Katherine Hannigan’s Exceptional Ingredient

Kenny Brechner - October 27, 2016

Can you spot the author in the photo?

Great performances always contain an unexpectedly exceptional element. Take author school assembly presentations, for example. As booksellers who work school visits know, author presentations at assemblies are a distinct art form. Some things are crucial. A good PowerPoint is de rigueur, otherwise kids in the back can’t see. Also, it allows a young audience to divide its attention from the speaker to the screen, alleviating the natural strain of attempting to be a model audience which a school authority figure has outlined for them. Pacing, organization, interactive engagement, reinforcement that writing is a messy process, humor, only one or two photos of the author as a child – all these things play a role.

A solidly constructed and strongly executed presentation will always be well received, but the best presentations contain some unexpected element that lifts them into a different category. Let us look at a Katherine Hannigan presentation as an exemplar of this theory.
I met Katherine, author of stellar titles like  Dirt + Water = Mud and Ida B: And Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World at Winter Institute early this year in conjunction with an ABA Revisit and Rediscover panel I was on at the time. A few months later she called me out of the blue offering to do a school visit day with DDG as she had business in New England in the fall. I jumped on that.

I pitched Katherine’s visit to the schools telling them that she was an awesome presenter. That statement was based purely on a gut feeling. I was totally confident that it was the truth but had no idea why.  Here, (phew), is the answer.
Katherine had all the stuff an old campaigner brings to the table, a strong PowerPoint, great tie-ins to the creative process, and a strong audience engagement. She busted out a mandolin, but that was not what made her great. It was her closing story. It turned out that Katherine was an amazing storyteller. She appeared at two schools and three audiences that day. A grades 3-5 assembly with two schools, one being bused in, and a grades 1-2 presentation with two schools as well. Katherine also did a kindergarten-only presentation in the library of the lower elementary school.
For the two big groups she closed her presentation with a story involving her relationship with a wild animal. With the older kids it was a migrating bird. For the younger kids it was a rabbit. In each case the story involved her intervening to help an injured animal, and her ultimate process of letting it go, along with a magical, but ephemeral reunion. The entire audience was transfixed. And as I listened it came across to me that students were full transposed with the animal. Katherine’s thoughts and encouragement for the bird and the bunny were taken to every listener’s heart in an extraordinary way.
It was greatness and everyone felt it. As she was hitting the road afterwards I mentioned how terrific her storytelling was. Katherine said to me, “Thanks – now if I can only transfer that into a book.” I wish I had been a migrating bird or a bunny at that moment, who surely would have known what to say, but fingers crossed for whatever magic such a transfer into a book requires!
Here are three pictures from the day!

Katherine rocking the house with her bird story at Cascade Brook School.

Taking the mandolin to the people at Mallett School.

A special presentation just for the kindergartners at Mallett School library. Thanks Katherine!

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