When Authors Connect: A Skype with Barbara O’Connor

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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.

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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.

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Meeting Barbara O'Connor #authorvisit #studentvoice

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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.

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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!

 

Wishes and Plans: Exploring Life Challenges Through Books

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Somehow, I’ve managed to read three books recently that all feature a main character grappling with the challenge of having an absent parent. I didn’t choose these books because of this fact, but reading about someone’s life challenges that are so different from my own has made me a better person. In his recent Newbery speech, Matt de la Pena referenced an encounter with a librarian where she said that she loved his books but didn’t stock them in her library because she didn’t have those kinds of kids at her school. Those kinds of thoughts make me cringe because books allow us to escape to magical worlds and do things we could only dream of doing and they can also allow us to step into someone else’s shoes for just a moment to get a brief perspective on the world through someone else’s eyes. While it can’t make you an expert on the struggle that the character is going through, it does allow you to see that we all face challenges and struggles and we don’t always wear those troubles on the outside for everyone to see.

One of these books is Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo, which I already mentioned on the blog. Two of these books that I read are upcoming releases from Farrar Straus Giroux. Barbara O’Connor’s Wish comes out in late August.   It features an 11-year old girl named Charlie whose mother is having trouble keeping her life in order and whose father is in jail. She goes to live with her aunt and uncle in a small town. Every day of her life since fourth grade she makes the exact same wish and wonders if it will ever come true. Charlie’s list of ways to make a wish is pretty impressive, and I can’t help but wonder how many ways there are to make a wish after reading this book. What did Barbara O’Connor discover that she didn’t even include in the book? While Charlie is with her aunt and uncle, she meets a stray dog who she names Wishbone. Along with her new friend Howard, they craft a plan to catch Wishbone so Charlie can have a pet of her own.

Woven into this tale of longing for a pet is Charlie’s struggle with finding a place she belongs and her desire to have a mother and father who care enough about her to give her a stable home filled with love. That struggle affects how Charlie interacts with those around her. She lashes out at anyone who ruffles her feathers, and I couldn’t help but wonder how I would act if faced with a similar situation. I can’t say that I blame her for writing mean things to her teacher, giving kids a shove, or insulting her aunt.  What I was struck with the most was how her Aunt Bertha handled every incident of acting out. She offered nothing but love and understanding. I must admit that my own reaction might be to jump at the negativity with a punishment, but Bertha just offered a heap of love.  One of the quotes that still stands out to me after reading wish is:

Sometimes we get so caught up in our own drama and challenges that we lose sight of what others are going through. Instead of being quick to judge or react, I want to slow down and remember that love is a powerful gift.  Barbara O’Connor has once again masterfully written a southern tale that can speak to us all.

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In Kate Beasley’s Gertie’s Leap to Greatness coming in October, Gertie deals with an absent parent as well. However, this parent lives in the same town and still doesn’t have any interaction with her.  How would that feel to know that your mom lived just a few streets away yet had no interest in seeing you or talking to you? It’s certainly very far away from my own experience of having a mom and dad who are always there for me, wanting to know where I am at every second, and still want to talk to me every single day on the phone. Gertie is a firecracker of a girl. She takes matters into her own hands and makes a plan to be the best 5th grader in the entire universe. Gertie wrestles with her absent parent in a different way than Charlie does. She thinks that if she does enough then her mom will notice and want to be a part of her life or realize that Gertie is so awesome that she doesn’t need a mother anyway. Gertie has something standing in her way: a new girl named Mary Sue. Both of them have what it takes to be standout students, but their battle for the top results in even more struggles for Gertie to deal with.

Gertie is a character that I just want to hang out with. She is full of wit and adventure and can take just about any situation and make the best out of it. She does all of this even with a gloomy situation hanging over her. I think about my role in education and how a student like Gertie might slide by unnoticed as having a challenge to deal with. She isn’t one to reach out for help because she thinks she has to handle it all herself. How do I recognize those students? What opportunities can I give to students that allows them to shine and be the star that they are?  I love how even the stern Mrs. Stebbins recognized the potential in Gertie and gave her a moment to shine.

I highly recommend all three of the books mentioned in this post. Check them out at your local independent bookshop or library and add them to your collection.

I love to read books that I connect to, but I also love to read books that challenge my thinking and open my eyes to new cultures, perspectives, or challenges that are different from my own experience. I hope that I’ll keep finding books in my path that enrich my life in this way. As I’m looking toward the new school year, I am thinking about goals and what I hope for the students and families in our library. Right now, I hope that we can all step into the shoes of characters that we connect with but more importantly step into the shoes of characters that give us new perspectives to learn from and enrich our lives. I want to work as hard as I can to offer a collection of books to our readers that gives the opportunity to do this.