The Day I Read Across America (tales from the virtual author visit front)
On Read-Across-America Day, March 2nd, I woke at 3:35 am and couldn’t get back to sleep. I was too excited! I was going to read to students across the country—in CA, IL, GA, IN, PA, NH, OH, FL, AL, NC, OR, NY and NJ—all in one day! It was a reading event I’d been working on for over a year. With the help of Skype, I would visit thirteen different schools from the comfort of my home office (aka. dining room) in Libertyville, Illinois. If all went according to plan, I would connect with a different school every half hour, beginning at 8 am and running straight through until 2:30 pm, spending twenty minutes with each group of children. As I put on my striped Cat-in-the-Hat hat that morning, I wondered what fun surprises, or technical glitches, awaited me. And here’s how it went down.
The day kicked off with 118 enthusiastic fifth graders from Eaton Elementary in NC. As with all the schools I would visit, they had prepared a message for me to share with the next school. Eaton’s message was, “Get off the couch and read!” How awesome is that? Before our visit ended, I asked the class how many people they thought I would talk to during the day, as the school with the closest guess would win a free box of autographed books from me. The fifth graders had used their estimation skills and come up with a guess of 1400. I have to admit, I was a little surprised their number was so high. I’d guessed only 375.
My next stop was King’s Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida where I met children in kindergarten through second grade. I explained how a book is made using some cool show-and-tells from my newest picture book, Climbing Lincoln’s Steps (illustrated by Colin Bootman). I showed them my original 5-page manuscript, the 32-page book dummy my editor had put together, Colin’s early pencil sketches, copies of his amazing full-color paintings, the F & G (folds and gathers), and the beautiful finished book complete with dust jacket. The students had lots of interesting questions. My favorite was, “Do you have to change the words in your stories a lot?” We ended our time by reading one of my picture books together. The morning was rolling along without a hitch, although I must admit only one hour into my marathon reading event I realized I couldn’t stay sitting all day, so I put my computer on a small chair on top of my table and did the next few visits standing up.
The third school in the Bronx, New York was a delightful group of 26 first graders. As I was showing them a sloppy story with 22 misspelled words I wrote in first grade, my dog woke up from a nap. Using his keen doggy sense, Corduroy realized I was unable to leave my computer and began chewing the insole of my son’s tennis shoe. I pressed on with the sound of dog-munching in the background, and finished the New York visit by signing one of my books for the class which I mailed to them later that day.
Then it was on to schools in New Jersey and New Hampshire, before winging my way west to Oregon. That’s when the inevitable happened. The teacher had forgotten about the different time zones and her students hadn’t even arrived at school yet. Since I was meeting with schools in three times zones, I knew this would happen, it was just a matter of when. So, we rescheduled Oregon’s visit for 2:30, which was 12:30 her time. And tada, I got a much needed food break!
After a bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats, I connected with some serious football fanatics at Watwood Elementary in Alabama who had a special message for the Bulldog fans at my next school in Georgia, “Be a champion. Read!” I couldn’t get a video feed from Little River Elementary in Georgia, but I could hear them and they could hear and see me fine, so we went on to have an incredible visit. Somewhere between Strathmore Middle School in California and my hometown grade school in Goshen, Indiana, I hit a serious energy lull, but after seeing my old school again and hearing the children’s excitement, I was re-energized and ready to rock! Glendale Primary in Ohio tried out a brand new screen during our visit and informed me that my face was about four feet high on their gym wall. (Note to self – make sure you brush so kids don’t see any bits of lunch between your teeth.)
The biggest surprise happened at 2:00 when I connected with Stroudsburg Elementary in Pennsylvania and found 800 students, their teachers, and principal waiting to celebrate reading with me! We had an awesome time and they even got to meet my dog, Corduroy. My day finished with a last stop at Eccles Elementary in Oregon. The first graders helped me read one of my books, I answered questions, then the students gathered around my image on the screen for a group photo. A wonderful end to an outstanding reading event!
When it was over, I was exhausted and my voice was nearly gone, but I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. The students had shared inspiring messages about reading with me and other schools, such as “Exercise your brain, read!”, “Reading opens all doors.”, and “You will always have a friend if you have a book to keep you company.” After I added all the numbers up, I was amazed to discover I’d talked to 1442 students—quite a bit more than my guess of 375! The day had been full of great surprises, and well worth the time I’d spent planning with teachers around the country. But the best part was seeing how much the children loved books and reading. Because that’s what Read-Across-America Day is all about!
Suzanne Buckingham Slade is the award-winning author of 80 books for children including picture books, biographies, and other non-fiction titles. Ms. Slade lives near Chicago with her husband and two children. She spends most days doing what she loves – dreaming up new story ideas, reading children’s books, researching, and best of all – writing! She also enjoys visiting schools and sharing her love of books. (Ms. Slade holds a Mechanical Engineering degree and worked in the engineering field before starting her writing career.)