While I was writing The Sky Village (the first book in the Kaimira series), I did feedback sessions with some Chicago-area classrooms, sharing an early draft of the story and chatting with them about it. The co-author of the series and I went along with another person from Star Farm, who facilitated the discussion while we (the writers) took notes.
We identified ourselves as writers at Star Farm, but not as the authors of The Sky Village… not until the last session, when we provided pizza and did an author Q&A session.
Note: we encouraged the students to draw/doodle/scribble on the manuscript, and it resulted in some great pictures, some of which I’m including in this post.
I was a bit worried about not disclosing our identities as authors of the series until the last session, but it worked out great. It was a nice surprise for the students, and they understood why we did it.
Why did we do it? We wanted the discussion to be as honest as possible, and we thought the students might not be as critical with the authors in the room. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but the students were honest about what wasn’t working in the story. We were able to go back and do a spit & polish on the manuscript, and the next draft was so much better shinier.
The first couple of classes we did, the students were only given a chapter to read, and they read it during class, and then we had our discussion. This setup didn’t work so well. While some of the kids devoured the chapter and become very engaged in the conversation, others were too distracted to finish or to concentrate on the discussion. But the main reason it didn’t work is that it’s hard to talk about a small part of a story. It’s like trying to have a class discussion about a corner of a painting.
So for the next sessions, we took a different tact. A sixth-grade English teacher we know rounded up about forty volunteers from her classes, half boys and half girls, and they read the entire manuscript and spent their lunch hours with us to talk about it.
Group A read the manuscript in three parts. We met with them after each part to discuss the book. We’d discuss theme, plot, character development, pace, point of view, and a number of other sixth-grade-English topics suggested by the teacher, as well as questions that helped us see how the kids were seeing the story.
The second group read the manuscript in its entirety, and we did a series of discussions afterwards, with mostly the same questions. The exception was that we could ask Group A questions like “what do you think is going to happen next?” which was very enlightening.
This time the formula worked. This series of sessions was some of the most fun I’ve had working on this book. The kids were amazing. They were sharp, and got so deep into the story that I started to see things that were there but I hadn’t even noticed. Their feedback really helped the book become better.
I think the secret to how well it worked was:
- The kids volunteered to participate.
- From the beginning, we made it clear we were inviting them to help us make the story better.
- Though we had a list of question we wanted to cover, we always let the conversation go where it needed to go. Some of the best discussions were the result of tangents.
- We left our egos at the door and respected the students as equals, with every intention of taking their feedback seriously. That’s not something you can fake, and it really raised the level of the dialogue.
- We encouraged them to draw and write on the manuscript, which yielded even more valuable notes, as well as some fantastic sketches.
A question that yielded some of the most interesting responses was “What makes The Sky Village different?”
Some of the answers (taken directly from my notes):
- “The beasts and robots fighting each other makes this book not like any other fantasy story. Reminded me of Avatar and Spirited Away.”
- “The book is a really interesting idea, unknown world, didn’t know of any stories with the same atmosphere.”
- “It’s a different idea of fantasy. It doesn’t take place a long time ago, but rather in the future.
- “There are humans, beasts, and meks, all interacting.”
- “It falls into the fantasy genre, but it is a different sort of fantasy in that it has less to do ith magic than with new technology.”
- “It was different than other fantasies. All of the ideas related to each other…there were a lot of different ideas.”
- “The action starts right away. There’s no long buildup.”
- “This fantasy has elements of science fiction.”
- “Most books are in the past or some nameless present, but this book feels more real—and for once, we have something that has nothing to do with swords or wands.”
- “The story combines the mythical with the futuristic.”
I enjoyed these sessions so much, I’ve been trying to set up more with teachers in the Chicago area, and possibly elsewhere. If any teachers are reading this, I’m interested in suggestions for how to make these sessions as interesting and valuable for the students as possible. I want to make this a regular part of the process while I work on the next four books in the series.
Tags: carnival of children's literature, children's literature, classroom discussion, classroom feedback, kaimira, school visits, the sky village, writing process, young adult fantasy, young adult literature