©2019 by AJ Vanderhorst.

  • AJ Vanderhorst

3 Things My First Classroom Visit Taught Me About KidLit

Updated: Nov 24, 2019


Impossible not to feel at home in such an engaged, bookish class.

Earlier this week, I got the opportunity to do an author talk at New Chelsea Elementary here in Kansas City, Kansas. My brother and enduring book backer Peter coordinated the visit for his 5th grade class, and another class joined us. Since this was my first official author talk, thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect.


Kids Are Smart


Let’s start with an obvious observation. (Maybe less obvious if you’re like me and have middle-school boys who sometimes disguise their intelligence. Hey guys, I know you're reading this. Gotcha.) I was happily surprised by the range of questions these 5th graders had ready to go. They asked about the writing process, what inspired the story, and how the writing industry works. Of course, this group was primed by my bro Peter, who does a great job fostering an interest in books and reading in his students.


However, it reminded me of a realization—maybe more of a decision—that I came to a few years ago. I don’t care for lowest common denominator books. Dumb humor. Simplistic plots. Underachieving main characters. Maybe I'm coming off as a snob, but there it is. I remember when I was shopping my first Casey Grimes novel around (coming out March 2020), which features a very bright six-year-old.


Representative sample of a very bright six-year-old. Ok, I admit it, we're related.

Several people, including a couple agents, told me I’d have to bump her age up if I wanted to keep her, “because she sounds too smart for a six year old.” What they failed to realize was that her character was inspired by real, live six-year-olds. Including one in my family. Needless to say, she's still in the story and she's still six. I don’t like it when the industry sells kids short. Sadly, I feel like this happens often, which brings me to my next observation…


Kids Are the Target Audience


I guess it would be asking a lot for every children’s book agent, editor and publisher to have kids of their own or at the very least, spend lots of time around kids. Or would it? Something I don’t get about the industry is how little emphasis there is on kids as a focus group. Kids as an existing audience with qualities like wonder, courage, and loyalty, that can be fanned into flame. Kids who often know the kind of stories they’d like to read, and can sometimes even articulate them, given the chance.


Reading the plethora of agent wish lists out there, it seems pretty clear that kids are not often given that chance. I find that kind of sad. But what do I know? I don’t live in a condo in a big media town, surrounded by cats. I’m just a midwestern guy in a messy house surrounded by a bunch of smart, literate kids…which brings me to my final observation. The students at New Chelsea punched this home for me.


Small Groups of Kids Magically Reflect Larger Groups of Kids

I believe this is what they call, in the technical jargon, hocus pocus focus groups. One of the students at New Chelsea asked how I got the idea for my book, so I asked how many of them liked to climb trees and got an enthusiastic show of hands. I preceded to outline a convo I had with a couple of my kiddos and a neighbor kid.

Kid A: Hey Dad, you know what would be cool?
Me: What’s that?
Kid A: If every house had a secret tree fortress in its backyard…
Kid B: And all the secret forts were connected and you could travel to them on bridges…
Kid C: With ropes and ladders, for parties and sleepovers.
Me: Yeah…that would be really cool.
Kid A: Super cool.

And that, I said, is how I ended up writing this book. But wait. The kids at New Chelsea come from sharply different demographics than my kids and the kids in my neighborhood. They're quite far off on the economic spectrum. Which made it a little surprising, maybe, that they thought the secret tree fort idea* was pretty cool too.


As I read the first chapter, they were either really engaged, or they did a remarkable job faking it.


All this makes me think, Wow, crazy how kids share common threads of interest and themes they’d love to see fictionalized. And often these concepts and seeds of stories are right there, waiting to be noticed, if you are paying attention.


I hereby resolve to pay attention. And keep paying attention.


*To be clear, CASEY GRIMES: MOSTLY INVISIBLE BOY, does contain a secret forest society of interconnected fortresses, medieval-modern architecture, and a vast web of hidden foot-paths, hundreds of feet in the air. But other stuff happens too.



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