by Brenda Patterson
I have to admit that as a child I took books for granted. That’s because they were so easily accessible to me at home, at the public library, and at the school library. Just as most kids assume that their life is like everyone else’s, I thought books galore was the norm. Of course, I was wrong about that. But when it came to authors, I was right in thinking that no one I knew – adult or child – had met or spoken to published writers. Everyone knew that authors were a rare breed, living far from my little hometown in someplace BIG, like New York. Nassau County students know better. They are growing up with books of their own and person-to-person contact with authors because of AIBF’s commitment to Authors in Schools.
When AIBF began in 2004, I had already spent two years as both a new Nassau County resident and newly-licensed 56-year-old English teacher at FBHS. That was long enough to recognize that reading books was seen as a chore, not a joy, by many students. From my perspective, AIBF arrived at the right moment with its goal of bringing authors to Nassau County schools and giving the students a free-yes-you-really-can-keep-it copy of the author’s book. The authors signed the books, chatted with students, and even wrote personal notes to them. I remember one teen who asked if the author would write the note to her mom because she was going to surprise her with a book by her favorite author.
The Authors in Schools program has always been a pivotal reason for the success of AIBF’s county-wide efforts. Students and their families might not be able to attend other AIBF events, but authors who come to their schools make it easy to be a part of the festival. The authors themselves are some of the top writers in the United States and some also have a large international following. They know writing, they know publishing, and they know readers. They encourage, explain, make kids laugh, answer questions, and forever dispel the idea that authors are unapproachable. Instead, they inspire students to be creative and to read.
The first author I heard speak at AIBF was Chris Crutcher. This was a case of reverse knowledge: my students knew his books and I did not. They had read them because he was a word-of-mouth author. In other words, the kids told each other about the latest Crutcher book they had read because they loved them. Turns out Crutcher had already received the lifetime achievement award given by the American Library Association because of his writing for teens.
Every year AIBF leadership finds authors who, like Crutcher, connect with our students. Steve Barry, the best-selling author from Camden County, just across the Georgia line from Nassau County, spoke at Yulee High School after his first thriller novel, The Amber Room, was published and his second was ready for publication. Camden County is not New York. Berry made it plain that successful writing is happening practically next door. Set in rural Virginia with a teen protagonist and a family that had to stick together, David Balducci’s best-selling novel, Wish You Well was the book given to students the year he spoke. Students recognized the people and places when the movie of the novel was released months later and it didn’t hurt that they could say they had met him, talked to him, and owned the book. The ones I talked to just didn’t like that the panther was left out of the movie. (The book is always better.)
One of the most unusual Authors in Schools programs featured not one, but two authors. The mother-daughter team of best-selling authors Lisa Scottoline and her daughter Francesca Serritella raised some eyebrows with YHS teens (You write books with your MOTHER?) and the authors loved it. They shared the stage and handled the questions with ease and humor. In fact, although Scottoline is a prolific thriller writer (her book Someone Knows was given to students) and Serritella’s first book Ghosts of Harvard: A Novel is a mystery, the pair have written seven books of humor since they were in Nassau County. Students who were there that day won’t be surprised.
There have been times during the Authors in Schools presentations that students aren’t the only people in the audience. When Diana Gabaldon, author of the international best-selling book and TV series Outlander spoke, I could have sworn that I glimpsed a few extra adults, fans who have followed her writing for years. Gabaldon’s breadth of experience and years of successful writing and speaking led to some great stories that she shared on that stage at YHS to eager listeners. Like many of the authors, writing had not been an obvious career path for her. That was encouraging for high school students moving closer to graduation, a bit unsure of what would come next.
As Gabaldon sat in my classroom after her talk, signing copies of her books for students lined up all the way into the hall, I asked her when she slept. Her days and nights are packed full of writing books and scripts. She said it’s easier now that her children are young adults and she doesn’t have to fit in carpooling and daily mom things, but that for years she only slept a few hours and napped in the afternoon when she could. She smiled when she explained how her family had established a daily pattern that worked for them. The students standing around listening saw not only a literary superstar, but someone who has everyday challenges like their own families. They could relate, and that makes it easier for them to aspire.
In this time of COVID challenges, I find myself hoping hard that the Authors in Schools program won’t be a casualty. It’s a unique program and hundreds of Nassau County students benefit from it each year. After witnessing students – teenagers! – relish their new book that’s just been handed to them and hearing them talk to each other about it as they read it, I feel grateful for the gift of books, the place they have in our lives, and the Authors in Schools program of the AIBF.
Brenda Patterson has been a teacher since 1970, in classrooms ranging from preschool through to high school in Alabama, Mississippi, Wisconson, and right here in Nassau County, where she has live since 2002.