Archive for author visit

Touching Absolute Truths: Sherman Alexie Speaks at HS3 High School

Posted in Author Visits with tags , , on February 27, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Erin Langner, WITS Program Associate

Heath Sciences and Human Services High School (HS3) has an all-gray performance space called the MPS that looks like a place where unexpected things happen. When the lights are up, as they are for school assemblies, the room’s skeleton is exposed—a technical balcony overlooks the rows of students seated in the round, stage lights positioned at odd angles dot the ceilings and floor, and there is an overall sense that everyone in the room is backstage, about to see something intimate and honest.

There could not have been a more fitting place for Sherman Alexie to have told over three hundred students at HS3 earlier this week, “If you come up to me afterwards, you can touch my brain.” Referring to a quartet of lingering “soft spots” that resulted from brain surgery the renowned writer underwent when he was five months old, to relieve pressure caused by hydrocephalus, the invitation could be understood in both a literal and literary way—the standard for much of what Alexie went on to say that morning.

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Maybe many of the students felt as if they already knew the author from reading his semi-autobiographical novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Or, perhaps it was the raw honesty behind the anecdotes he told of growing up in poverty on the Spokane Indian Reservation, of unintentionally hitting a teacher in the face with a book and of having what he called a “Costco-sized head.” Whatever the cause, the sense of a connection between the writer and the students made the large room feel deceivingly small, as though there were only a handful of us listening, instead of hundreds.

This intimacy was also evident in the candidness of the students’ questions. The first, sounding as if he were talking to another kid about girls they were crushing on, asked, “So, who’s this girl Penelope?” Referring to a character of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the author drifted into stories about the beautiful blonde who once sat in front of him, with smitten recollections: “She was so pretty, she had theme music.” The student responded with a pronounced nod; he knew what Alexie was talking about.

The question that brought the most insight was one that only students are fearless enough to ask. “If you weren’t poor and didn’t grow up on a reservation, do you still think you’d be as successful as you are today?” a young woman in the back of the room inquired, with a soft but unflinching tone. Giving one of his longest pauses of the morning, Alexie answered slowly, his words gaining their sense of assuredness as he reached the answer’s end: “If you can survive these agonies, it gives you a sense of strength. And it makes you original.”

The talk soon ended, the standing ovation subsided and a horde of students surrounded the writer, who indulged them with countless selfies. Despite the invitation, I did not see anyone try to touch Alexie’s head. He had already given so much access, spoken so many sentences that felt as though they would be heard only by those of us in the room, it seemed as though we already had.

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Turning History into Comics: David Lasky’s Visit to Washington Middle School

Posted in Author Visits with tags , , , , on February 24, 2015 by writersintheschools

By Erin Langner, WITS Program Associate

The Oregon Trail seems to have been following me for most of my life. To some extent, I followed an urban version it, from growing up in the suburbs of Illinois, to attending college in Colorado, to eventually moving to Seattle. Like many others who grew up in the 1980s, my most memorable connection to the Trail was the hours I spent moving the massive pixels of my digital “family” and their wagon across Missouri and Nebraska, usually losing most of them to dysentery and typhoid before reaching Wyoming, in the video game I played during elementary school.

Those sicknesses and the existence of the wagons are most of what I can remember from what may or may not have been a history unit about the Trail –clearly not a very fruitful one. What made me realize this recently was not my own westward journey but a version of the Trail that took the form of a graphic novel, as it was projected before an audience of Washington Middle School students, by the artist and writer who created them, David Lasky.

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David Lasky speaks to students at Washington Middle School.

It is not difficult to convince a room full of sixth graders to take a pause from the school day to think about comics. We expect comics to induce laughter or pull us into the drama that unfolds across their panels, both of which David Lasky’s comics and graphic novels do. However, the moment the artist started showing drawings from his and Frank Young’s book, Oregon Trail: The Road To Destiny, the library full of students fell especially silent. Apparently things have not changed since the 80s: kids still love the story of the Oregon Trail.

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Pages from ‘Oregon Trail: The Road to Destiny,’ by Frank Young and David Lasky. Image from buyolympia.com

As David went on to show them an advertisement from a more recent video game inspired by the Trail, he asked the students to point out parts of the image they thought might be historically inaccurate. A field of hands shot up instantly. One noticed how the wagon looked like it was moving too fast; David agreed and pointed out the way most people on the Trail walked beside the wagons rather than sitting in them. Another thought the horses pulling the wagon should actually be oxen; David confirmed this was indeed correct. Most often, students were bothered by the expressions on the travelers’ faces; these people were having too much fun to be enduring the laborious journey of the Trail. David wholeheartedly agreed.

Afterwards, David explained the reason he knew so much about the Oregon Trail was all of the research he puts behind his work. Once, he journeyed all the way to an obscure museum in Virginia, in order to see the belongings of the Carter family, which he used to illustrate the intricate details of his and Young’s more recent graphic novel, The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song. He pointed out the way a quilt he had seen became the background for a vivid panel that showed the family recording one of their most important hits. Images like that of the quilt, in which historical facts intersected with the creative mind of an artist so beautifully on the page, were the ones that will help us all remember history in the most meaningful ways.

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Page from ‘The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song,’ by Frank Young and David Lasky. Image from comicsbulletin.com

Smashing Expectations: Kyle Bolton Reads at Broadview-Thomson K-8 School

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on December 17, 2014 by writersintheschools

By Erin Langner, WITS Program Associate 

When I think back to the week before winter break when I was in elementary school, I remember things like “mailing” cards to friends in other classrooms, a mess of a candy cane and its wrapper leaving my desk sticky for days, and extended periods of time spent bundling up and bundling down every time we went outside. Amidst the inevitable chaos and distractions that surround such a week in an elementary school, I would hardly expect to find a group of sixty fifth graders sitting quietly on the floor in the library, listening to someone read.

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As unlikely as it seems, this was a real scene at WITS partner Broadview-Thomson K-8 School this week, when Seattle comic artist Kyle Bolton visited, to read from his brother Chris Bolton’s and his book, Smash, Book One: Trial By Fire. All eyes were on the author as he animated the story of a ten-year-old boy who finds himself bestowed with superhero powers using a thorough assortment of voices and sounds to match each action. Building up to a critical moment of realization, the entire library gasped when Kyle unveiled the final, “To be continued…” slide of his reading; the cliffhanger was severe, despite only hearing a small part of a story the Boltons have planned to fill five books.

The kids sitting around the lingering “To be continued…” slide did not see this as an end but as an opportunity. Their imaginations ignited, when Kyle invited questions, every third hand raised brought ideas for the next four Smash books. Methods for defeating villains, suggestions for co-conspirators, new narrative twists and potential wardrobe ideas were floated for consideration. While it is hard to know which directions the authors might find best suited for the next iterations of Smash, it was clear that no outside distractions were too much for this room full of story tellers, who found new suggestions to share through the end of the hour—ideas that I hope to run into again someday, when these creative students put their pencils to the paper and let the inspiration flow.