  5. Donna Marie Merritt

    What a great story! Ms. Anderson is AWESOME! So wonderful to see kids excited about reading and talking with an author and knowing that she listened to them as well. Marvelous way to motivate students and make them feel special.

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