Students at Reed Intermediate School who met the Nutmeg reading goal were recently invited to a special luncheon to hear Ann Haywood Leal, of Waterford, discuss her new book Also Known as Harper (Henry Holt BYR 2009).
"We treat our authors like rock stars," said Ginny Snowden, Reed Library Media Specialist. "The fact that the kids are so excited to meet an author demonstrates how valued books and the authors are to our students."
Mallory Lobuglio, 10, was among 169 students who attended the luncheon eager to hear the author talk about her book and writing process.
"I am looking forward to hearing about the techniques she uses to write," Mallory said.
Emma Johnson, 11, who read Leal's new book in preparation for the visit, said she liked the book and found it to be realistic, even though Harper's experiences were different from her own.
"It's fun to hear what a person who wrote the words that you are reading says," said Emma.
Harper is an 11-year-old girl whose family gets evicted. Her mom is doing all she can for her and her brother, Hemingway, but it's not enough, and after too many months of not making the rent, the family returns home to find their rental locked up tight and their belongings scattered on the front yard.
Leal began her presentation at Reed by reading that scene. When she told the students she was going to read from chapter four, the ones who had brought copies of the book to be signed grabbed them and opened them up so they could follow along.
Leal said she did not start out to write a story about homelessness. She wanted to write about a strong female character and put her in a difficult situation.
"As a writer, I look for stories wherever I go," she said. "If you find something a little unusual, that's where you story is."
She showed slides of a fenced up abandoned pool, as well as a front-page newspaper story about homelessness, both of which ended up being a part of the book.
"How many of you have heard your teacher say, 'Add more details'?" Leal asked the group.
Every student's hand went up immediately.
As an editor, Leal told the students that her writing group, who is usually the first to read a manuscript, swears by the credo "be kind but brutal."
Leal engaged the audience with stories and slides about her life as a young author.
"That's me in 6th grade," she said, showing a slide of an awkward bespectacled girl. "I was a little bit of a book nerd."
Leal might have crossed over from book nerd to rock star, judging by the students' excitement before her talk and their rapt attention during her presentation, which consisted of reading a book excerpt and talking about examples of childhood writing projects and other personal stories.
Due to budget restrictions, the PTA picked up the costs for this event this year. Snowden was glad the program was able to continue.
"We try to create a culture at our school that celebrates reading and great literature," she said. "Providing an opportunity for students to get to meet the talented, imaginative minds that create those great stories is an extension of the celebration of reading."