Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Guest Post: YA Fiction and the Classroom



by Tracy Barrett

Thank you, Holly, for the opportunity to hop over temporarily from Smack Dab in the Middle for this guest post about YA fiction in the classroom. Getting nonfiction into a classroom isn’t usually much of a problem—classroom and library use is what most nonfiction for young readers is intended for, after all. But fiction, even historical fiction, which is what I mostly write, is a tougher proposition.

And this is a shame, because while readers of historical fiction are usually passionate, even fanatical, about the genre, there aren’t that many of them, especially when compared with readers of contemporary problem novels,  science fiction, and fantasy, and subgenres such as dead-teenager stories and post-apocalyptic trilogies. Without educators to put my books into the hands of those few but passionate fans, some of them will miss what Ive written.

So the YA fiction writer’s challenge is twofold: we have to reach those educators, and we have to show them how our books can enhance the classroom experience. (I’ll use historical fiction in my examples, but the principles are the same for other kinds of fiction as well.)

The first part of the challenge (reaching the educators) means that I spend more time talking with adults than teenagers about my books. I’m a regular presenter at the annual conference of the Tennessee Association of School Librarians and the Southern Festival of Books, held in Nashville, where I live. I’ve also spoken at the Tennessee Reading Association, the Tennessee Writers Alliance, and library schools of nearby universities.

 As time and funds permit, I’ve gone farther afield and addressed NCTE, IRA, the National Council on the Teaching of Social Studies, the International Congress on Medieval Studies, the Classical Association of the Midwest and South, and the American Classical League. (There are specialized groups for every genre, and I’ve also presented at the world mystery convention, Bouchercon, in connection with my middle-grade mystery series.)

Once I convince my listeners of the benefit of encouraging their students to read a story that makes the long-dead figures theyre studying come alive, I’m most of the way there. But the job isn’t done if I want the kids in their care to read what I’ve written.

Teachers have very limited time, so I make it as easy as possible for them to use my books as part of a curriculum, either as outside reading or as extra reading. For example, I let them know that they don't have to come up with exercises, writing prompts, quizzes, paper topics, etc., since I've created those for most of my books. (See my For Teachers page.)

I always ask educators what I can do to make it easier for them to invite me to their school. A group of librarians had a great idea: They often have to get a grant to pay for an author visit, and their time is too tight for them to be able to do a good job, plus they might not know much about an author other than what it says on her web site. Why can’t the author write the grant proposal? We know our own work better than anyone else, after all. Nobody aside from you and the librarian has to know who wrote it, so even the most modest can toot her own horn all they want, and saving the librarian time and effort makes us a more attractive option.

If they dont have a grant and are strapped for funds, I point educators to sources for funding—SCBWI’s Amber Brown grant, for example.

A major difficulty in getting an author into a school is that out-of-class time and expense have to be justified to the principal, and most schools are under a mandate that every minute spent in school be demonstrably educational. So I’ve studied the Common Core and the state standards that delineate what needs to be learned in each grade, and I supply the educator with ammunition as to how my visit will enhance one or both of those. One good point to drive home, no matter what genre you write in, is that the Common Core stresses modeling of certain practices, and I can show students how I research, write, and revise.

I also offer free Skype visits to school groups, limiting these freebies to one per school. It can last no more than 15 minutes and consists of a simple Q&A so I don’t have to take time away from my writing to prepare a talk. If they want more, they have to pay—not much, since I can do it from home, but enough to make it worth my expenditure of time and mental energy.

Most of all, I’ve learned to listen to teachers and librarians. They love books and authors, and they can be our greatest allies.


Tracy Barrett’s twentieth book for young readers, The Stepsister’s Tale, is a YA retelling of Cinderella. It releases in June from HarlequinTEEN.

10 comments:

  1. I think your idea of working with teachers is a great one; it's true that students become more interested with a particular book if they get to meet and talk to the actual author. I'd love to bring authors into my classroom, but I teach at the college level; I'm an adjunct instructor and a teaching assistant, which basically means that I don't have the clout or the money to bring authors into my classes. I wish I could, though; I'm sure the students would love it.

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    1. Many of us--including me--would consider a quick Skype visit at no charge. Write to me at tracy t barrett (at) yahoo (dot) com if interested!

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  2. Great ideas, Tracy! Thanks for stopping by YAOTL...and congrats on #20!

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  3. So great to hear from you, Tracy! I love your idea about helping the school find funding.

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    1. Alexis O'Neill is the queen of funding school visits. She has some great ideas!

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  4. Tracy, great post! I love the idea of teachers writing grants for the visit or at the very least providing all of the ammunition, as you say, to help the teacher or librarian.

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    1. It was such a duh! moment when a librarian suggested that the author write the grant proposal. I haven't done it yet, but I'm willing to try!

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    2. You may remember, that once upon a time, I wrote a grant proposal to bring YOU to my classroom. They're really not that big of a deal to write.

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  5. This post was very helpful! Thank you. I like the idea of an author writing a grant for a school--brings us that much closer to going there.

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