April 24, 2020

Have Swag Will Travel: An Interview with Anna Monders About Her Booktalk Blog

Nikko Prochovnic, Class of 2020
Photo Credit Owls Eye Photography
Hi friends. My blog has been a bit quiet lately. Much of my personal attention has been focused on celebrating my son, who is a member of the high school graduating class of 2020, and much of my professional attention has been focused on sharing resources with parents, teachers, and librarians who are now teaching/ providing library programming from home.

If you haven't yet checked out the wonderful (and growing) compilation of educational resources available on the SCBWI website, I encourage you to do so. There are book readings, writing workshops, art demonstrations, enrichment activities, etc. for all ages, (for example, I've posted a self-guided workshop about creating character voice in the "workshops" section of the database, some detailed activity guides in the “activities” section of the database, and some sign language resources in the “bilingual” section). More resources will be added by authors and illustrators each week. Here is the link: https://www.scbwi.org/digital-directory-for-remote-learning-resources/  Please feel welcome and encouraged to share this collection of resources widely, particularly with anyone who is teaching / offering programming remotely and/or homeschooling their own kids.

Speaking of resources, prior to the pandemic, I interviewed Anna Monders about her booktalk blog, and I'm so happy to be able to share that interview with you today:

Dawn Prochovnic: Hi Anna. Thanks so much for stopping by. Last fall we were both presenters at the Oregon Association for School Libraries conference. One of your sessions was called “You Can Booktalk!” which prompted me to visit your excellent booktalk blog, and talk with you today about… yep, you guessed it, booktalks! 

So, for those readers who haven’t yet visited your blog, (what are you waiting for folks?!), can you tell us what makes a booktalk, a booktalk?

Anna Monders: Let me start by talking about what a booktalk isn’t. It’s not a summary of a book, or a review of one. I like to think of it more like a movie trailer with live-action theatre. It’s storytelling. And it’s performance art.

In my booktalk presentations at schools, each book gets 1-3 minutes in the spotlight. In that short amount of time, I want to make my audience DESPERATE to read the book. I tell them enough about the characters and story to get them caught up in it. I try to leave them with their curiosity burning.

DP: I’m hooked already! I've also heard you and others say that booktalking is a way to get kids excited about reading. Can you give an example or two of how a booktalk inspired a young reader that you’ve worked with?

AM: I have five years’ worth of examples! A couple years ago, I was booktalking Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder in fifth and sixth grade classes.

At one school, there was a class copy of this title visible on the shelf—but no one had read it. After I booktalked it, there was a crazy rush for the book (nearly ending in a seven-kid tackle heap).

Booktalks can open the doors for kids who don’t think they like to read, or who don’t think they like particular genres. I recently heard a sixth grade boy at an underprivileged school say after booktalks: “I’ve never been so inspired to read before.” Another time, a girl came up after the presentation to tell me she didn’t like mysteries, but that now she really wanted to read Nooks and Crannies [by Jessica Lawson].

I’ve had several boys tell me that they read the entire Michael Vey series after I booktalked the first one at their school.

DP: These are great examples, Anna. How wonderful to be able to reach kids in this way. And, I read in your bio that you present booktalks to over 5000 kids per year. Wow! That’s amazing. Can you share some of the basics of how you put a booktalk together and what it “looks like” or sounds like when it’s delivered?

AM: I present booktalks as part of Jackson County Library’s outreach to elementary and middle schools. Each spring and fall, I prepare 30-35 books, and I present the program to as many classes as I can fit in my schedule—generally 200+ classes per year. Because I’m going to be booktalking each title 50 or 100 times, I can take the time to prepare well.

I start with A LOT of reading. My program serves fourth through sixth grade students, so I’m primarily focused on middle-grade titles. I read reviews, keep an eye on award lists, ask around for recommendations, and look at most of the new titles for this age that come into our library. I like to get a stack of books ready, and then sit down and read the first few pages of each. Most I will discard at this stage. If it’s suddenly an hour later and I’ve missed my bus home, then I know I’ve got a winner!

As I build my list, I try to maintain a balance of genres and work to include enough variety so there will be at least one or two titles to appeal to each kid in the class. Most of my titles are fiction, but I include some nonfiction and graphic novels as well.

Once my selections are made, I write the booktalks. