Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Keen kids write authors

What better way to connect kids with reading and writing than dare them to write their favorite author? I salute teachers who assign kids to do so, and even moreso parents who help their children do so.  (If your child's favorite author doesn't have a website, the web or your local library can help you find the publisher's address.) Besides reinforcing their reading, it gives them a writing exercise they won't see as work.
I wonder how many authors write back. I always do, sometimes sending an autographed bookmark while I'm at it. My only curiosity is why so many adults have kids send snail-mail letters c/o the publisher, when it's so easy to email them via their websites.  (Especially since publishers can lose those letters, or take months to get them to authors.)
Anyway, here's a letter I received today, just to inspire parents to think about having their child write an author. I've replied already, of course! Thanks for writing me, Ryan T.
Pam Withers, co-founder, www.keenreaders.org (and young adult author, www.pamwithers.com)

Dear Mrs. Withers:
My name is Ryan T. I am a sixth grader at XXX Middle School. I am with a group of gifted and talented kids doing a report on an author.
When I heard we were going to do this project I got kind of excited. I discovered your books by a website that lets you look at books and authors. Once I found your books I immediately wanted to study you and know more about your books. I've almost finished your book Raging River. I think it's amazing! I love how you portray your character as an employee trying to get a promotion. I coudn't stop reading! I also just wanted to ask how did you come up with this amazing piece of literature? Did it just pop into your head one day while sitting at home? Did it take you a long time to try to figure out what happens to Peter and Jake? And if so how long did it take? Well enough questions. The most amazing thing I find in your books is that I find it very hard to put down! I could read it over and over again before I get even the slightest bit bored by it.
We are collecting autographed pictures of the authors and I was wondering if you could send one back it would mean a lot to me! Could you please write back? My teacher told me that sometimes the authors write back and I thought it would be really cool to get something back from you. If you do send me something I'll be sure to send you a picture of my completed project. I'm sure that by picking you I'll get an "A" for sure!
I wish you continued success in your career.
Your biggest and best fan,
Ryan T

Friday, October 14, 2011

A trip to Portland, Oregon

Yesterday I had the privilege of visiting Portland, Oregon to present my new young adult novel, First Descent, to 200 booksellers, librarians, publishers and other book lovers. I was attending the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association’s Fall Tradeshow 2011, and I was so impressed by the attendees, I wrote a guest blog for Tundra Books' site, right here:
But more importantly, I scattered some brochures promoting Keen Readers around, thinking that if no one picked them up, I'd stuff them back into my briefcase before I left. Whoa! Every single one got scooped up, and I had people asking me for more! Here was a crowd highly receptive to a youth literacy website (and hopefully they'll get kids they know to enter our youth writing contest, since we could definitely use more entries there). Anyway, I'll take more next time, I promise.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The power of one (plus one plus one...)

by Pam Withers

It all started with one letter from a teacher of grades two and three, who felt overwhelmed by the needs of her inner-city elementary students. She and her school struggle to meet their kids’ academic needs, but after school cutbacks, she could no longer turn a blind eye to unmet physical and psychological needs affecting their schoolwork, from warm socks and snacks (for those who didn’t eat breakfast) to counseling.
          She (Carrie Gelson, far left above) wrote a letter to the local newspaper, and the message went viral. She began receiving everything from monetary to food donations. A longtime children’s author who read Gelson's letter, Irene Watts (http://irenenwatts.com/), urged local children’s authors to donate books. When I received that suggestion, I (far right above) immediately dispatched a box of books to Gelson and her colleague Andrea Wilks (middle of photo) at Admiral Seymour Elementary in Vancouver, Canada.
          This is part of what Keen Readers is about, donating books to needy schools across North America. Through internet research, we target schools in needy communities, and then not only deliver a box of books, but deliver an additional handful of books autographed by authors to go to each of the students in that school who have a Big Brother or Big Sister. We hope they’ll read the books together, and we hope it’ll inspire more volunteers to step forward to serve as reading buddies.
          The gift bag in the picture holds five books for the Little Brothers and Sisters at Admiral Seymour. These are books personally donated by children’s authors (see our Author Heroes page: http://www.keenreaders.org/about/author-heroes).
          The big box of books Keen Readers handed over came originally from a special collection of books by children’s authors of British Columbia, Canada that sat at the University of British Columbia. When UBC disbanded the collection and tried to turn it over to the Children’s Writers and Illustrators of BC (www.cwill.bc.ca), CWILL BC voted to turn it over to Keen Readers instead, knowing we’d find a needy school for them.
          Well, we’ve found that school, thanks to one person (Gelson) who took the time to write a letter, one person (Watts) who made the suggestion, the members of CWILL BC who handed them over, and all those who support Keen Readers. That’s the power of one (plus one plus one plus one…)
Gelson’s original letter:
Article on response to Gelson’s letter

