Monday, October 29, 2012

The Value of an Author Visit

(Originally Posted at The League of Extraordinary Writers)

Author visits can take a lot of time to schedule and prepare for. Teachers, school administration, and parents aren't always supportive. Some argue they aren't "curricular." (This isn't true. Unless writing isn't part of your curriculum. In which case your school has bigger problems than the lack of author visits.) They can be expensive.

On the author's side of things, they're exhausting. They take time away from writing. They can be a nice source of extra income, but for a new author like me, the income isn't very significant.

So why do we bother? Why do some librarians spend dozens of hours of their own time scheduling and preparing for author visits? Why do some English teachers take the lead in those sad schools that lack a librarian? Why have I done more than 200 author visits for free over the last year? (I charge now, although I'm very cheap.)

A student recently answered all those questions for me via email. I've asked for, and received, his permission to share the email with you. I've changed his name to protect his confidentiality. Otherwise the email is exactly as he wrote it:
My name is Fred. About a year ago you visited Cedar Rapids Iowa. You made a stop at the Linn County Juvenille Detention Center and i was a resident there. ever since you visited i have been big on writing. but just not stories. i have written alot of poems and different raps about my life. i was wondering maybe if i could get some expert advice on how they look. or what are some areas i need to improve. if at all possible i would like to send them to you in the mail and hopefully get some good advice. it was really nice meeting you. if you want to know how my life is going right now i am on my way to completeing an independent living program. i just celebrated my 17th birthday today and im on the road to success. writing has been a big inspiration in my life and with out the visit from you i know for a fact i wouldnt have started to write. i would really like to hear back from you soon. it was great meeting you.

Does anyone believe another high-stakes test would have had this kind of impact on Fred's life? Another reading program? Another teacher evaluation system? The things many policy makers and administrators focus on truly don't matter. What matters are the connections that librarians, teachers, coaches--even visiting authors, make with students and the impact we have on those student's lives. If you're involved in education, do your school and students a service: contact an author--any author--today and schedule what may be a life-changing experience for some of your students.

Monday, October 22, 2012

How Lexiles Harm Students

(Originally posted at The League of Extraordinary Writers)

About a month ago, a woman approached me at a conference. She picked up a copy of ASHFALL and asked me, "What's the Lexile on this?"

This question threw me for a bit of a loop. I'm used to being asked what ASHFALL's about, how much it is, or where I got the idea for it. "What's a Lexile?" I asked.

"They use it at my daughter's school," she replied. "To match students with books at the right level for them."

"Oh, like the Guided Reading level." I happen to know about those because my wife's school district uses them. They always seemed a bit idiotic--what reader chooses a book based solely on its reading level? But since at her school they're used as suggestions, not mandates, and take the content of the books into account, they've never really bothered me. "ASHFALL is a Z+ on the Guided Reading level scale," I said.

Here's where the rabbit hole started to get twisty. "We don't use Guided Reading," she said. "We use Lexiles. And my daughter isn't allowed to read anything below 1,000." The italics are mine. You'll have to imagine my angry shouting at a school that won't allow their students to read--no matter what the excuse.

"I'm sure it's fine, then. ASHFALL is a Z+. It's got to be at least a thousand on your school's scale. What does she like to read?"

"She loved The Hunger Games, but the school wouldn't count it. It's too easy for her." (I later looked up The Hunger Games--its Lexile level is 810.)

"A lot of teens who liked The Hunger Games enjoy ASHFALL. How old is your daughter?"

"She's in sixth grade."

"You should read ASHFALL first, then--it depicts an apocalypse realistically. It's very violent. Definitely not appropriate for all sixth-graders."

"That's okay. I just need to know what the Lexile level is. Can you look it up?"

I obliged and found ASHFALL listed at Its level? 750.

"It's too easy for her, then." The woman walked away as my lower jaw hit the table with an audible slap.

For kicks, I looked up Ernest Hemingway's masterpiece, A Farewell to Arms. Its Lexile? 730.

Is my work more difficult, more sophisticated, or more appropriate for older readers than that of Mr. Hemingway, a Nobel Laureate in literature? Of course not! Think about it: If this poor student stays in her school system, she'll NEVER be allowed to read A Farewell to Arms. It's allegedly too easy for her.

Since this conversation, I've heard of a high school that boxed up all its copies of Night, Elie Wiesel's classic account of surviving the holocaust, and sent them to the elementary school, because it's "too easy" for high school students. Its Lexile is 570.

