Author Alan Gratz Brings His Stories to Grove
Of all the many ways to get students interested in literacy – whether it is picking up a book or reading or writing a story themselves – perhaps one of the most effective is bringing in a much-loved author for a visit. Many authors have spoken in CCSD59’s classrooms, and recently Grove Junior High had the opportunity to participate in this exciting experience.
On April 19, New York Times best-selling author Alan Gratz visited Grove’s students. Gratz has written many highly regarded youth fiction novels, such as Ban This Book, Refugee, Projekt 1065, and many others which feature children and young adults as the hero of the stories. Many of his stories are also historical fiction, so students can also learn a great deal about history and culture by picking up his books.
According to Grove’s Learning Resource Center Director and organizer of the event, Sofía Huitrón, Gratz was selected for a variety of reasons, but one of the main ones was his books are very well circulated in Grove’s library. “Alan’s books in particular touch on very important topics such as the Holocaust, refugees/immigration, and censorship,” she said. “These are topics that are so relevant for our students because they are tied to real life, real events, things that our students can connect to.”
Gratz also has a good deal of experience working with children, teaching writing skills to them and presenting to young audiences. According to his website, Gratz, who is himself a former English teacher, loves to present his books, and “knows how to keep things relevant and entertaining, and, perhaps more importantly, how to out-smart-aleck the smart alecks.”
He spent much of the day at Grove, presenting three times to the three grade levels, and also participated in a staff meet-and-greet and student luncheon. While having pizza with the kids, Gratz good-naturedly shared his stories and humor about the writing process, books, and being a famous author. He answered a wide variety of questions: how he came up with ideas for his books, how he chose names for his characters, if he has “easter eggs” (hidden phrases or inside jokes with his audience) in all his books (he does in most), what he himself likes to read and would recommend, and many more. He jokingly spoke about trying to get his own daughter to read his books and then bemoaned that she finally agreed to do so when “her friend recommended them and told her to.”
During his presentation, Gratz allowed his audience to choose what direction it went, which he called “choose your own presentation.” As a child, he enjoyed the Choose Your Own Adventure book series, where the reader got to select the direction of the story by being offered a variety of choices, so he incorporated that theme into his presentation. For example, as an ice breaker at the start of his presentation, the students could vote to either hear a story that illustrated that Gratz was “very terrible at baseball” or “very terrible at soccer.” (The students almost overwhelmingly chose the soccer story).
Gratz sprinkled humor and fun into his presentation, which was quite a feat when discussing not only the importance of literacy, but serious topics covered in his books. Topics he spoke about included the Holocaust, the historical significance of World War II, having courage to stand up against things that are wrong, helping others in times of great difficulty, and many other current social issues of relevance. “The students learned about some of the things that happened during WWII, including the real story of a Holocaust survivor, and about some of the issues that refugees are faced with,” said Huitrón. “They also learned that it’s not just something that happened a long time ago, but something that is still happening today.”
Huitrón said even reluctant writers and readers could learn something from Gratz’s presentation, including how to follow their dreams and passions and make it into a lifelong career. She said Gratz’s interactions with students and staff energized the entire day.
“Alan Gratz has set the bar pretty high for author visits,” she said. “He was just amazing with the students and staff, so accessible and down to earth. We loved having him at Grove.”