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Keen Readers donates 101 books

Above: School-mentor Bill and reading-buddy Timothy enjoy a KR-donated book in South Dakota

by Pam Withers

When Tony and I co-founded Keen Readers, we wanted to be more than an information hub for parents and mentors of reluctant readers. We wanted to get books into the hands of youths who don't have as ready access to them as others.
So, thanks to our Publisher and Author Heroes* (more of whom are signing up every day), we have been boxing up donated new kids' books and we are just starting to send them out. Our first box went to Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Black Hills in South Dakota, a region that dominates the list of top-ten poorest counties in the United States. We're donating to needy schools that have Big Brother/Big Sister pairs, and the pair gets an author-autographed book to keep and read together, while their school library gets a box of much-needed books. We hope to repeat this across North America in coming months. This coming fall, when schools start up again, we hope to feature some photos and thank you letters from the schools and kids receiving these books.
Meanwhile, here's an email that arrived yesterday, warming our hearts.
      "Your 101 books have been received. We have been sorting them and will  distribute to several of the libraries in our low income area of town and also on the Pine Ridge Reservation. THANK YOU so much for allowing us to be a part of this project. The libraries are THRILLED and so are we!
Mary B. Victor, Executive Director, Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Black Hills, Rapid City, S.D."

Publisher Heroes
Author Heroes

P.S. Did you read our feature last month on Big Brothers Big Sisters of America?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

216 books!

by Pam Withers

News flash! The Children's Writers and Illustrators of British Columbia (www.cwill.bc.ca) just donated 216 children's books to Keen Readers. They were part of a special collection at the University of British Colombia that was being disbanded, and the board members of CWILL BC voted to hand the entire collection over to Keen Readers so that we can donate them to needy children's reading programs across North America. Tony and I are deeply grateful. The children who receive them thank you. A special thanks to all the authors and illustrators at CWILL BC.

Being a struggling reader all over again

by Pam Withers

          If I’ve always been a keen reader, that means I can never truly understand someone who is a struggling reader, right?
          Wrong.  I just spent the past two months struggling mightily with reading a young adult novel, never mind that its vocabulary was supposed to be at a fourth grade reading level. I had to use a dictionary to look up words I didn’t know several times per sentence. It took up to an hour to get through each of its very short chapters. Numerous times, I nearly gave up. Never mind that it was a novel written specifically for reluctant readers. And never mind that I wrote the novel myself.
          When Orca Soundings had my novel Breathless translated into Spanish – Respira*, I was delighted. I decided to take on the challenge of reading it in Spanish. With two years of Spanish classes under my belt, I thought I was up for the task.
          Here’s what I have to report: The novel took me two weeks to write back in 2005, but two months to read in Spanish just now. I jotted down each Spanish word I didn’t know as I went along, and they added up to more than 200! Still, I finished it, and the victory was sweet. Now I just have to read it another half dozen times until it starts to come smoothly, right? Exactly as struggling readers have to do. (It helps to have short sentences, short chapters and a plot that moves. I guess that’s why they’re called reluctant reader books.)
          I can now recommend that anyone who finds their patience dwindling while working with a struggling reader, try what I just did to get it all into proper perspective.
          And no, I’m not going to tackle Breathless in Serbian, nor my Orca Currents novel The Daredevil Club (Les Casse-Cous) in French, though I’m pleased they’re out there.


