When Lincoln Academy librarian Cathi Howell introduced author Gary D. Schmidt to the more than 100 students from local schools gathered for the annual Lincoln Academy Books and Brunch author event on April 15, she could not keep the emotion out of her voice.
“Last spring, when Gary answered my email and politely declined a Skype session with us, but then offered to come here in person, I distinctly remember the thrill, the goosebumps, that moment of joy and perhaps a little disbelief, when I realized what this meant, and I thought to myself – Wow! We could actually have Gary Schmidt come here?! To Lincoln Academy?! That just seemed so exciting and so amazing! And now here we are, nearly a year later, assembled in this theater, a community of readers… I have to tell you, this is, hands down, an absolute personal highlight in my career as school librarian!”
Gary Schmidt is a beloved and accomplished author of 13 books for young people. Schmidt lives in Michigan, where he is a professor of writing at Calvin College. He has been awarded the Newbery Honor twice since 2005, for The Wednesday Wars and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. His most recent book is Orbiting Jupiter, which came out in 2015.
The special Books in Brunch program on April 15 brought more than 100 readers together, including Lincoln Academy students and faculty, students, teachers, and school librarians from AOS 93, and community members. All participants received copies of Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy as part of the program, and read the book in preparation for Schmidt’s talk.
After the author talk participants were guests of LA Library for a themed lunch. The Lizzie Bright program lunch consisted of clam chowder, fried chicken, rolls, and blueberry pie. During and after lunch Schmidt signed every participant’s book, taking time to speak to each reader about his or her interests and ideas about books. Young readers were thrilled to meet Schmidt, not only because the book was popular, but because his presentation in the Poe Theater was so compelling.
Skyler Houghton, a sixth grade student at Great Salt Bay School, has read several books by Gary Schmidt. “I thought he was a really good speaker, and the stories he told were really cool. Historical fiction isn’t my favorite genre, but I did really like that book.”
Instead of giving a traditional author reading, Schmidt, who clearly knows how to talk to a middle-school audience, immediately grabbed students’ attention with a participatory story.
“You are in the countryside of France. It is 1944,” Schmidt began. He assigned students on one side of the room to be American Soldiers. “You are moving east across France, knowing the German army is out there, waiting for you. You go to bed hungry and cold every night, and you can’t turn on any lights so you don’t give your position away. You don’t know what is in front of you: a river? a mountain range? a village? You don’t know where the German army is, but you know they have guns.”
The other side of the room Schmidt assigned to be German army soldiers. “You are also scared, and waiting. But your situation is different. You do not want to leave France. If this American army pushes you out of France, the next place you will have to defend is your own country; your own towns, your own churches, your own families. You are constantly watching for American soldiers, but you don’t know where they are. You have enough food, but no replacement soldiers. If any of your men get killed, your army will just continue to get smaller.”
“Both armies know a battle is coming.”
Schmidt held his audience rapt as he told a long and compelling story about soldiers, nurses trapped behind enemy lines, and a thermos of soup. His story ended not with a pat resolution, but with a question: why would a German soldier give a thermos of soup to an American soldier, when they are, essentially, trying to kill each other?
Lots of audience hands shot up with theories about this question, and after entertaining several ideas, Schmidt said, “If you were going to write this story, about the German soldier and the soup, you would need to know the answer to that question. You would need to know in your head and in your heart: why did the soldier offer up that soup? This is writing. Writing isn’t just mechanically writing something down. Writing is asking questions. Stories help you find answers, and they also give you more questions.
“Art is humanity’s attempt to ask questions like this; big questions. Questions that make us human; that give us more tools to be humans with. All good books end with questions.”
Schmidt spent the next part of the presentation talking with readers about Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, a middle-grade novel set in Phippsburg, Maine, in 1911. This book highlights a troubled time in Maine history, when Phippsburg town officials evicted a colony of African American former slaves from Malaga Island, and committed them to a mental institution, with the intent of making Malaga Island accessible to tourism.
One student asked how Schmidt chose this particular story to write.
“When I first read about Malaga Island, I knew I had to write about it,” Schmidt answered. “This is the classic American story. It is the story of a powerful community seeing something that a less powerful community has, and taking it. You can hear this same story again and again; it is so very American. When I heard this story, about this island, and the people who lived on it and lost their homes, I wanted to tell it…. But a story is not a sermon. A story is not an essay. I can’t stand on a soap box and yell, right? A novel can’t do this. So it took me some time to figure out how to tell it in a way that would matter to people; that would help them understand something fundamental; help them ask important questions.”
Schmidt said he it took him three tries to write Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. First, he tried writing it as a nonfiction history of Malaga Island, and then from the point of view of Lizzie Bright, a young African American girl. Both early drafts were, in his opinion, failures. “Luckily I work in an outbuilding with a wood stove, so when I figure out that a draft is a failure, I just have to walk three steps to throw it in the stove. By the time Lizzie Bright was published, Schmidt had spent more than three years writing and rewriting it. The resulting book, which has won multiple awards and become a staple in classrooms throughout the country, was worth the effort.
Several students asked Schmidt about the ending of Lizzie Bright, when the main character, Turner, has to face the sadness of losing his friend Lizzie, and find a way to live on in the town that betrayed her. Schmidt explained the uncertainty of the ending this way:
“Turner finally has to come to some realization about the nature of the world. There is incredible broken-ness and incredible beauty in the world, all at the same time. How can the world be both broken and beautiful? That is the question that Turner has to live with.”
One student in the audience questioned this interpretation, asking, “is that your opinion, or is it real?”
Schmidt answered, “All books are always the writer’s opinion. And that is a good thing. As a writer, a story has to mean something to you. You have to write out of your deepest concerns, otherwise you are just a hack. I don’t even want to write a book where I say at the end, ‘I don’t really mean this.’ If you’re going to write, then write from your own heart. If you are going to write, write about something you believe.”
The program was an unquestionable success. Over lunch in the LA library, students and teachers marveled at their good fortune to hear such a talented, though-provoking speaker. “He is every bit as wonderful as I expected him to be,” said Cathi Howell. “We are so lucky to have him!”