Kate Messner is one of those amazing women who are capable of handling a few full-time jobs at the same time. She is a middle-school teacher, the author of fine books for children (like Over and Under the Snow) and teens (like Spitfire). She recently published an excellent book for teachers, Real Revision. In her spare time, she has compiled a list of authors willing to Skype with student book clubs and classes at no charge. You can read more about it at her website.
Franki Sibberson caught up with Kate to talk about the Skype program. You can read a full transcript of the podcast below the player.
Franki Sibberson: Kate, you do some work with teachers on helping connect kids with authors, often via Skype. Why do you think this type of connection is so important?
Kate Messner: Well, it’s interesting. When my first national book came out and I was obviously teaching at the same time and I kind of felt like I had one foot in each world. I spent a lot of time hanging out with authors and a lot of time hanging out with teachers.
And the teachers were always saying, “I wish there were more ways to connect my students with authors.” And the authors were always saying, “Man, I wish I could connect with teachers in classrooms better.”
And so I thought, you know, you guys would really like each other a lot and I actually was talking with my agent who is also a bookseller about bookstores and Skype visits and I said, “You know what would be really cool? Is if there were a list of authors who are interested in doing just free, quick Q&A sessions via Skype with book clubs and with classes that have read one of their books.” And this actually was via email and my agent wrote back. “Hmm¦ who could make such a list?”
And so I said, “Oh, I think I’ve just volunteered.” So, literally it’s something that happened on social media. I just said, “I’m making a list of authors who are game to do free, 20-minute Q&A sessions with classes and book clubs that have read one of their books. If this describes you, let me know.”
And literally within a few days there were 100 authors on that list and the list has just grown from there.
Franki Sibberson: Wow.
Kate Messner: It’s easily the most popular page on my website and it’s been a lot of fun to be in the middle of that.
I do think it’s important because they are two groups that are looking to connect with each other and just having that resource kind of makes it easier.
Franki Sibberson: It’s such a great resource as a teacher, too, because sometimes you don’t know if you’re intruding by asking but that list is kind of an invitation so it’s nice. I love that it was both groups wanting it. So smart. I love that you’re in both groups.
So what have you noticed about the ways relationships with readers and authors are kind of changing with Skype and the Internet tools that make communication easier? Have you noticed a big change?
Kate Messner: Well, that’s interesting. It’s funny. When I was growing up, Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume were hands down my favorite authors and I lived in a really small town. We never had an author visit my school the whole time I was growing up and I loved to write but it never occurred to me that I could have that job.
Which might sound funny to say. I was a reasonably smart kid but it just didn’t occur to me. I figured authors were different from me somehow and they lived somewhere else. Castles or something.
So it never occurred to me. So I went to college for journalism and I worked in broadcast journalism and television news actually for seven years before I got into teaching and kind of found my way back to writing fiction. So, I think it’s interesting that kids today will probably not have that problem because so many authors now are Skyping into classrooms and it’s not a matter of having to bring an author into a tiny town. It’s a matter of turning on the computer.
So I think that’s really neat. And most of the authors that I know do a really amazing job of explaining to kids. “I’m Skyping from my living room,” or, “I’m Skyping from my office and here’s my dog,” and kids get to see that authors are regular people who love stories and love to write. And I think from there it’s not too much of a leap for a kid to say, “Boy, that’s just like me. I could do this.” And I think that’s really exciting.
Franki Sibberson: Yeah, that is. So you have that great web page but what other resources are there? What other tips do you have for teachers who want to begin connecting students with authors through Skype but haven’t yet done so?
Kate Messner: Well, I think if you’re testing the waters, just choosing a book and reading it with your class and then inviting the author to do a Q&A session. My list, if you just Google authors who Skype with classes and book clubs, you’ll get that list pretty easily. It’s just one of the pages off my website. But it’s a huge list so there’s something for everybody there.
There are also a lot of authors, and most of the authors who do these free, 20-minute Q&A sessions also offer a more in-depth visit. Sometimes with a PowerPoint. Sometimes a longer session. Sometimes a virtual writing workshop. That’s something I’ve started doing. It’s a lot of fun. That they’ll charge for and that charge is often $200.00, $300.00, compared to what can be a couple thousand dollars for an in-person visit for a day.
So there are lots and lots of options. There’s also the Skype an author network that lists all different kinds of authors who do Skype visits free and paid and I’ve written a couple features about Skyping, too, so those are interesting resources. It kind of gives you a how to as far as how to get Skype set up, how to practice, how to prepare your students really well so that things go smoothly on the day of.
All those things should help but, honestly, it’s not as hard as it might sound, even for people who aren’t terribly into technology. It’s a pretty simple process and pretty amazing to see the kids connect.
Franki Sibberson: And what journal did you say that was in that you wrote?
Kate Messner: It’s in School Library Journal.
Franki Sibberson: School Library Journal.
Kate Messner: I actually did two different features about Skype author visits. One is called, “Met Any Good Authors Lately?”
Franki Sibberson: Okay.
Kate Messner: And the other one is called, “An Author In Every Classroom.” I loved that title. I didn’t choose it. It’s a great title. Because it really does. It kind of makes it possible for all different schools and all different economic situations to have those author visits.
Franki Sibberson: Right. And it’s getting so all of a sudden people are talking about it like it’s an option, so it’s growing.
So, do you see a difference in students’ reading now that they have so much access to authors between their blogs and their book trailers and Skype? Do you see their reading changing at all? Their reading habits, maybe.
Kate Messner: I think it makes students more inclined to do an author study or go on an author binge. I do know that very often after I visit a classroom via Skype I get flooded with emails from kids in that classroom saying, “Thanks for coming and talking about this book and now I also read this book and this book,” and then they have more questions about those. So, I do think it makes kids see authors as more accessible and I think it promotes reading because it does give authors a chance to talk about the story behind the story.
I think author studies are always really interesting for kids because different authors approach their work in different ways and while you’ll see some authors, like a Stephanie Meyer for example, who do generally one kind of book, there are also an awful lot of authors who do just a tremendously diverse group of stories and my books tend to be all over the place. You look at Jane Yolen who’s published 300 books and it’s pretty fascinating for kids to look at the body of an author’s work after they’ve had a chance to talk with that person. So I think that’s a really interesting possibility, too.
Franki Sibberson: Yeah, I didn’t even think of that. Okay. So you personally, if you could talk to any author personally that you don’t know, that you haven’t met, that you don’t know personally, who would it be? Like if you could Skype with an author of your choice.
Kate Messner: That’s easy because I had two childhood favorites and, fortunately, one of them I got to meet at an ALA Conference.
Franki Sibberson: Oh, nice.
Kate Messner: I was signing at the American Library Association Conference in Chicago a few years back and Judy Blume was signing right before me and the wonderful people at her publisher let me say hello really quickly before I went off to my own signing. So, I got to thank her for the work that basically made me a writer today.
So I did get to meet Judy Blume and my other favorite, and probably my first favorite author, was Beverly Cleary. I would love to meet her some day. I know she doesn’t do a lot out in public any more but I think her work is absolutely amazing. I felt like Ramona was real and one of my good friends. So I would love to meet Beverly Cleary.
Franki Sibberson: Oh, fun. That’d be fun. So fun. Well, thank you so much.