Shocking as that example is, there's a bigger problem: the Lexile system punishes good writing and rewards bad writing. I'll illustrate this point with an example. Here's the first sentence of a book that sixth-grader would have been allowed to read, a book with a Lexile of 1650:
"ON the theory that our genuine impulses may be connected with our childish experiences, that one's bent may be tracked back to that "No-Man's Land" where character is formless but nevertheless settling into definite lines of future development, I begin this record with some impressions of my childhood."
Forty-eight words that can be replaced by three with no loss of  meaning: 'My childhood was.' This is a truly awful opening, whatever your opinion of the overall work.

Here's a novel millions of sixth-graders have enjoyed. A novel with a Lexile of only 820. A novel this woman's daughter would not be allowed to read:
“They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box  and his heart a sofa spring. They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash.”
It's clear and concise. It introduces the main character and opens irresistible story questions in the reader's mind. If it were rewritten as one sentence, it would lose the flavor of gossip that makes it intriguing--and have a much higher Lexile score.

Good writing is simple. The best writers never use two words where one will do, and they choose their words with precision. But the Lexile system rewards complexity and obscurity by assigning higher Lexile scores for works with longer sentences and longer words. In short, students forced to use the Lexile system in their reading are being taught to be bad writers. And some are likely being forced into books that will turn them off to reading.

What should you do? If you're a school administrator, teacher, or librarian, quit using Lexiles. I realize your motto isn't, "First, do no harm," but is that such a bad precept to follow? The Lexile system is actively harmful to your students.

If you're a parent, let your child pick books the way you do--based on interest and need. Ask your school to dump the Lexile system. The last thing we need is an expensive program that makes the great work parents, teachers, and librarians do--educating our children--more difficult.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

On the Road

I got back from Ohio late last night, and I'm packing for a trip to Chicago today. My cat, Pepper, is sick of me being gone. He chose to express his displeasure by waking me up 723 times last night with purrs, head-butting, and kneading any exposed skin he could find (with claws fully extended, of course).

So this morning, he not only jumped into my suitcase, he packed his favorite toy--the knit pastel mouse by his front feet:

Anyway, if you want to see me, sans cat, I have an appearance at the Batavia Public Library tomorrow. Visit my website for details and additional tour stops.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Here are a few of my favorite pieces of artwork inspired by ASHEN WINTER. They're all hanging in the Barnes & Noble in Fenton, MO. The artists are students at Hillsboro High School.

Very cool, no? One of my favorite things about being an author is the fact that I sometimes inspire--and get inspiration from--artists who work in other media. Many thanks to B&N Fenton and the students of Hillsboro High School!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Great Day in the Life of an Author

I have given more than 240 author talks in schools, libraries, and bookstores in 18 states since my debut novel, ASHFALL, came out last year. But I'll never forget today's author talks.

Part of my schtick is to teach students a taekwondo move, hammerfist, as they enter the auditorium and challenge them to break a plastic practice board. Here's a pic of me teaching author Jennifer Armentrout taekwondo on the floor of Book Expo America earlier this year:

What made today different? In two different high schools today, I met blind teenagers. I almost didn't approach the first one to challenge her to try breaking the board. I have no experience working with blind students, and I'm not much of a taekwondo instructor, even with sighted students. But I decided I shouldn't deprive her of an opportunity available to everyone else.

I taught them hammerfist by holding their fist and swinging it, showing them how to move. Then I held the board so they could feel where it was. Both teens were nervous--neither of them thought they could break the board. But both of them succeeded. And in rising to that challenge, they provided me with an experience I'll never forget.

The other fun thing that happened today was that I returned to Hillsboro High School. You may remember that a few months ago on this blog I auctioned off a bunch of ASHEN WINTER-related goodies to help raise money to build a new library in Hillsboro. Well, here's one of the signs your generous donations bought:

I'm between two fabulous Hillsboro High School librarians, Amber Parks and Karen Creech Huskey.

Mostly I want to thank my fans for your help in building a new library in Hillsboro. The final vote will be November 6th. Here's hoping it passes--I'm looking forward to returning to Hillsboro and signing the final book in the ASHFALL trilogy, SUNRISE, in the library my blog readers helped to build. It's an honor to have such a generous group of fans. Thank you.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What to Eat After the Apocalypse

Jody Casella, author of the forthcoming young adult novel Thin Space, graciously volunteered to join my blog tour. So why is she guest posting on my blog? Well, Savy Valdez from Books with Bite is hosting my blog tour and requested a post about what to eat after the apocalypse. (I told her it should be who to eat after the apocalypse, but that's another story.) So Jody and I both wrote a post--you can see my post on Jody's blog. Anyway, welcome Jody!

Hey Mike, 
Thanks for inviting me to guest post today on the topic: What to Eat in the Wild. I'm a big fan of your books and must tell you that I bow down to your presentation skills as well. I had the great pleasure of attending one of you book signings last year and watched in awe as you karate chopped a cement block in half. I'm fairly certain not many authors can top that!

