nErD Talk

This past Saturday, in Chatham, NJ, I was honored to help launch nErDcampNJ by giving one of the day’s five opening nErD Talks — brief, TED-style talks aimed at energizing and inspiring the assembled educators and creators for a day of sharing, learning, and celebrating books. The text of my talk is below.

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Photo taken by Josh Funk.

Many of you might already be familiar with the theory of narrative identity. But just in case you aren’t, the basic premise is this: that individuals form an identity by integrating their life experiences into an internalized, evolving story of the self that provides the individual with a sense of unity and purpose in life.

All of which is just a fancy way of saying that we are stories, and that we rely on those stories, deeply. Strands of narrative course through our minds and imaginations, and they are just as instrumental in making us us as our DNA.

So the story my parents like to tell about me coming home from school one day and demanding they remove the training wheels from my bike, so determined was I to learn how to ride on two wheels – that’s me.

And all the stories my siblings like to tell about me nagging them, stubbornly refusing to leave them alone until I got what I wanted from them – those are all me, too.

Back in elementary school, there were some kids who liked to tell a story about me being fat, and about how, because of that, I was somehow less than, and ought to be ashamed of my body and myself. There were only a few of these kids. But they were loud, and persistent. They told that story again and again and again and again. It didn’t take long for me to memorize it. Soon enough, I started telling that story too. There were days, back then, when the Book of Myself contained that story alone, printed ten, twenty, a hundred, a thousand times.

Of course, we aren’t born with the ability to tell our own stories. And so just as we must rely on others for food and shelter, we rely on others to fill our fresh, malleable minds with story.

Our primary caregivers, whether they’re parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, neighbors, or the staff at a foster care facility – they have the honor and enormous responsibility of filling us up with the very first stories of ourselves.

Later on, teachers and coaches help do this, as do our peers. For a while, the stories our peers tell about us tend to become the loudest and the largest, looming in our minds and imaginations, bolstering us up, and other times, holding us down.

Eventually, we tune into the society and culture at large. And adults too often assume that kids aren’t paying attention, or that they aren’t even capable of understanding what’s going on around them. But they hear. They see. They listen. They understand. They’re exposed to all of it – the good, the bad, and the ugly. And there’s a lot of ugly out there these days.

Fortunately for me, I was filled up with good, hopeful stories about myself from my first day on this planet. I had a pair of loving, supportive parents who constantly told me stories about how wonderfully unique and impressive I was. I had teachers who told me stories about how smart and creative and hard-working I was, and how I had a very bright future ahead of me, and how they cared about my wellbeing and success. I had friends who told stories about me being cool and funny and fun to be with. And I was also extremely fortunate to have books – more than I could ever possibly read – that featured kids who looked just like me and came from backgrounds basically identical to mine, and anytime I wanted, I could live vicariously through their stories, and allow them to animate and inspire me.

And all of these stories – they didn’t just sit there in my head, static and silent. They were like the songs on a constantly shuffling playlist. They were the soundtrack to my life. And pretty much anytime I wanted, I could grab the controls and be the DJ – I could play a story that I wanted or needed to hear on a loop. I could reread it, so to speak.

And so, when I was struggling with a difficult assignment, when I faced a situation in which I was forced to choose right from wrong, or when I was just having a crummy day, I had all those people, all those storytellers, right there with me, reminding me of whatever I needed to be reminded of.

By the time I was eleven or twelve, I was no longer passively accepting the stories that came my way, whether they were about me or about others. I had become a conscious, critical consumer of story – my parents and teachers had helped turn me into a reader. And so when I encountered a narrative that, for one reason or another, didn’t sit right with me, I had the wherewithal and the tools to question it, to perform the sort of textual examination on it that I would on any short story, poem, or novel. So when someone once told me that, because I was Jewish, I must be good at tricking people out of money, I was able to prevent that story from doing me lasting harm. And it wasn’t long after that, in the fall of 2001, that I began to see people on TV and hear them in the grocery store telling stories about how all the people from this country or of that faith were one terrible thing or another, and I was able to pick apart those narratives and understand them to be abhorrent, ridiculous, and ignorant.

