Saturday, May 22, 2010

Author visit: Caroline Pignat

Thanks in part to a grant, and the programming finesse of Jess, we were able to welcome two authors this month (and another last month, if you're counting). Their visits fell, in fact, on the same day!

Children's/YA author Caroline Pignat spoke to a class from York Street School about two of her books, Egghead and Greener Grass. Her visit was an excellent example of Using PowerPoint For Good, And Not Evil. Caroline showed the children photos of her trip to Ireland to research Greener Grass, a historical novel set in 1847 during the Irish Potato Famine. The photos included lovely scenery, but of course what the children loved were the photos from the jail (now a museum) that Caroline visited. As Caroline described the hangings (from the upper window of the jail), and showed them the juvenile prisoners' log (from which her main character got her name, age, and criminal activities), they were utterly rapt. She also showed them historical photographs and newspaper illustrations that provided inspiration for her story, and encouraged the children to respond to the images. She even showed some stock photography images, getting the kids to guess at the stories the photos might tell. One photo of a seemingly charming girl holding a new puppy could be either a story of a girl who always wanted a dog, or something else: "what if I told you the girl doesn't like animals?" Caroline asked them, showing how the story can change, and the girl's smile could seem more sinister. The children made up great stories: these two girls just had a fight, but now they made up, etc.

Caroline also used the PowerPoint slides to show the names of the characters, and the relationships between characters, in Egghead. Her diagrams were useful, especially since this particular class hadn't read the book, a contemporary YA novel about bullying. One of the first things she told the children was that the book was written from alternating points of view (she asked the kids what this was first), from the perspectives of a friend of the bully and a friend of the victim. She reasoned that fewer of us are bullies or victims than bystanders: she showed a circular diagram with a whole spectrum of characters, relating the roles played by each student in the book to this spectrum of bystanders, taken in part from the writings of experts like Barbara Coloroso (whose work I also really admire). She also told the children that she drew on her real-life experiences in high school for this book. She talked about the emotions experienced by all the characters in the novel: guilt, avoidance, fear/intimidation, and peer pressure. She also talked about the free verse poetry by the victim included in the novel.

I was really impressed with her presentation; she was interesting and thoughtful, but also interacted with the children and kept their interest. I shouldn't be suprised, though; her experience as a teacher is evident. She was great at keeping the kids involved, asking them questions (what is free verse? what is historical fiction? etc.) and telling them interesting facts about her life or her experience that made her relate-able and accessible. I also loved that she brought her own books, and books that inspired or helped her, to display: she had Jerry Spinelli's book, Flipped (he once gave her advice at a writing workshop), as well as Crazy man by Paula Porter and Sharon Creech's Love that dog.

The sequel to Greener Grass, Wild Geese, will be out this coming Fall. The book follows Kit from Ireland to Bytown, where she encounters Elizabeth Bruyère, whose life Caroline and I discussed - we both find her story of coming to Bytown as a nun at age 29 (my age!) compelling. I look forward to stepping into Ottawa's past this autumn...

Caroline Pignat links: