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Amid the pandemic chaos, Jeff Norton is reading his story Alienated online to give kids a daily dose of storytime to help to make reading a habit...
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One of the special privileges extended to authors of children’s books is to be invited into schools. It’s an opportunity to discuss our work, engage (and hopefully inspire) young readers, and give the school a healthy dose of external creative stimulus.
When I was young, I wasn’t so lucky to have such a visit, but now, as an author, I have witnessed first-hand the impact it can have on students. Meeting the human behind the book is especially impactful for those more reluctant readers who sometimes believe that reading just isn’t for them.
I’d spent early March riding the rails, visiting schools up and down the UK as part of World Book Day celebrations, talking to students about everything from neurotic zombies and high school aliens to dinosaur-riding knights and near-future virtual worlds that seem strangely prescient now.
In our post-pandemic reality, those school visits feel like they belong in a different world now.
With schools partially closed, and everyone engaging in different forms of remote learning, I’m in awe of the teachers, librarians, and headteachers who have valiantly risen to the occasion to adapt to a whole new way of engaging students, using a somewhat dizzying array of new virtual tools.
In the days leading up to the UK’s lockdown I watched Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s inspiring speech, and wondered what I might be able to do to help.
With many working parents pulled between new work-from-home regimes and supervising home schooling, I thought at the very least I might be able to offer a daily dose of virtual storytime.
So, without much fanfare, I read the prologue of my middle-grade novel, Alienated: Grounded At Groom Lake, from my living room and uploaded it to my YouTube channel, with the promise to keep reading every weekday until the end of the book.
This book is the story of the only two human kids at the school for aliens at Area 51. It’s a fish-out-of-water sci-fi comedy, think Harry Potter meets Men in Black.
I chose to read this particular title for two reasons. First, it is set at school (albeit one for aliens) and I thought young people might start to miss their schools.
And second, it’s a hopeful and uplifting story about overcoming adversity through teamwork, getting on with your family in strange circumstances, and being your best self despite making (many, many) mistakes.
I filmed each video in different parts of my house (depending on where my kids were doing their homeschooling), often roping in my ten-year-old to serve as camera operator. Each video goes up on YouTube and all of them are archived on my website.
Since starting, I’ve heard from teachers and parents all around the world.
Michael Curtis, a primary teacher in Victoria, Australia, said:
“During this time of uncertainty and physical distancing, teachers have been working hard to motivate all learners, even those who might be reluctant or want to avoid their work. While normally I would be able to pick up a book and engage the kids with a story, this hasn’t been possible lately. Having you read your own novel, from your own house (all the way across the world!) has been an amazing experience for my students. It has helped to ‘normalise’ our remote learning, establish the idea that we’re all in this together, and that they truly do exist as global citizens.”
Pam Balistreri, a teacher in Apple Valley, Minnesota wrote to me and shared:
“As a teacher, I am inspired by the way you have engaged my class and given them something to look forward to each day. The book is filled with cliffhangers and it continues to make my students want more. The children said that having an author read their own writing adds an element that they wouldn’t necessarily get if they were reading it themselves. One of the students even told me after the recording was complete that he has now been video recording himself reading aloud his choice book. He never liked to read aloud before and now he is reading his book chapter by chapter, inspired by what you are doing!”
In every video, I give a brief shout-out to a student who’s reading along at home. Melissa Little, a parent in Powder Springs, Georgia reached out to ask me to mention her son’s class.
She said, “One of the hardest parts of everything being closed has been not being able to go to the library and finding new books to read. We used to go two or three times a week! Listening to you read has been a bit of joy every day. The book has very likable characters and a great storyline.”
I believe that reading is a habit, and so doing the daily video is a way to role model that habit. I’ve been buoyed by how many people have been reading along with me, and how teachers have been using it as part of their remote learning.
In these strange and uncertain times, reading fiction is a great way to allow the mind to escape reality and grapple with emotions through a fictional lens. The world outside your front door might feel scary right now, but just imagine being Sherman Capote, trying to stop a world-ending alien invasion!
While these are grave times indeed, I believe we need to find the small wins. I sincerely hope that amid all of the chaos and loss of this pandemic, I may have been able to inspire some students to make reading for fun a daily habit.
It’s a tiny fraction of what teachers are doing each and every day, but I’m proud to do my bit to help.
Jeff Norton is an award-winning author of books such as MetaWars, Memoirs Of A Neurotic Zombie and Dino Knights. He is reading Alienated: Grounded At Groom Lake chapter by chapter here. Find him at jeffnorton.com and follow him on Twitter at @thejeffnorton.
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