It was also around this time that my parents and teachers helped me become a writer – helped me embrace my passion for story and develop my skills as a storyteller. And just as I wrote fiction about talking animals and alien invasions, I constructed new narratives for myself. I was able, for instance, to craft healthier stories about my appearance, and so develop healthier responses to the swirl of negative emotions that those body-shaming bullies had buried in me years before. And eventually, finally, I was able to imagine a story for myself in which I not only chased my dream, but began to live it.

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Photo taken by Nikki Mancini.

It’s because of all those good, positive stories about myself that I was filled with as a kid that I made it through the countless trials and tribulations of growing up. It’s because of all those good, positive stories about myself that I was filled with as a kid that I possess empathy, and that I look for the good and positive in others and in most every situation. It’s because of all those good, positive stories about myself that I was filled with as a kid that I eventually became able to write new stories about myself, and that I believe, deeply, that my life has a purpose.

Now, if your mind hasn’t leapt there already, I ask you to take a moment to consider the kid who isn’t filled up with all of those good, hopeful, positive stories about themselves – or even more tragically, the kid who is filled up with nothing but negative narratives. Ones telling them that they’ll never amount to anything. That their future is bleak, or worse, nonexistent. That they don’t belong. That they don’t have anything of value to give. That they’re dangerous. That they are, somehow, inherently bad . . .

It isn’t just the future authors and English teachers who need to be strong readers and writers – it’s every child. Strong readers and writers make for confident, capable, resilient human beings who know that their lives matter, that their voice is uniquely valuable, that their stories are as worthy of being heard as anyone else’s. Readers reflexively question narratives that come their way. They interrogate others’ stories before they allow them to add to or subtract from their sense of self or somehow alter their worldview. And writers? Writers are open to the limitless potential both within themselves and surrounding themselves. They don’t look in the mirror or at the world around them and say, “Well, I guess this is it.” They look and they wonder, “What if . . . ?”

As a maker of stories for kids, as a member of this kid lit community, I believe it is my job to help create and promote the kinds of books that ALL kinds of children both want and need, so that they enjoy and appreciate story enough to be motivated to become the strong readers and writers that they need to be, and so that even if they aren’t being told good, hopeful, positive stories about themselves by the people in their lives or by portions of the society and culture at large, they have a chance to discover such stories in books.

I also believe that, simply because I am a creator of some of those stories that kids read, I have a unique opportunity to inspire the sort of excitement around reading and writing that can further help turn kids into the strong readers and writers that they need to be. I do that by visiting schools, by Skyping with classrooms and libraries, by answering emails from readers, by writing back to the letters kids send me, by spending time interacting on FlipGrid pages, by tweeting, and by helping organize initiatives such as #KidsNeedBooks and programs such as #KidsNeedMentors, through which we’ve connected hundreds of creators with thousands of kids all over the country and even the world.

Lastly, I believe that part of my job is to work with all of you – educators, librarians, administrators. And that’s why I’m very excited to be here today, at nErDcamp. I love nErDcamp. I go to every single one I can – here in New Jersey, on Long Island, in Kansas, in Vermont, in Michigan, in Maine. There is nothing like the energy and spirit of nErDcamp. Because camp celebrates and puts into highly productive practice the belief that kids’ educators and kids’ book creators are colleagues, and that, at the end of the day, our core mission is the same: to improve and enrich the lives of kids through books – to fill them up with as many good, hopeful stories as we can, and to help them learn to value, and craft, and proudly share stories of their own, whether they’re full of flights of fictional fancy or about themselves, chasing and achieving their deepest, wildest dreams. The more we all work together, the better work we can all do.

So, let’s get to work. Let’s talk about reading and writing and books. Let’s listen to one another, and share with one another, and learn from one another, so we can all leave here more inspired, energized, and better able to help our kids.

. . .

The four speakers I shared the stage with are some of the most amazing individuals I’ve had the honor of meeting and learning from — Tricia Ebarvia, Emma Otheguy, Andrea J. Loney, and Laurie Halse Anderson. They have all, in some form or another, shared parts of their talks on their social media feeds and/or websites. I highly encourage you to seek them out, and if you have yet to do so, to take a look at the wonderful, important work they are all doing.

To learn a bit more about what nErDcamp is, take a look at this blog post I did a while back. (Since I’ve written it, a new camp has been launched in Southern California, and a few more are in the early planning stages in Central New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.)