Friday, March 11, 2011

It's raining books!

by Pam Withers

I have two baskets in my home office. One is filled with books for our book reviewers to review, and they stop by periodically to sort through and choose which they’ll write about. (I never offer my opinion, because as a young adult author, I consider that a conflict of interest; I know so many of the authors!)
      My other basket is filled with books destined for reading programs around North America – donations from authors and publishers. Those from authors are even autographed, a lovely surprise for the youths who receive them. This is part of what Keenreaders is all about: not just providing information and features on our website, but also donating books to needy reading programs around North America.
      What I never anticipated is that this particular basket would overflow to the point I’m thinking I need a locker, or maybe I even need to back my car out of the garage and let the donation books take over there! I simply can’t ship them out as fast as they’re arriving. Reading-buddy programs aren’t discovering us as fast as generous authors and publishers are.
      Tony, my co-founder, has the same two baskets in his home in Seattle. (I hope his new wife doesn’t mind!). They’re slightly less full, because American authors and publishers have been slower to discover us than Canadians. (Hmm, is that because Tony was on his honeymoon while I was notifying Canadian authors and publishers, and he’s just catching up with his American notifications now?!)
      In any case, I’m now proactively contacting reading programs around the continent telling them we have books if they need them. If you know of any, by all means tell them about our program. No strings attached. We donate books (from picture books to young adult books) to reading-buddy programs in schools, community centers, religious institutions and other places that need them. They just have to ask.
      We’ll give until we run out. But that won’t be anytime soon, especially since Orca Books (http://www.orcabook.com/) alone has just donated 100 books. I repeat, 100 books!
      Did I mention that it’s raining books and soon I won’t be able to move around in my home office? Thank you, Author and Publisher Heroes, all of them listed on our website: http://www.keenreaders.org/about/author-heroes and http://www.keenreaders.org/about/publisher-heroes.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Joy of Open Libraries

By Tony Dirksen

I've never understood why libraries close on the holidays.

Mind you, I know that librarians, like the rest of us, need their days of rest. Especially librarians, who nowadays have to serve as combination information sources, computer experts, study hall monitors, and babysitters.

And I'm sadly aware of how budget squeezes have made a lot of librarians feel like they're in a thankless, unappreciated job. People like those of us at Keen Readers are keenly appreciative of the work they do. Still, most of us aren't nearly vocal enough in expressing our appreciation.

It's BECAUSE of that appreciation I think libraries should stay open on holidays.

Let me take a moment and tell you about my own growing-up reading experiences.

From a very early age, I've had a profound love of reading. In fact, I was able to read books of a somewhat advanced nature even when I was three and four years old, and that strictly by self training. I never told anybody, fearful that if I revealed my ability, something would go horribly wrong. Like the kid afraid of not getting any Christmas presents if he says Santa doesn't exist.

Growing up, books were my companions and my tutors. My loves of baseball and music and film were all taught to me in the stacks of my local library, located just around the block from my parents' home.

While here at Keen Readers we will be addressing many different opportunities and challenges for encouraging reluctant readers, I think there's nothing better for an emerging reader than having a library a short bike ride away around the block. A place where kids can be on their own without parents hovering overhead, where kids can be safe, and where they can find countless ways to explore the world.

I had the good fortune to grow up in such a place.

Most kids, of course, do not have my good fortune. They go to school in the morning, they go to soccer or basketball or little league in the afternoon, some of them may go to music lessons or tai kwan do or dance. And yes, they play video games and watch TV (probably stupid TV) and listen to their iPods way too loud.

Frankly, I might have done the same.

But if a kid is home on a holiday or a Sunday, and is bored with killing off the Covenant in Halo, and has nothing to do, and wants to get away from the house, he or she might, might, go to the public library. And they might discover that there are new worlds and new possibilities beyond anything they've experienced so far.

