Author Kate Messner inspires students to write

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Photo with library stacks: Back row (left to right), Matthew Geib, Sophia Barbas, Connor Eisenbach, Seth Franqui, Larissa Bottner, Jaylee Stringham. Front row (left to right,) Kendall Eby, Kate Messner, Ben DuBosq

By Katie Grisbacher

Spunky, inquisitive, adventurous, dedicated, creative, funny … that’s how kids described Kate Messner, the popular children’s book author who visited Warwick elementary schools March 9-11 through a grant from the Warwick Education Foundation.

Messner, a former 7th grade English teacher, has 16 books in print (and about 15 in progress, she says), including picture books published by Chronicle Books, stand-alone middle grade books published by Bloomsburg, and a number of children’s book series published by Scholastic.

She takes her program to 20-30 schools a year, all over the country. This year she has travelled more than usual, having just finished a two-week book tour (with 22 school visits!) for her latest book, All the Answers, about Ava, a 7th grade girl who finds a magic pen.

“Every book starts with an idea,” says Messner, who carries an idea notebook, where she writes of people she sees, such as “a guy in the airport in cowboy boots and an orange hat who walks like this…. I collect him, and he doesn’t even know he’s been collected!”

She also has a folder of brainstorming, in which she spends a few months just brainstorming, planning, and developing characters for each book.

“The way I write books is pretty similar to the process you use,” said Messner to an attentive audience at John R. Bonfield Elementary. She uses a lot of graphic organizers and writes a draft.

She then goes on to spend two to three times more on revisions. (Her popular Marty Maguire book took 14 drafts!) Grammar, spelling, and punctuation happen at the very end, she explains, during the copy edit stage.

Students particularly enjoyed hearing about Messner’s research trips.

“There are two jobs where you get to go on field trips your whole life – a teacher and a writer.”

Messner regaled her audience with the story of her visit to the Smithsonian to figure out how one would steal the very American flag that inspired Frances Scott Key to write The Star Spangled Banner. The curator, first adamant that it couldn’t be done, eventually led her on a mad-cap tour past guards and through back hallways as he figured out how the thieves might accomplish this feat. Messner used the curator’s instructions to write the first chapter of her book How to Steal a Flag.

“I liked how she went in the world and actually did things,” said Seth Franqui, a 6th grader at Bonfield. “To be fair, he kind of told her exactly how to steal a flag and not be caught.”

Messner also took her research on the road to visit the Oregon Trail, setting for one of her Ranger in Time books, about a dog who travels back in time to help people in need.

“If you’re going to have an imaginary dog, why not have him be awesome and a time traveler?”

Librarians in the Warwick School District started preparing for Messner’s visit last spring, when they first heard she would be visiting.

“We tried to make sure we had every possible book by Kate Messner,” said Bonfield Librarian Amy Schweigert. “We gave the students a sneak peek to get them excited and included the books on summer reading lists. When they came back (in the fall), we read the books and visited the web site.”

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“Even struggling readers could read some of her books,” said Schweigart, of why Messner was such a good pick for this project. “There was something to appeal to a wide range of readers.”

Some students even participated in skyped conversations with Messner prior to her visit, and all had the opportunity to order copies of Messner’s books, which the author autographed for each child. (At last report, Aaron’s Books still had some autographed books in stock.)

Inspired by Messner, students reflected on their own aspirations to write:

“I might like to be an author,” said Kendall Eby, 5th grader. “So far, I like fractured fairy tales a lot, when you take a fairy tale and change it.”

“If I were to write a book, it would be weather-based, because I’m really into that,” said Seth Franqui. “I actually wrote a comic book about it.”

“I wouldn’t want to write books, but plays and movies,” said 6th grader Jaylee Stringham, who was surprised at the depth of research that went into each book. “Her research seems to make the books so much better.”

Kids wanted to know Messner’s favorite among her own books.

“That’s like asking a mom or dad who is your favorite kid!” she protested. “I’ll say the one I’m working on right now, because it has my heart and imagination now, and I hope every book will be better than the last.”

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Katie Grisbacher is a freelance writer and editor living in Lititz. She welcomes your comments at kgrisbacher@gmail.com. For more information on the Warwick Education Foundation visit WarwickEF.org or contact Executive Director Barbara Mobley at info@WarwickEF.org.

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