Back to school

The schedule called for me to visit with students who study in a locked-in  situation.

Before I already presented there on a picture book  topic- with a handful of  elementary age students.

It hurt to imagine why little ones were in such a setting. But I was assured that their continual extreme misbehaviors had warranted a restricted educational backdrop.

Now I returned to meet some older kids.

My challenge was to motivate these troubled youth to read.

Free books would do the trick – yes?

My friend from our regional bookstore brought enough of the same title so that all the students in two classes could claim ownership of a crisp new-to-them, paper bound book.

As I faced my audience of bored or grim faces, I knew that this freebie wasn’t going to be enough to hook them.

What would?

I decided to talk fast about the author, who had moved to our state as a kid.

The main thing about this former Florida student that I thought they might pay attention to is this:

After earning her college degree in our state, she considered herself off track, even a failure. Because she worked in an amusement park.

Her dead-end job included repeating out loud, a phrase, over & over that went like this:

Look down and watch your step.


I acted it out in front of them, as a ride host, guiding tourists safely from

moving seats  & and away from that particular attraction.

I repeated the phrase in a flat, bored tone.

My eyes glazed over, as some of theirs had been when they first looked up at me.


I now had some attention.

I told them how this amusement park worker was a Famous Author, with big national awards. The awards, the kids weren’t so impressed with by the look on their faces.

But their eyes flickered interest when I told them she had movie deals.

“How did that happen?” I said.

I shared that she had made up her mind that there would always be someone more talented than her.  But, this writer also decided that the only part of her world that she was in control of, was how hard she worked. Some of the kids were still

watching me.

Then – unexpected – an adult in the room handed me a gift with this request:

“Tell them why you are here Jan. What this is all about.”

Well, it was all about World Book Night.

World Book Night (in our case, Day) puts books in the hands of people who wouldn’t normally have them. Writers are asked to select a give-away site. Some authors visit homeless shelters, others go to low-income health clinics or counseling centers.

I chose this school.

My gut feeling told me that if I were these kids, I wouldn’t want to hear that this

was a charity outreach – as good a cause as it is.

I worried that the flickering interest now kindled, nearly nonexistent when the students filed into the school’s beautiful, glass-walled library, would be stamped out like an unwanted fire at road’s edge. I wanted that fire to burn more.

To steal time, I repeated the comment as a question & said:

“Why are you receiving these books? Why are you receiving these books?

You are receiving these books… because you deserve them.

You deserve these books! I hope you enjoy them!”

Students who slouched, sat up straight.

A girl whose eyes had glimmered when I said the Famous Author had considered herself to have failed after college –  her mouth turn into a slight smile.

Later, I received these reports: :

All of my students who were present today finished reading Because of Winn-Dixie.  One of my ESE students, who usually will stall and display all types of work-avoidance behavior, pulled away from the reading groups and for two consecutive days read on his own, until he finally finished today.  I am indeed proud of him.

My kids are eagerly reading Because of Winn-Dixie.  The background knowledge attained through the video clip of the interview of the author and the group discussions made a tremendous difference.  We read eight chapters yesterday and completed two assignments.  I haven’t often seen them so receptive to reading and completing new assignments. – from the dedicated teacher

Thanks so much Jan. Ms. …  called me this morning to tell me the kids were DEVOURING the book today. Background knowledge is a wonderful thing !! You made it SO INTERESTING and we really appreciate all you do for our children. – from the dedicated media specialist
Of the basket full of potent quotations available from this author, Kate DiCamillo, including from a print interview I had done with her during publicity for Because, I repeated these in class with the students &  provided them for the teacher to print for their own individual bookmarks:

“I hate writing. I like having written.”


“Stories are everywhere.

“All you have to do is pay attention.”

-Kate DiCamIllo, author, Because of Winn-Dixie


DiCamillo acknowledges the writer Dorothy Parker for the hate-like comment.

And I acknowledge Kate for providing the mighty fine story that did the trick for some of these 6th and 7th grade students.

Back-to-school wishes to you!

World Book Night (Day!) 2012

6 thoughts on “Back to school

  1. Jan, I loved your response. Those kids did deserve those books, and so much more. And they got that “more” in the form of your time and interest and in Kate DiCamillo’s wonderful story. Just keep being yourself Jan. You make the world a better place.


    • Aww, these responses make me smile. It was actually so easy to give away someone else’s great novel. Everyone else made it happen too (school & bookstore & WBN program in NYC.) Thank you muchly everyone.


  2. Wow, that’s the most meaningful story I’ve heard in a long while! Two things strike me: 1) how important it is (for all of us but especially those who haven’t had basic rights or priveleges) to hear that working hard might be the one thing that we can control. And 2) Your audience did deserve those books…and so much more. Thanks for being a part of that “much more,” Jan! You are inspiring!


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