word craft


Visiting Chickens

Park Hill Elementary School Denver Colorado

After three years of not going to schools — Covid — my vis­its have resumed.


Yes­ter­day, when I pulled into the park­ing lot of Denver’s Park Hill Ele­men­tary School, I was imme­di­ate­ly greet­ed by the cluck­ing of chick­ens. A quick inves­ti­ga­tion informed me that the school not only had a com­mu­ni­ty gar­den, but also a chick­en coop on its grounds. The school build­ing, orig­i­nal­ly built in 1901, is adorned with high, unla­beled bas-relief por­traits of peo­ple, though I think I rec­og­nized Jefferson.

As I walked through the main entrance I was greet­ed by a sign say­ing, “Wel­come to the home of the Pan­thers,” along with an image of a fero­cious beast, an unlike­ly icon for a K–5 school.

(A brief chat with the prin­ci­pal informed me he had no idea who assigned such a logo. Almost always, these logos are fero­cious male beasts. My favorite: Our Lady of Mer­cy Tigers.)

As I made my way to the front office to get my visitor’s badge, the school passed my first test of a good school; lots of bold stu­dent art was post­ed every­where (rather than artis­tic clas­sics, such as by Rem­brandt, or Winslow Homer), rec­og­niz­ing kids for what they are, young peo­ple who love col­or and unin­hib­it­ed shapes.

Then too, there was a sense of amenable chaos, a feel­ing of ener­gy and enthu­si­asm, which promised engaged kids. Show me a school with neat, clean (and emp­ty) hall­ways, and I know I’m in an uptight, con­trol­ling environment. 

I was ush­ered into the audi­to­ri­um where a bunch of girls were rehears­ing a play, a retelling of an ancient Greek leg­end about how spi­ders came to be. Much arm wav­ing and eye-rolling rep­re­sent­ed all kinds of emotion.

When kids filed in, any num­ber of them were clutch­ing a wide vari­ety of my books. The feel­ing I sensed was one of excite­ment and inter­est as many eyes stud­ied me with curiosity. 

After a short intro­duc­tion by an enthu­si­as­tic teacher — which hap­pi­ly did not sound like an obit­u­ary — I intro­duced myself and showed a short Pow­er­Point, which showed images of my home, my fam­i­ly, pic­tures of my ele­men­tary school, my fourth-grade class, and high school, the scathing com­ments of my Eng­lish teacher on a paper as to my bad writ­ing skills, my inept high school soc­cer team. Then briefly, images of my writ­ing process, rewrit­ten pages, out­lines, and the like.

Then, for the remain­ing time, which is most of the time, I take ques­tions, mak­ing a point of going from girl to boy, while rang­ing over the whole room to make sure I reach the var­i­ous grade lev­els who have assembled.

The ques­tions asked are the rea­son­able ones I am most often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” “How long does it take you to write a book?” “If you weren’t a writer what would you do?”

Then there are some ques­tions that per­tain to spe­cif­ic books kids have read; “How did you get the char­ac­ter names in True Con­fes­sions of Char­lotte Doyle?” Or “In The Secret School, how did you get the idea as to how Ida dri­ves a car?”

Some­times these ques­tions are hard for me to answer because where­as a kid has just read a par­tic­u­lar book, it’s one I wrote twen­ty years ago, or more. It’s a reminder that one of the joys of lit­er­a­ture is that for the read­er a new book is always new.

Then there are the quirky ques­tions, “What do you think of adjec­tives?” “If you could be a char­ac­ter in one of your books, which one would it be?”

Through­out, my job is to respond to a ques­tion as if I have nev­er heard it before and then give a reply that speaks to that par­tic­u­lar stu­dent, indi­cat­ing I rec­og­nize him or her as an individual.

My inten­tion is to sug­gest that I am an ordi­nary per­son, some­one who had to work hard to acquire writ­ing skills. If there is any one theme, it is the cen­tral­i­ty of read­ing as the key to a writer’s life and learning.

And what do I get out of this event? It’s not mon­ey. This was a neigh­bor­hood school, which I met pro bono.

First, it is exhil­a­rat­ing to be in a hap­py school, full of youth­ful ener­gy. In today’s hard world, it’s full of much-need­ed hope. It’s also deeply reas­sur­ing to see that kids are read­ing books I have written. 

Most of all, I regain a con­nec­tion with my read­ers, a reminder that I am not writ­ing for edi­tors, pub­lish­ers, review­ers, or Goodreads eval­u­a­tors: I am writ­ing for young people.

When I go back to my desk and resume writ­ing, I see their faces as I try to cre­ate books that young peo­ple enjoy read­ing. It’s that sim­ple. It’s that hard. And I love what I do even as I love my readers.

2 thoughts on “Visiting Chickens”

  1. This brought tears to my eyes. As a retired ele­men­tary school teacher (West Grand School Dis­trict, Kremm­ling, CO), I not only rec­og­nize your descrip­tion of a vibrant, child-cen­tered school but also an author who knows how to con­nect with stu­dents on a vis­cer­al lev­el. On behalf of stu­dents and teach­ers alike, I thank you.

  2. Today you met via zoom with our 5th — 8th graders at San Miguel School in Prov­i­dence. Thank you for treat­ing each boy’s ques­tion so thought­ful­ly and for bring­ing smiles to their (and our) faces as you encour­aged read­ing and hard work.


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