That's what books can do. Kids just need the time, and the place, where they can do it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Keen Readers' cover boys

      I looked through hundreds of stock photos before I chose the one that now graces the home page of Keen Readers. It was the effervescent grins that drew me to the two boys reading in a grassy, sunlit park. Weeks after our talented website designers Serenity Partners of Washington, D.C. completed the project and we went live, I found myself curious. Are the boys brothers? What were they reading? Are they always so happy? How old are they and where do they live?
      Ignoring the fact that it was a stock photo and I wasn’t supposed to be looking for a story behind it, I wrote the photographer, Andrey Shadrin.
      Imagine my delight when he replied. It turns out that Keen Readers’ cover boys are Alex, age 17, and Oleg, age six. They’re brothers, and Alex was always toting a book around that August while studying for exams. As they strolled through a park, Oleg was bored – he wanted to play. Alex flopped down on the grass, opened his schoolbook and pretended to read it while actually telling his little brother funny stories. Uncle Andrey snapped the photo and the rest is history.
      Except here’s a lovely surprise: The park is in Novosibirsk, Siberia. And yes, the brothers have now checked out the Keen Readers website and seen themselves hoisted to fame (well, just a little bit of fame). They and their mother are pleased, Andrey assures me. So, keep on reading and enjoying life, Alex and Oleg! And thanks for inspiring others to do the same.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Keen Readers website is now live

She's up! Did you hear the sound of the champagne bottle hitting her bow? The site is www.keenreaders.org. She just went live this week. My co-founder Tony Dirksen (a Seattle friend who just returned from his honeymoon) and I are very proud of her. We hope you'll find this website for parents of reluctant readers useful.
The site is not just for parents, however. Anyone fourth grade and up can participate in the youth writing contest. Each month, a winner receives an autographed book.Youths can also check out the book reviews, links and author interview.
Youths who have been reading buddies (read to a younger child, or been read to as a younger child) should write and tell us about their experience (400 to 700 words) -- another chance to win an autographed book! And if you've never been a reading buddy but would like to try it, please refer your favorite teacher, librarian, parent, community center director, religious institution leader, etc. to the site's section on how to start or find a reading buddy program.
Fellow authors, check out our Author Hero program. Send us an autographed book and we list you on a page that links directly to your website. The books will go to reading buddy programs all across North America that are in need of books.
Finally, if you run a reading buddy program, write and tell us about it. We may feature you, and we may donate books to your program.
I'll make this blog entry short, because Tony and I feel that the site speaks for itself. Go check it out: www.keenreaders.org!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Sendoff