~ Jarrett

#KidsNeedBooks For Summer Reading

Research shows that when kids own books, they read more and are more likely to self-identify as readers. It also shows that when kids don’t read during their summer breaks, their reading skills can get rusty and their interest in books can wane.

One of the largest reasons why kids don’t read during their summer breaks is that they simply don’t have access to any books. In an effort to counteract that problem in some small way, I’ve been giving away books all school year long as part of the #KidsNeedBooks movement and, in addition, gathering a separate bundle of books to now, at the end of the year, distribute to a couple hundred kids.

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Where did I get these books?

Some of them are from my own personal collection – books that I have read and enjoyed (even loved!) but can’t, deep down, see myself ever rereading. In kids’ hands, these books are powerful. Some of them are powerful enough to dramatically redirect and improve lives. On my shelves, these same books can only ever hope to look nice.  (And I’m not knocking hanging onto books for their looks or the comfort of just having them around. Believe me – I still do plenty of that!)

The majority of the books, however, I’ve gotten elsewhere: at library sales (the sales my local branch holds has paperbacks for 50 cents, hardcovers for a dollar); in bookstores’ used, “hurt,” and remaindered bins or sections; from friends (including some very generous author friends!) and neighbors; and at yard sales.

I share all of this not because I want a pat on the back. I don’t. And honestly, none of this has been hard work. It’s been an absolute joy to find these books, to stack them up in my closet and think about the kids who will soon hold them in their hands, who will be able to say, “This is my book. Mine.”

I share all of this to help alert those who aren’t aware of the book deserts throughout our country, who don’t grasp the long-lasting damage that can result from a kid simply not being able to get their hands on a book to read. I share it, too, in the hopes that some of you will be inspired to gather your own stacks of books, to keep an eye out for them in your comings and goings, to pick through your bookshelves or put 10, 15, 20 dollars toward bettering and maybe even dramatically changing some kids’ lives. I mean, could there be a better investment?

Should you want more information about any of the above, don’t hesitate to reach out to me, either here, using my Contact form, or on social media. To learn more about the #KidsNeedBooks movement, click here, or search the hashtag on social media. And if you are an educator who would be interested in sharing some of the books pictured above with your students, fill out THIS FORM. I will be randomly selecting winners to receive books over the coming weeks.

~ Jarrett

Get to Know… Heather Fox!

My name is… Heather Fox! “Heather” like the purple flower, “Fox” like the furry orange critter!

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I am a… doodler, a musician, a dog-cuddler, a Ravenclaw, a traveler!

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As a kid, I was… a lot like I am today! Adventurous, curious, silly–though I do eat vegetables more willingly nowadays.

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Drawing is… EXCITING! You can create anything your brain can imagine. You can tell stories through art, bring to life new worlds through drawing–anything!

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Reading is… relaxing. Sometimes I read books to calm me down when my mind is racing with thoughts, but sometimes reading keeps me awake for hours. There’s nothing better than traveling to a different realm right from the coziest spot on the couch.

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Books are… portals. As soon as you open a book you’re in a different environment that you get to explore.

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Did you know… I’m getting married to author Jonathan Stutzman on May 25th?! All of the books that I have coming out are written by him! It’s so fun being a creative team.

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You can find me… creating new stories with Jonathan, eating tacos, eating ramen, eating pizza, or planning my next trip to Disney World.

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Jonathan and Heather’s first book together, Llama Destroys the World, hits shelves on May 7th!

Get to Know… Laurie Morrison!

My name is… four different last names, one after the other! I added on my husband’s last name when we got married, but I didn’t want to get rid of any of my own. So now my full name is Laurie Latzer Morrison Fabius. Laurie is a Scottish last name from my dad’s side of the family, and Latzer was my maternal grandmother’s maiden name. I go by Laurie Morrison for everything writing-related but am called Laurie Fabius or Laurie Morrison Fabius in other circumstances. Sometimes I can’t remember which name someone has on file for me, so when I call to schedule a haircut or make a dentist’s appointment and get asked for a name, I have to say, “Good question. There are a few possibilities…”

I am a… mom, wife, writer, friend, teacher, sister, and daughter. Right now, with two very small children, I’m a mom, first and foremost. There’s nothing I would rather be…but sometimes it’s hard to have a book coming out and another (only partly written) book under contract and find that writing has to take a backseat to parenting so much of the time. And sometimes I miss being able to spend as much time with friends as I used to. But I trust that there are different points in our lives when different roles become the primary ones…and even now, I can occasionally have a day here or there where another role like writer, wife, or friend gets to rise to that primary level, too. 

