TIVERTON — School was done for the day so Tiverton sixth graders pulled up virtual chairs in acclaimed children’s book author Maribeth Boelts’ Cedar Falls, Iowa, dining room to talk writing. Nearby were her nine-month-old grandson, for whom she was babysitting, and the family dog and cat.
Though Cedar Fall is 1,200 miles west of here, the trip had been quick — a walk up to the second floor Tiverton Middle School Library where a 54-inch video screen, laptop and Skype connection awaited.
For the next hour the sixth graders and Ms. Boelts’ chatted, feet away from each other on the big screen but a time zone distant. Most had read her book, “The PS Brothers.”
The questions came fast. The students lined up in front of the laptop and fired away.
“Are you writing any books now?” asked one student. “Where are you right now?” asked another. Ms. Boelts answered.
“How old were you when you first started writing books?” a student asked.
“In my late 20′s , but I always wanted to write,” Ms. Boelts replied.
“If you weren’t a writer, what would you like to be?” a student asked.
“A nurse,” said Ms. Boelts, ” or a nature center worker.”“What was the first book you ever wrote?” a student asked.
“Why did you name your characters what you did?” asked one. “What kind of books do you like?”
Ms. Boelts answered each in turn.
At one point a glitch in the hook-up paused the conversation. Ms. Boelts’ image froze on the screen. But a student hit a key. Problem solved.
“How did you make the book happen,” a student asked.
Ms. Boelts said it takes about a year and a half for the book to come out, and it involves editing, agents, and cover art.
Students, mostly boys but there were three girls in the group, asked their questions, then returned to the end of the line to ask another, or sat in chairs to watch for a while, then returned to the laptop line.
“What book kicked off your career?” “What was your favorite book?”
Ms. Boelts said her favorite book was “PS Brothers,” her second most popular book, she said.
“Do you have any pets?” a student asked. That produced a high point. On cue, Ms. Boelts brought Dixie, her dog, to her laptop, and Karmen, her cat, lifting Karmen to the screen to be seen.
The students let loose with “oooohs” and “aaaaahs.”Later in an e-mail, Ms. Boelts revealed a secret to her Skype success. “Dixie has grown to love my Skype visits. I keep a treat by the computer to keep her close and attentive.”
After the pets made their appearance, and during a lull in the questioning, Ms. Boelts said that she writes on a treadmill, “because it helps me focus and not be distracted. I try to write every day.”
Then she asked the students, “Does anyone have difficulty getting ideas for stories?” Hands went up.
“Write what you know about, write about what you remember, and about what you imagine,” Ms. Boelts told the students.
“Have you ever gotten an idea when you’re watching a movie?” a student asked, followed by another— “Have you ever gotten up from sleeping to write down an idea?”
“I once had to pull over on the interstate to write down an idea,” Ms. Boelts said.
“My favorite part of Skyping is that I get to talk with kids who’ve read my stories, and I learn what’s going to make them turn the page,” Ms. Boelts said at the end of the session.
“The PS Brothers,” is a story about two boys (says Ms. Boelts’ website, www.maribethboelts.com).
“Russell and Shawn are crazy about dogs, but in their quest to earn money to buy a dog through their poop-scooping business, they uncover a dog-fighting ring. Doing the right thing might still get them what they want, and even more.”
The Feb. 10 Skype session in the Middle School was the fourth this school year. Three more are scheduled for this coming spring, said Librarian Deborah O’Hara.
The next will be March 10 at 11:30 a.m. The author will be Kendare Blake, and her book is “Anna Dressed in Blood.” On March 17 at 2:30 p.m., 7th and 8th graders will chat with Nova Wren Suma — her book is “17 and Gone.”
The sessions are part of a “Meet the Author” book club series, jointly sponsored by the schools with the Tiverton Library. They are free and open to the public.
Ms. O’Hara and Kasia Piasecka, Tiverton Library’s Young Adult Librarian organize the events. Last school year there were 12 Skype sessions. The authors donate their time, said Ms. O’Hara.
Typically, about 50 children participate, and two book clubs are involved: one for 5th and 6th graders, the other for 7th and 8th graders.
“It’s all positive,” said Ms. O’Hara. ” The students come up with great questions. It’s important because they’ll be inspired to become writers by seeing a real person behind the book.”
“They’re very thoughtful,” she said of the students. “Teachers encourage them to think about the questions ahead of time. Typically the children will have read the books.”
Ms. O’Hara said, “we have quite a few children who write, some on a regular basis — diaries and short stories.” So when they Skype with authors, “they are two writers talking with each other.”
“It’s just a thrill. It really is,” said Ms. Boelts of the Skyping sessions. She said she conducts one or two such sessions each month. “There’s nothing I enjoy more than meeting readers. I hope this connection inspires them.”
“I’ve met kids who love to share what they’ve written,” she said, “but more that keep their stories, poems, etc. close to the vest. That’s why these Skype sessions and school visits are so important. Kids who enjoy writing can feel understood, and can begin to grasp that it’s a real thing you can do for a career, too.”