Double the Fun: Two Authors Visit Virtually

Second grader Riley Nelson '31 was so psyched about the announcement she read on KnightSite that she couldn't wait to check it out with her librarian in class on Tuesday.

"Mrs. Carruthers, it says there's an author visit tomorrow, is that true?" she asked.

When Riley and her fellow students learned that yes, kids' book author Julie Berry planned to Zoom into class the next day, all the children jumped up and down with excitement.

That enthusiasm spilled over into Wednesday, as Julie Berry, an award-winning children’s book writer who has penned 25 titles, visited both the Lower and Middle Schools. She talked about why she became an author, her creative process, how she comes up with ideas, and so much more. Even though the visit wasn't in-person, the remote interaction gave classes the chance to learn some life lessons and ask questions. GSB pupils engaged in long-distance learning logged on from their homes. Lower and Middle School Librarian Lia Carruthers views such visits as an essential part of the Gill experience.

"It's important for students to see the real person behind-the-book, especially if the genre is historical fiction or science fiction," she said. "The writer comes up with characters and does research, and their excitement translates to the book."

Mrs. Berry, who grew up on an Upstate New York farm and loved reading from an early age, has written a range of genres, from her picture book, Happy Right Now, to middle-grade fantasy adventure, Wishes and Wellingtons, to the young adult historical romance, Lovely War, an Amelia Walden Award winner.  

At the Lower School talk, Mrs. Berry read Happy Right Now, which explored different emotions and how to deal with them. One page depicted a sad little girl getting a hug from her mom. "I hope you have people in your life who love you and you can go to when you're feeling down," said Mrs. Berry. "A caring adult, or a teacher or a librarian." She then discussed ways to deal with challenging moods, like breathing in and out for a count of three; recalling a happier time; learning something new; creating a song or a story; and Mrs. Berry's favorite option, rest.

During the Middle School visit, Mrs. Berry talked about how she always wanted to create children's literature but instead pursued a career in the software industry. When she started reading Harry Potter to her sons, she believed that like fellow mom J.K. Rowling, she, too could do it. She took a writing class in Boston but suffered a massive creative block. "I'd spent my whole life wanting to write books for kids, and it was humiliating not to have an idea," she said. "The only reason I didn't quit was because I already paid for the class." Her advice to those facing this challenge: "Learn to be positive about every idea and keep a notebook to jot ideas down. Start with once upon a time. It situates you in a fairy tale. Nobody has the copyright on kings, queens, witches, magic sorcerers. Try fairy tales, they come naturally to us."

Mrs. Berry encouraged students to take a chance and simply create. “Don’t just write about what you know, write from imagination,” she said. “My personal experience is not with dragons. I do a lot of laundry, but I don’t want to write about laundry. Write from your imagination about zombies, rainbow unicorns, or rainbow zombies. In creative writing, you’re the boss.” One of her suggestions is the rule of three, where she combines three unlikely items. For her middle-grade whimsical adventure tale, The Emperor’s Ostrich, for example, she mashed together an emperor, an ostrich, and writing.  

Instruction and encouragement highlighted the visit’s end. Mrs. Berry’s overall advice: put down the cell phone, play outside, and follow your dreams because they are attainable. “Whatever you want to do in life can be taught,” she said. “For any career, there’s a course or someone who can teach you. If you can learn, you can do it. That’s the real power.” She also reminded students that writing is rewriting. “You all want to be done with your homework so you can go have a snack and watch tv,” she said. “But if you want to make art – to make something that someone wants to read – it’s revising, revising, revising. Stick with it until it’s great.”

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In October, the Upper School welcomed Christina Hammonds Reed, author of YA novel, The Black Kids. Ms. Hammonds Reed, a graduate of the University of Southern California, joined librarian Kristen Armstrong for a Zoom discussion about her book, which tells the story of Ashley Bennett, a high school senior at a prestigious Los Angeles independent school. She and her friends live a charmed life, consumed with where they will go to college and what to wear to prom. Then four police officers accused of beating Rodney King are acquitted, and LA erupts in riots. Ashley must figure out what it means to be one of the few black kids at her mostly white high school at this pivotal moment in history.

Throughout their conversation, Ms. Hammonds Reed and Ms. Armstrong talked about many important topics touched on in the novel – mental health, friendship, racial inequality, college admissions, and American history. "One of the themes we discussed was how reading is a way to build your empathy by immersing yourself in someone else's story," said Ms. Armstrong.

As a part of this Zoom dialogue, members of the GSB Project LIT Community Book Club asked Ms. Hammonds Reed questions about her book and her writing process. After the large group presentation, Ms. Hammonds Reed virtually stopped into the elective, The Politics of Identity: Race, Class, and Gender in the United States. Students were eager to talk with her and discussed the intersectionality of the main character's life, how Ashley fit in to her school as a wealthy young Black woman. Other questions focused on the family dynamics and the timeless nature of the messages in The Black Kids.   

The visit was a win for everyone. "We were all excited to host Christina Hammonds Reed," said Ms. Armstrong. "The students thought her presentation was timely and important. After her visit, several students and teachers borrowed her book from the library. Reading is a fantastic way to cultivate compassion."

Both GSB librarians are thrilled to have the opportunity to bring authors to campus, even during the pandemic, and look forward to future visits.