As a kid, I was… a fan of stories. I loved reading stories, listening to stories, and telling stories. My youngest brother’s first memory turns out to be a far-fetched tale I once told in which I, his heroic big sister, was bouncing around our basement on my blue Hop 66 ball when an elderly visitor dropped him down the basement stairs. I rushed over to catch him, thereby saving his life. I told it enough times, I guess, that he remembered it as if it had really happened. Even though I loved stories so much, it didn’t occur to me that I might attempt to write stories of my own until I was in my mid-twenties. 

Writing is… an act of trust. To write a book, you have to think strategically about things like plot and character arcs and pacing, but you also have to be open to revelations you can’t plan for, and you have to believe that they’ll happen if you do the work and pay close attention. I got an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where Tim Wynne Jones gave a really wonderful lecture about honoring your inner genius by looking out for the seeds you subconsciously plant in your work and can find and nurture. I don’t know if it’s my subconscious or luck or what, but I often find glimmering, important details that sneak into a draft, completely unplanned, and end up being central to my characters and their stories.

Reading is… what helps me understand other people and myself. It’s what comforts me and pushes me out of my comfort zone. It’s my favorite solitary activity and something that helps me connect with others. It’s the best!

Books are… incredible works of collaboration. I’m so amazed by how many different people contribute their talents and efforts to making a published book. The author, editor, copyeditor, proofreader, art designer, and cover artist, plus all the publicity and marketing people working to get books into readers’ hands! I cried when I saw the first-pass pages for my first book, Every Shiny Thing, because the internal design was so beautiful and thoughtful, with lovely fonts and details that fit the book perfectly. It was such an honor to realize people had worked that lovingly on a book with my words in it.

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The cover of the paperback edition of Every Shiny Thing, available now wherever books are sold.

Did you know… that juvenile great white sharks can’t prey on mammals like seals because their jaws aren’t developed enough? In my new book Up for Air, the main character Annabelle and her friend Jeremy know a lot about white sharks and that’s one of the facts Annabelle shares. 

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Up For Air hits shelves on May 7th.

You can find me… at my website, lauriemorrisonwrites.com, or on Twitter and Instgram @LaurieLMorrison.

EngiNerds on the SSYRA List!

This morning I learned that EngiNerds is on the Sunshine State Young Readers Award list for Grades 3-5!

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It’s a huge honor, and also a bit surreal to see my book on there along with so many that I’m a fan of! A big, heartfelt THANK YOU to those who nominated my book, and thank you to all the young Florida readers who will be reading and considering EngiNerds for the award!

~ Jarrett

EngiNerds is a Blue Nile Book Award Nominee!

This morning I got a note from a librarian in Lusaka, Zambia informing me that EngiNerds has been selected as one of four nominees for the Blue Nile Book Award! Here’s a screenshot of a tweet that went out shortly after:

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As you might be able to tell from those glimpses of the other book covers, my bots are keeping some mighty fine company — Ben Clanton’s Peanut Butter and Jelly (A Narwhal and Jelly Book #3), Elana K. Arnold’s A Boy Called Bat, and Aaron Blabey’s The Bad Guys (#1).

And here’s a little more info about the award itself:

The Nile Book Awards were started in 2009 between the librarians Clare Kybird, from the Khartoum International Community School, and Cathy Kreutter, of the International School of Uganda. For a number of years it was just the two schools but then in 2015, Jeanette Brooker (who had replaced Claire as librarian at the Khartoum International Community School) invited schools who touched the Nile to participate. Since then, the Nile Book Awards have continued to grow past the borders of the Nile with a number of schools in east and southern Africa participating. We hope to include more International Schools in other regions of Africa join us in the coming years.

THANK YOU to the readers, both young and old, who nominated EngiNerds!

~ Jarrett