Last week, I was one of many authors involved in the school side of THIN AIR, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival. For two days, I barreled down Winnipeg roads and dipped into schools like Oak Bluff Community School, John de Graff and John Pritchard to visit students from K to Grade 6. On the third day, I stood stage center at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People to face a crowd of enthusiastic middle graders from Munroe Junior High and Oakenwald School.
For me, it was three days of shared moments. At each stop, we talked about books – mine mostly, but sometimes others. We talked about stories and why we love them. We talked about reading books and what it takes to write them. I read passages from my books, and students asked questions. Many questions.
Much of my time with middle years students centered around Coop the Great. Several teachers or librarians were in the middle of reading the book to their classes, and one school had embarked on a Coop the Great novel study. Because Coop the Great is one of the nominated titles on the Sundog list for this years’ MYRCA (Manitoba Young Readers Choice Awards), it was also a way to introduce students to the program and get them started.
I was blown away by the students’ enthusiasm and interest. They seem to enjoy reading Coop the Great as much as I enjoyed writing it. Everywhere, they had questions. Where did you get the idea for the book? Did you ever have a dog like Coop? How long did it take you to write Coop? Are you going to write another Coop book? Will Coop be made into a movie? (I wish).
A number of questions explored delicate themes that run through the book. Why did you include Lucinda (the cat) and why is she so mean? (bullying). Why did you make Rick (the father) the unlikeable character he is? (abuse). Why did you include the 9-11 story of Salty and Omar? (I steered around answering that one because the reason only becomes apparent later in the book).
At the end of my THIN AIR experience, I had a much broader appreciation of what the school side of the festival brings to readers and writers. Charlene Diehl, the director of THIN AIR, expressed it better than I ever could in the message she wrote for the program guide.
What happens at THIN AIR? The writers we gathered this year will read to us, think with us, provoke us to examine our assumptions, and make us laugh (or cry) in moments of shared humanity.
Thanks for inviting me to THIN AIR, Charlene. Thanks Chelsey Young, Admin Coordinator, for taking care of the fine details. Thanks teachers and librarians who stirred up student interest. Finally, thanks to all the youngsters who came armed with insights, curiosity and enthusiasm. You are the reason I continue to write.