Every Book Tour Should Include a Public School
On Making High Schools Into True Literary Spaces
Every year, I meet more and more writers like me—writers happily employed in the New York City public schools. I’m the library director at Bard High School Early College Queens, where I work alongside several other writer-educators. About three years ago, I began dreaming about bringing more writers into the school. What if my students and I got to read some of the most exciting books published today, and then meet their creators?
It was an exciting idea, but I had doubts. Would I be able to attract the authors of books on my nightstand? (Back then, I was reading Okey Ndibe’s delightful essay collection, Never Look an American in the Eye: Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts, and the Making of a Nigerian American, and Patricia Park’s Re Jane, a smart, funny Korean-American retelling of Jane Eyre). Would my favorite authors make time to visit a school? I could only offer modest stipends cobbled together from PTA funding and grants from DonorsChoose.org (an educational crowd-sourcing fundraiser). But when I reached out through author’s websites, I was met with enthusiasm. Patricia Park, a Queens native and NYC public school graduate, was especially excited. Several authors expressed surprise that teenagers would be reading their work (I didn’t contact YA authors because I teach students in our college program, who prefer books for adults). Some authors confessed their inexperience with this age group, but almost all said yes.
Gradually, I launched the Guest Writers series and its accompanying class, which students take for credit. This year, one of our best events was a talk with acclaimed novelist Sigrid Nunez. She took time away from promoting The Friend (Riverhead, 2018), published two months earlier. I loved her new book, but asked Nunez if we might discuss her 2006 novel The Last of Her Kind instead. Set in the 1960s and focused on two college roommates, the novel touches on many themes of the present moment: youth activism, race, class and police violence. Nunez was happy to shift gears to talk about her earlier book. She thought it would “not be an easy read” for young adults, but was impressed by the students’ maturity and level of comprehension. One student raised his hand and asked, “What can teenagers today learn from the teen activists in the 1960s?” Nunez bounced the question back to the students, then thoughtfully described the phenomenon of the generational gaps between parents raised in the 1940s and kids growing up in the 60s. I couldn’t help but think: there is no generational divide in this room! The conversation was effortless.
Reflecting on the class, Nunez said, “The questions were indeed as good as the kinds of questions I’ve been asked by undergraduates, at Princeton, for example, and I only wished we had had more time. I would have liked to hear more from them, not just about my novel, but about their thinking on various matters that our discussion of the novel touched on.”
Authors do not speak at podiums in my Guest Writers series. If they read from their work at all, they read briefly. The format is a round-table chat. The 35 students enrolled in the Guest Writers class (who have all read the author’s book), sit around a horseshoe of tables and lead the Q&A. I set up rows of chairs for the additional 15 to 40 audience members, which will include students, faculty and staff.
I should acknowledge that BHSEC Q is a special place, with an educational philosophy that welcomes courses like Guest Writers. An innovation in higher education, it is defined as a NYC public school, but students also earn a free college associate’s degree from Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. It was at Bard (or “Big Bard” as we call it) that the original Guest Writers course was offered, and Bard College at Simon’s Rock, a private version of the early college, also runs this course. We have public early colleges like mine in Newark, Baltimore, Cleveland and New Orleans. Most teachers at my school hold PhDs or MFAs, and are published in their fields. The students test and interview for admission. They come from diverse backgrounds, with nearly 34 languages spoken on campus.“The literary world should make greater efforts to reach teenagers, and more high schools should promote contemporary literature by living authors.”
It’s true that my students are unusually independent and advanced, but I believe that any high school could have a successful writing series. The choice of books and authors can be adapted to the audience’s taste. Luckily, there are some resources out there to help. Michele Weisman’s nonprofit Meet the Writers matches writers to schools, arranging logistics for teachers who might not have the experience or time to do so. Her goal is to reach students in underserved, Title 1 schools in New York City from pre-K to 12th grade. Lambda’s LGBTQ Writers in the Schools program, headed by Monica Carter and Jared Fox, arranges visits from LGBTQ authors to schools at all grade levels and in all boroughs in NYC. Our school recently enjoyed a WIS-sponsored visit from Naomi Jackson, author of the Star Side of Bird Hill. This year, WIS sponsored 27 authors in 80 school visits, with free books and teacher training included.
I don’t know of any public educators running an author series like mine, but at AWP this year, I met a private school series curator. Reba Gordon, Director of the Rich Library Library at Trinity Prep in Winter Park, runs both a reading series and an author festival with 25 middle grade and YA writers that is advertised to the surrounding community.
There are many models for hosting authors in schools, but I personally prefer teaching a Guest Writers course so students can delve deeply into books before meeting the author. Do all of my students take the class because they love reading? No—but as the semester progresses, I see a growing interest and fascination with books, and hearing about an author’s process.
I teach students how to be good literary citizens and audience members. We painstakingly plan the Q&A, taking effort to avoid asking everyone’s favorite question: “Did you base your book on your real life?” By the end of the semester, students seem truly comfortable interacting with authors. I’m proud when I hear a student disagree with an author’s opinion, or recommend a book to them.
Every semester, I ensure that our five writers come from most continents of the world so my students’ cultures are represented. We have welcomed Bushra Rehman, author of Corona, a coming of age story of growing up Pakistani in Queens; Jiwon Choi, the poet who wrote One Daughter is Worth Ten Sons, a collection filled with Korean proverbs and delicious food. One of the only YA authors I invited, Pura Belpre Award-winner Enrique Flores-Galbis, spoke about his novel 90 Miles from Havana, which is based on his experience of being a child refugee during the Cuban Revolution. Lambda Award-winner Nicole Dennis-Benn discussed Here Comes the Sun, a novel set in Jamaica about a prostitute paying for her sister’s education. We’ve also had two National Book Award-nominated authors: Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House, which explores the economic crisis in Detroit, and Lisa Ko, author of The Leavers, an undocumented immigrant story about a mother and son. For Ko’s visit, we drew in 300 students, or half the school, and moved up to the auditorium. We had 100 audience members to hear Sassafras Lowrey speak about hir writing on transgender homeless youth.
In my rare calm moments as a curator (when I’m not sending a hundred emails or moving a hundred chairs), I often reflect that the literary world should make greater efforts to reach teenagers, and more high schools should promote contemporary literature by living authors. How else will we build the next generation of literary readers?
Writers need young people. Sigrid Nunez agreed. “I don’t think most people realize how much you can learn about the world from listening to young adults.”