As a children's author, I get invited speak at local elementary schools quite often. Mainly because I'm free. My audience is usually fourth- and fifth-graders, sometimes third. I begin by asking the students what their favorite mysteries are and get the usual answers -- A-Z Mysteries, Geronimo Stilton, 39 Clues, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.
Then I teach them a simple way of writing a mystery using the three-arc, Three Little Pigs formula. 1) Set up the problem by having something bad happen (i.e., the Wolf comes to eat the pigs, but the pigs run to a safe house); 2) Have something worse happen (i.e., the Wolf blows the houses down, and the pigs narrowly escape to the safety of a brick house); 3) Have something even "worser" happen (i.e. the Wolf tries to sneak in through chimney) Finally, the resolution: the pigs have Wolf Soup.
Next I talk about creating and cracking codes, since that's what my books are about. I wrote my middle-grade series because in fourth and fifth grades I was fascinated with codes and loved to create my own secret notes to pass around in class.
I love speaking to students, so when I was recently invited to speak at a school in San Antonio as part of the Texas Library Association convention, I immediately said yes and prepared code-busting kits for 300 kids. But to my surprise, when I showed up at the school, I found myself facing a large group of second-graders. Second grade? I knew nothing about this age level. Did they read books? Did they write stories? Would they be able to crack the coded messages?
I took a deep breath and asked myself how different they could be from third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. Shorter maybe, but I'm sure they would enjoy my talk and activities just as much as the older kids.
And they would have, too, if I could have gotten a word in edgewise. The event went something like this:
"Hi, Students! I'm Penny Warner, and I'm here to talk about reading, writing, and cracking codes. First, do you have a favorite mystery you like to read?"
Three hundred hands shot up. I called on the kid in the back. "Uh ... I forget." I tried the kid in the red shirt. Blank stare. I tried the kid with the glasses. "Scooby-Doo," he said.
I explained that Scooby-Doo wasn't a book, it was a TV show, but they never heard me. "I like Scooby-Doo -- he's funny," said one kid. "I can talk like Scooby-Doo," said another. "My uncle has a dog." "We have a cat named Elsa." "That was my favorite movie." "I saw the Lego Movie." "My dog chewed my Legos." "My dog died." "My grandma died ... " and so on, until time was up.
Finally the bell rang. I signed a bunch of bookmarks and left the school absolutely exhausted. It had only been an hour.
I'll have to rethink my presentation if I ever do second grade again. Next time I'll just start off with a question about Scooby-Doo and let them take it from there while I sit back and wait for the bell to ring.