{Mike: I love breaking stuff. Check out the video from my launch party last year:}

What to Eat after the End

Sometimes I get a little worried about the end of the world. I’ve read a ton of books lately about how it might happen, and oh, there are soooo many horrifying possibilities. In addition to sketchy Mayan Calendar issues, there’s:

1. Nuclear war (THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy)
2. Electromagnetic pulses coupled with flesh eating zombies (ASHES by Ilsa Bick)
3. Designer diseases unleashed upon us by immoral scientists (ORYX and CRAKE by Margaret Atwood and MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH by Bethany Griffin)
4. Attacks by robots AND diseases (PARTIALS by Dan Wells)
5. Global climate change (SHIP BREAKER by Paolo Bacigalupi and AFTER THE SNOW by SD Crockett)
6. Asteroids hitting the moon (LIFE AS WE KNEW IT by Susan Beth Pfeffer)
7. All-purpose natural disasters with a supernatural twist (DARK INSIDE by Jeyn Roberts)
8. The eruption of the allegedly dormant supervolcano lying under Yellowstone (ASHFALL by Mike Mullin)

After reading these novels, I have the distinct impression that it would be kind of scary to live through (and past) Doomsday. If you somehow manage to survive the actual blast, you’ll probably have to cope with brutal, sun-less, Ice-Agey cold weather. You might be attacked by other survivors who are zombies and/or cannibals. You will need guns, antibiotics, and plenty of non-perishable food. 

This could be a problem for me. I don’t like guns. I don’t have a stockpile of medicines. On a good day my cabinets contain a few cans of diced tomatoes, maybe some black beans, and a couple fruit cocktails. Sadly, I only own an electric can opener. Also, I’m just a really picky eater. I don’t see myself, no matter how hungry, digging into say, a can of Spam.

Okay. I am definitely doomed. But perhaps I can help others. When asked to participate on Mike Mullin’s blog tour for ASHEN WINTER, the sequel to ASHFALL, I jumped at the chance. And when given the topic of Post-Apocalyptic food choices, I was intrigued. Are there actual food choices for the hungry survivors of Armegeddon besides dusty cans of Spagettios and Twinkies and, um, Spam?

After reading ASHEN WINTER, though, I can say that yes, there are, and possibly even some choices that a finicky eater like me could stomach.

First, a shout out to Mike Mullin and this series. The first book, ASHFALL is an absorbing, action-filled, page-turner. Be warned. Clear out your schedule before you pick it up. Quick recap: Fifteen year old Alex stays home one weekend while his parents and little sister go off to visit relatives one hundred miles away. Unfortunately this is the weekend that the supervolcano lying under Yellowstone erupts and takes out half the country with it. Alex, who up to this point had been little more than a gamer (with some karate-chopping skills), figures out what he’s made of when he sets out to reunite with his family.

The non-stop action continues in ASHEN WINTER when Alex and mechanically inclined girlfriend Darla attempt another journey, through a bleaker landscape, if that’s possible, and confront pretty much every variation of the worst of human nature.

I stayed up half the night reading this book and got so involved in Alex’s harrowing adventure that I forgot most of the time that I was supposed to be looking for mentions of food. Here’s what came of my extensive research:

Forget stockpiling gold. Instead, hide some kale seed packets under your mattress. I assure you they will be worth much more than gold in an ASHEN WINTER environment. Fun factoids about kale: it grows well in coldish weather and contains a ton of vitamin C (good for dealing with the scurvy that will be rampant in the sunless climate).

I confess that my experience with kale up to this point is when it’s used as a cheery, frilly garnish next to a steak. But kale, apparently, can be eaten. Alex and Darla like to eat it on sandwiches. With ham and cornbread. Also goat cheese. Which sounds like one of your finer gourmet sandwiches. For breakfast Alex’s aunt and uncle scramble duck eggs. With kale. If you’re still not sold on kale, (yet want to counteract the scurvy), you could try dandelion greens. Just saying.

Once Alex found some wheat kernels that seemed inedible as is. He threw them into a pot of melted snow and boiled them for awhile. That didn’t really help either. But the next morning all that soaking of the wheat kernels turned them into something like oatmeal.

I am sure there were other appetizing recipes mentioned in ASHEN WINTER but I missed them due to the total page-turn-ery aspect of the novel. 

Signing off now to stock up my pantry...
--Jody Casella is a writer and fan of YA fiction. You can find her book reviews on her blog On The Verge. Look for her debut novel THIN SPACE (Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster) in Sept. 2013.