           He was the baby who always nodded off in the special backpack I wore while cross-country skiing. He was the toddler who especially loved tactile board books, the boy who curled up on our laps for bedtime reading and the preteen who once convinced me to buy him a ridiculously expensive coffee table book on astronomy, which he read over and over and over for years.
            He was the ten-year-old for whom I wrote my first young-adult novel (which just happened to get published three years later, leading to thousands of other kids reading it and a surprise career change for me). I wrote much of it in chilly ice hockey arenas as he attended practice sessions. He was the official teen editor of my Take it to the Extreme series. (I learned to take feedback; he learned some diplomacy.) 
            We raced whitewater kayaks together, first in a double and later separately. We hiked and cross-country skied together. When he outgrew his snowboard boots around age 13, I claimed them because they were my shoe size. This prompted him to hand-draw a gift certificate that read, “This is good for one snowboard lesson.” When we arrived on the mountain together, he gave me five minutes of instruction, said “You’re good to go” and disappeared. I worked my way down the mountain by myself, then had to ask a young boy how to get on and off the ski lift with my board.
            I borrowed his mountain-biking pads to play paintball last year. They failed to stop the inadvertent friendly-fire pellet that bruised my rear end.
            He was the teenager who wrote heavy metal lyrics for his garage band, which I was not allowed to call a garage band, and who spent an entire family vacation with his nose so buried in one of the Harry Potter books that he barely lifted his head to grunt at us now and again. He read each and every one of the Harry Potter books four times.
            And finally, he was the adventurous spirit who was more than happy to take up extreme sports I wasn’t willing to when I was researching them for young-adult novels. He helped me so much with my mountain-biking book Adrenalin Ride, I allowed his photo to appear in the back of the book with mine.
            He helped choose the book covers when Whitecap Books asked for my input, and it’s even possible that many of my characters are based on him and his friends. (My character Peter of my Extreme series was consciously based on his best friend in elementary school, but I forbid him to ever tell his best friend, for fear that his friend would someday sue me. Of course, Peter soon outgrew his original inspiration and took on his own personality.)
            This week my son Jeremy is the newly minted university graduate about to fly halfway around the world. And I’m fiercely proud and happy for him, but also just a tiny bit panicked to lose his company.
            Jeremy finished his university degree in anthropology in December. This week he leaves for several months in Syria, where he’s doing an immersion course in Arabic prior to graduate school in the fall. Am I allowed to be a sentimental mom who is dreading this new stage just a little?
            It’s not like it’s the first time he has left home, but this time feels so much more final. Two summers ago, he participated in archeological digs in Jordan through a university program. (He ended up in the hospital with food poisoning and sunstroke.) Last summer he did a solo bike trip through Sicily, Italy, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Holland, France and England. He slept in farmers’ fields, biked up mountains through torrential rainstorms, got invited into remote farmhouses for pasta and wine, and generally had the adventure of a lifetime. I ordered a 21st birthday cake to be delivered to his youth hostel in Rome via the internet. He said he was the most popular guy in the hostel for the ten minutes it took for the cake to disappear.
            The only child of a chemistry professor and writer, did he grow up to be a keen reader and writer? Yes, but I’ll credit that more to my husband reading to him a lot when he was a child, than to my own efforts or influence. That’s the male role-model factor, so important for boys.
            There was also his childhood asthma, which forced him to sit beside a machine for hours per day somewhere around fourth grade. It put rocket launchers on his reading abilities and inclination. Then again, that’s partly because we handed him a book rather than television for those sessions.
            As I prepare for the sendoff, I’ll share this memory: reading chapters of my first novel Raging River every night to him as a bedtime story when he was ten years old. Like any kid trying to extend his bedtime, he’d say, “Mom, won’t you read me just one more chapter?” Glancing down at my manuscript, I’d say, “No, because I haven’t written it yet.”
            When I was finished, he told me it was “pretty good.” Higher praise I’ll never receive.
            Bon voyage, Jeremy. You’ve done us proud.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A book for Christmas? Are you kidding?

        I was speaking at a middle school a few years ago, telling the kids about my next teen novel, when a boy eagerly volunteered his dad to work with me as an expert on the sport I was writing about.
        “Perfect!” I said. When his bemused father agreed to help me with background, I gave the boy an autographed copy of one of my books to thank him.
        “He couldn’t put it down,” the father told me during one of our meetings.
        “That’s great!” I replied. “So now you know what to get him for Christmas -- another book from my series!”
        The father blanched. “Oh no, I’d never get him a book for Christmas. He’d kill me.”

       I was too stunned to respond. Imagine! A middle-school boy was enthused about reading (fiction, even), and his father was convinced that he didn’t need to support or encourage that. Here was a dad who believed that his son’s interest in electronic gadgets and sports equipment should overrule a golden opportunity to send a message about the importance of reading. (Why not gift the boy with both?) The father, a successful businessman, told me he had not been a strong reader himself as a child. Clearly, he was projecting his own childhood feelings about books onto his son -- and at an age where children (especially boys) are in desperate need of strong role-modeling from parents on the importance of reading.
       I loved that this dad was a dedicated farther who spent time with his son, especially on sports activities. But there’s just one piece of information this father was missing: In today’s information age, reading is key to academic achievement like never before. With each passing generation, it’s harder and harder to achieve business or any other type of success without more reading and education than one’s parents had. Today’s college degree is equivalent to yesterday’s high school degree. And children whose interest in reading wanes before high school are the ones most likely to be left behind.
        For too long, parents have assumed that teaching their kids to read was the school’s job. But a comfort with reading begins at home, and special efforts to encourage reading are never more important than in fourth grade and beyond. That's why in February 2011 I'm launching, with a friend, The Keen Readers Foundation. I'll reveal the website address as soon as it goes live. It's dedicated to youth literacy, and offers parents and mentors the support they need to get or keep their children reading. More about that soon, I promise.