Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Chicken Nugget Man Goes Kindle! And at a great price!!

Attack of the Chicken Nugget Man: A National Test Prep Adventure
Ebook Now on Kindle for just $2.99 for a limited time!  

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My Surprise Visit to an Elementary School in Asheville, NC

Third-graders asking astute questions during an author visit to an Elementary School in Asheville, NC

The kids had no idea I was coming. The teachers had been in touch with my staff to work out the logistics of the visit. And a school that has been using my books in their classrooms for 2 years was about to make my day.

Honestly, I had no idea what to expect. I've been a classroom teacher and an administrator, and although I've been in classrooms while teachers were using my books for reading and math instruction, the kids never actually knew that the man in the back of the room was the author.  I had always gone to schools to gauge student response to my books and I wanted a genuine response, so I never revealed who I was. This was going to be an entirely different experience.

On Friday morning, the teachers revealed to their third-graders that I was on my way to their school.  I left behind a massive to-do list at the office (stuff that eats away at my opportunity to write and do the things I do best) and made the 3.5-hour drive to Western North Carolina.  In addition to writing children's books, I run a small educational nonprofit agency and all revenue from sales of my books helps to keep the nonprofit running.  It's a tough job, and it's a company powered by absolutely fantastic volunteers and interns, but in the midst of the paperwork and phone calls, it's easy to forget the fact that thousands of elementary school students across the country are reading MY books in their classrooms.  I've known for a while that I need to do more classroom visits, but pulling myself away from the office has been quite difficult. 

When I arrived at the school, I didn't know what to expect.  I am by no means a famous author.  I had heard that the kids in the school loved my book, so I knew I'd have at least an appreciative audience.  I can't even describe how surreal it felt to witness the whispers, smiles, and stares as I walked down the hall.

"They're so excited to see you," a third grade teacher told me.  I was so shocked by the interest that I wanted to look down the hall behind me to see who the kids were so anxious to see!

The smiles in the classrooms were priceless, but the astute questions these bright children, just wow.  Talk about a meaningful exercise in author's purpose.  In the first room, after I watched the kids read the final chapter of the book, I witnessed the type of reaction that teachers have been sharing with us since the first book was published: kids were 100% focused on the book, there were no behavior issues, kids were desperate to keep reading, they didn't want it to end, and they actually WANTED to answer the goofy comprehension questions.  Every feature of the book, every word, every question was painstakingly crafted and revised over the past few years in an extremely laborious process, and I was witnessing the fruits of that labor.  It was beautiful. Simply beautiful.

After a particularly inspiring q&a session, one student asked if I could give him my autograph. I wasn't expecting that at all.  I've actually never imagined that anyone would EVER ask for my autograph.  The rest of the students were sitting quietly at their desks, preparing for their next lesson. I had a few extra seconds in that room and decided to grant this young fan his request.  This kid must have really liked my book, I thought to myself. I leaned down and dug out the old smiley-face-embedded signature that I had used to sign yearbooks when I was in middle school, and after I handed it back to him, he held onto it like it was pure gold.  I stood up to head to the next room and was astonished at the scene that had unfolded before me: a perfectly straight line of anxious children, each holding a pencil and a sheet of paper, waiting for their share of the action.  It doesn't matter how young or old your fans are. When you've lived to see a line of people desperately awaiting your autograph, you can't help but feel great about yourself.  As much as I love my job, it is so often a thankless endeavor, but that moment alone, the atmosphere in that third grade classroom will fuel me through the next few years.  I issued a promise to each of them: if you write me a letter and you share intelligent questions or comments, I promise I will write you back and I'll autograph it.

"Mine already has 5 paragraphs," one girl told me.

Imagine that. Kids excited about reading. Kids eager to answer standardized test questions. Kids passionate about writing letters.  I had to work so hard in my teaching experience to get kids to want to do any of those things.  This is the type of opportunity that should be afforded to all children.

There were a few recurring themes in each room.  The kids wanted more silly standardized test questions, a feature I recently added to the book because I wanted to make test prep even more fun. They told me that they loved answering them and that they were much better than the ones they normally had to answer.  As silly as my standardized questions are, they are still ridiculously educational and standards-based.  Finding the perfect balance between humor and instruction is a difficult endeavor, but I think I've come really close.  This genre of educational children's fiction doesn't even exist without my books, but the lack of competition doesn't make it any easier. Infusing hundreds of math and language arts standards into a book that kids want to read, then throwing in tons of standardized test questions-- I would have called it impossible back when I was teaching. 

Classroom after classroom, I couldn't wipe the smile off my face as I watched students read, laugh, and learn.  Their suggestions and questions were so insightful that I took notes as soon as I got back into my car.

One teacher pulled me aside to tell me how much the kids appreciated my visit.  "Is there anything we can do to help?" she asked.  I made the passionate appeal for book reviews, student success stories, and any kind of testimonial about the books and the impact that they have on student success. Sales have been down this year, primarily because of drastic cuts to school budgets, but our donations and book grants to schools have increased, causing us to operate in the red and rely on additional foundation contributions to keep the nonprofit afloat.  Those foundation contributions won't last forever, and cuts to staffing mean that I have absorbed the rolls of many individuals when my primary role should be writing and developing educational content.  If every teacher who loved this book actually posted a review on, emailed a student success story to my nonprofit, or posted a video testimonial on YouTube, we'd be able to drive down the cost of the books, donate even more to kids and schools in need, and offer free content by the truckload. Marketing my own books has been the most humbling endeavor of my life.

The highlight of the author visit was a comment by a quiet girl in the back of one particular classroom. She hadn't raised her hand to ask me a question, despite the fact that most kids were asking 2 or 3 questions each.  On my way out, she raised her hand.  I wanted to give her a chance, so I stopped and listened.

"I don't have a question, I have a suggestion," she said.

"Okay," I said, "I'd love to hear it."

She looked down at the floor as she started to share.

"Can you write more books?  At least ten."

I have no idea what the future holds. I have no idea whether or not I can write another award-winning educational book. I have no idea how I'm going to raise enough money to keep my nonprofit running, but I do know one thing for certain.  I didn't hesitate to make a promise to a little girl last Friday.

And it's one I intend to keep.