“How are you able to get authors to come to visit?” These were the words of my principal after our 4th graders met Varian Johnson on April 16, 2021! All three of our school's 4th-grade classes participated in an engaging conversation with the author of Twins and The Parker Inheritance. I learned much of what I know about connecting with authors, illustrators, and books from the one and only Colby Sharp. Social media has kept me connected to and inspired by educators across the country during the most extraordinary times in teaching I've ever experienced. I am grateful for my social media teacher friends who love books and literacy as I do and were able to maintain that book joy and excitement through a pandemic!
October 2020 was an interesting month for me as a reader. I was devouring graphic novels by the shelf-full and immediately fell in love with characters Fran and Maureen from Johnson's novel Twins, illustrated by Shannon Wright. Their story was one I wanted to share with my 4th graders. So I began to think of how I would be able to pull this off in a fully virtual environment. I wanted all students to have a copy of the book and discuss book club style. It was challenging, but we did it. I would definitely do some things differently if there is ever a virtual next time.
To purchase the books, I creatively used my resources. My Scholastic Book Clubs bonus points had accumulated nicely, so I decided to use the bonus points to purchase a fair amount. Additionally, I made a teacher wish list on the Scholastic site which allowed families to purchase copies for classroom use. By January 2021, I placed an order with my favorite, local indie bookstore, The Bookbug, for books that still needed to be purchased using gift cards from birthdays, Christmas, and just-because-occasions. An unexpected surprise was that the bookstore provided autographed nameplates for all 67 copies of Jonhson's books! (BONUS!)
My next step was reaching out to Varian Jonson via email to inquire about his availability and fees. We set an April date for a visit. It was absolutely perfect. Honestly one of the best author visits I've ever experienced. Varian is personable, funny, and naturally connects with his audience.
He talked with the students about what it was like for him growing up and his inspiration for becoming an author. He allowed time for them to asked questions about his books and his writing process. I watched them eat this up! Many of them said, "I can't believe we were talking with a REAL author." "I don't care that it was online. It was the coolest thing ever."
Being totally virtual for the year allowed for many parents and caregivers to participate in the learning opportunities and discussions we had as a class that would not have happened in "normal circumstances". Full disclosure, this made me nervous at times, yet it seemed to work out in my favor and the students' more often than not. Following Varian's visit, I received this email message from a parent:
"I just wanted to say THANK YOU so much for giving my child the opportunity to meet such an amazing author AND giving her your copy of the Parker Inheritance. She just came out to the living room after the visit and the girl is on cloud nine!!! I literally haven’t seen her smile like this in a while. She told me all about the visit and went into detail about some of the personal stories the author shared with them. He sounds like such an amazing man. She and I just had a pretty emotional conversation last night about the unjust incidences of police brutality against people of color that we continue to see stories about in the media and I appreciate Varian sharing his personal experiences with the police to emphasize just how long it has been a problem and that it’s VERY, VERY real. I just can’t thank you enough for giving her this experience. It truly fueled her love of books, helped reinforce important lessons I continue to teach at home AND she had such a great time. She is already on the phone with my mom, telling her all about it too!"
In my opinion, author visits are priceless experiences that all young people should have at least once. Varian Johnson provided an unforgettable opportunity for me, my students, and their families to connect through the screen to engage in a shared moment discussing his stories. Many students wrote him letters afterward with more questions and words of appreciation and gratitude. I am extremely grateful for authors and the magical work they do when their stories wind up in books and in the hands of readers. Books are so many things to us (windows, mirrors, sliding glass doors, escape hatches, portals, time machines, etc.) and I am grateful that my students were able to call two of Varian Johnson's their own.
Check out Varian's website here https://varianjohnson.com/ for information on author visits and his latest work.