As both a librarian and a reader, I’m of two minds about author studies. On one hand, I love the connection and shared language they can create. I have a fourth grader who, until very recently, routinely greeted me by saying, “I love Mo Willems.” On the other hand, I fear that knowing a lot about an author can detract from the magic of the book. If you know too much about the person who created the world, it can makes it seem less likely that the world exists. If J. K. Rowling is real, Hogwarts is not, and I don’t want to be the one to ruin that for a child.
As a school librarian, I do teach author studies because I know that not everyone comes to books and reading in the same way that I do. Because I like to preserve the magic, my favorite author studies are of those authors that appear as characters in their own books, as does the aforementioned Mo Willems—and the fabulous Mélanie Watt.
This all makes perfect sense to six-year-olds, whose own fears
are often just about as realistic as being afraid of sharks
when you never leave your house in a tree.
When we study Mélanie Watt, my first-graders learn that she lives in Canada, and that she didn’t learn to speak English until she was eight years old because French was her first language. Because we’re fortunate enough to have a subscription to the online database Teaching Books, which delves into the lives and works of authors, we get to watch as she draws her characters by hand and then fills them in using the computer. I accept all of this. It’s part of the deal with an author study, but really I want the kids to get to know her by diving into her books. And dive we do.
First up is Scaredy Squirrel, the neurotic rodent who dares to face the world from his little nut tree with emergency kit in hand. That emergency kit eases his extensive list of fears—tarantulas, germs, killer bees, sharks . . . the list goes on. But he’s prepared: the bug spray, the kids decide, is for the bees, and the sardines are for the sharks. This all makes perfect sense to six-year-olds, whose own fears are often just about as realistic as being afraid of sharks when you never leave your house in a tree.
When we’re done reading, the kids design their ideal emergency kits to deal with their own somewhat improbable fears. I have two rules: one, no weapons in the emergency kit; and, two, some of the items in the kit can match Scaredy Squirrel’s but there have to be some different ones, too. Lots of students include Band-Aids just like he did—after all, to a first grader, a Band-Aid or a damp paper towel can fix all ills, from stomach pains to a bumped head. Instead of Scaredy Squirrel’s antibacterial soap, most kids pack “hannitizer.” And then there are their original ideas. “Is the meat in case you get hungry?” I ask. But of course, as you might have guessed, it is in case of tigers. It all reminds me of a fear-relieving version of the old riding-in-the-car game, “I’m going to grandmother’s house and I’m packing a . . . .”
The next week we’re on to the Chester books, in which Watt appears as a character. Chester the cat desperately wants to have a book written about him and proceeds to sabotage Mélanie’s story about an unnamed mouse by using his handy red marker. Hilarity and chaos ensue as he asserts his ideas instead of hers—he even defaces Mélanie’s photo!
After reading Chester, each student has a chance to work with a copy of my version of the story. It is untitled and reads, “by Ms. Rowe with thanks to the work of Mélanie Watt. Once upon a time there was a librarian. She worked at Walt Disney Magnet School in Chicago.” Then there are two photographs of me at work in the library. The first graders each get a red colored pencil and my “book,” along with a chance to channel their inner Chester. They are thrilled to be able to be in control of the book and change the course of the story. Every version is slightly different, but the kids’ Chester stories end up with Chester the cat and the kids themselves in charge—sometimes even dancing on top of the library books. Chester has them do all of the things they would never do themselves and my picture invariably ends up with an elaborate red mustache.
I don’t know whether my students will remember that Mélanie Watt has a parrot named Kiwi or that she plays the piano, but I think they will remember that she understands them—their fears, their need for some sense of control over their world, and what makes them laugh.