One of our amazing Barrow teachers, Ms. Spurgeon, is leading a book club with some 5th grade students. To select their book, she read the summaries of several books as well as the first page of those books. The members of the group unanimously chose Barbara O’Connor’s How to Steal a Dog after hearing the opening line: “The day I decided to steal a dog was the same day my best friend, Luanne Godfrey, found out I lived in a car. They have been savoring every moment of reading the book since choosing it. They’ve taken their time because a book like this one deserves some discussion, and Ms. Spurgeon has shared that some of that discussion has been hard.
How to Steal a Dog is about Georgina Hayes and her brother who have been evicted from their apartment and now live out of their car with their mother. They long for a place of their own, and a “lost dog” poster suddenly gives them an idea. What if they stole a dog and then collected the reward money after giving the dog back to its owner? The plan sounds brilliant, but even though it is well planned out by Georgina, the duo face some unexpected challenges that complicate their hopes.
Ms. Spurgeon’s group has had some tough discussions about homelessness, poverty, stealing, and family relationships, but the students have embraced those discussions and in turn stayed connected and engaged in the book. When she shared with me how powerful the discussions were, I really wanted Barbara O’Connor to hear about it.
I shared some of Ms. Spurgeon’s observations with Barbara and wondered if we might connect over Skype for just a few minutes when they were close to finished with the book. Barbara enthusiastically said yes, and we set a date to connect for about 20 minutes.
Ms Spurgeon kept the Skype a surprise until the day of the connection, and the 5 students were shocked that they would actually talk to the “real author” of the book they were reading. They prepared some questions over lunch and came to the library to Skype.
It was a different kind of Skype because it was intimate. I pulled 5 chairs right up to the board so students could be close to Barbara on screen. Students each introduced themselves, and Ms. Spurgeon had a moment to talk to Barbara about their experience with the book.
Barbara took time to talk a bit about herself as a writer, how many books she has published, and where she lives. Then, it really became a conversation between the students and Barbara. I love author and illustrator visits, but often these visits are more presentation and less conversation because of the size of the groups we pack in for a visit. This type of visit built a connection between author and reader.
Students asked about whether Barbara had experienced homelessness, why she wrote the book, how long it took, and more. Some students also came up with follow-up questions in the moment and because it was a small group, they could actually ask those. We got to take a quick tour around Barbara’s house as she showed the students her dogs after they asked whether or not she had a dog of her own.
We closed our time by thinking about next reads. I had pulled the books from our library that weren’t checked out at the moment and asked Barbara if she would like to suggest any of her other books as a follow-up selection. She suggested The Small Adventures of Popeye and Elvis and showed students an example of a Yoohoo boat from the story. While she mentioned other books like Wish, one of the students reached out and grabbed Popeye and Elvis and started reading it. That’s one of the great rewards of an author visit whether it’s through Skype or in person. The books come alive for the students and they can’t wait to read them all. Even though I can often recommend a book to a student and they will read it, the recommendation from the actual author is as good as gold.
When the students returned to their class, they continued to talk about the visit and how wonderful Barbara was to talk to. Some of them said they couldn’t wait to read more of her books once they finish this one. I know that Skype visits take time for authors, but it means the world to readers when they offer even a small amount of time to say hello, show off their dogs, and talk about the joys and challenges of writing and reading. Thank you for joining us today, Barbara O’Connor!