Wednesday, June 20, 2012

An Author Study

In an author study, a child (or teen) learns about a particular author and then writes a report about that author.  This can be done with any age as even a pre-writer can still learn something about a favorite author and then dictate what he or she has to say about that author to someone who will write it down for the child, an audio recording device, or a video camera.

Author studies are a useful exercise for kids to complete occasionally, because they often learn something about the writing process along the way as well as find books to read that they may have otherwise missed.

  1. Make sure to have as many books by the author/illustrator to be discussed available for the child/ren's perusal.  Give students a reasonable amount of time to "study" their author's work.  For a group of preschoolers you might just read three or four board books to the child or students all in one to two sittings, but for a high schooler they will need ample time to read at least two books by the same author and of course, books at their level are longer, denser and need more time for completion.
  2. Look up the author or publisher's web site.  Modern authors can often be contacted via email or snail mail and many of them will write back.  Students can "interview" these authors through this communication.  Authors are busy and have a lot of writing to do.  Especially popular authors may have a form letter they use in return mail, but one really good question might elicit an answer from an author which can be informative and really fun for the young fan that writes the letter in the first place.
  3. Have the kids compare what they've read.  Obviously, you'll want to make your questions developmentally appropriate for the age group with which you are working, but here are some ideas to get the brainstorming started.  What is similar from one book to the next?  What is this author's style?  What makes this author unique, but is common to all his/her books?  Does the author use similar characters?  What is different from book to book?  How does the author distinguish individual works within his/her repertoire?  Which one of this author's works was your favorite and why?  Would you read more by this author and why?  etc.
  4. Make sure your students also answer some biographical information on their author of choice: Where was he/she born?  When?  Is he or she still alive?  What distinguished this author's childhood from that of others?  What events took place in this author's life that might be something that has provided inspiration for that author?  (For example, with Mo Willems, obviously, his own parenting has been drawn upon in the Knuffle Bunny series.  OR Roald Dahl clearly used his experience during WWII in his writing of The Gremlins).
  5. Finally, can the child find information about the author's writing process?  Eric Carle has done interviews on his illustrative processes, so has David Wiesner (these can even be found on Youtube).  There is a whole museum dedicated to Roald Dahl and Tolkein's Son, Christopher, has written entire books using Tolkein's notes and many drafts to create a time-line of thoughts and ideas behind each of the books in the Rings Trilogy.  Many authors have their own website where this information is described as well.  This is also where writing to an author and asking, "How does writing occur for you?  Where do you get your ideas?  How long does it take to write a book?" etc. can result in pretty informative pieces of information.  Don't forget to see if they can find out what the author has to say about the editing and publishing processes.  For children that consider themselves future writers, this part of an author study can be most informative and helpful.
  6. Have your student/students write up what they've found out.  Give a format to follow that is appropriate for the age with which you are working.  An early elementary student might write answers to separate questions in more of a questionnaire format while late elementary students (4th and 5th grade) might write a paragraph or two.  A middle school student might do a one-two page report while a high schooler can do a full-blown biographical report and analysis on the author studied.
Tips for Preschool:
Start by narrowing the field of choices a little bit to fit the need of your student or students.  For a child/children that is still mostly read to, you might choose an author of board books.  For your student or students don't give a choice between more than two authors you already know to be favorites.  Offer up choices you know have fun, easy to use websites for their research and great books the kids like.  Make sure you don't choose one author that responds to fan mail and another that doesn't or no longer can.  Then make the activity a one to two session event that is mostly done through discussion.  If you need or want a record of the student's thoughts, take notes yourself or record your discussion - video or audio will work.  The author you choose needs to have written multiple books.  For this age, you may want to do an "illustrator study" instead, or give them a choice between two authors that also do all of their own illustrations.  The questions you ask would be very similar to those listed above, but would specifically apply to illustration instead of writing, or in addition to the writing.

Tips for Elementary:

For Elementary Students, I recommend giving each student a short list of authors from which to choose. Again, make sure each author listed as an option has published multiple books (or poems).  If you are working with one individual child, a choice list is less necessary because you can brainstorm the options together, but for a class full of students, having a choice list helps them have a positive experience because it allows you to know ahead of time a little bit about what resources are available for your kids to find.  You might include illustrators as well - especially for those kids in First through Third Grade.

Tips for Middle School and High School:

For these age groups, if you are in a classroom setting, you still might want to include a list of authors from which they should choose, but that list should clearly be more expansive than anything offered to younger children.  You might also offer some flexibility, perhaps you have a student that has a favorite author not on your list that is willing to write up a "proposal" in order to get permission to study some one not on the list you offer up.  In the proposal, the student would demonstrate there is enough information out there for his/her research and that the author writes books at a reading level that will be appropriate content as well as reading level for the child in question.  I also suggest specifying that the student must choose books by the same author NOT from within the same series.  A series like the Harry Potter Books, or The Hunger Games, means multiple books have been written, but each book is still really a section from the same story.  It becomes a lot more difficult to search for differences and similarities that go deeper than names of characters between different books when one is really reading the same story but a different part.  In contrast, if a child compares Roald Dahl's Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, distinct similarities between the Hero/Heroine can be determined as well as similarities between the antagonists in each book.  Similar themes can be seperated out and how the author approaches those themes with differing characters is a much more interesting topic than when the same themes are carried through a series using the same characters with the same strengths and foibles.  

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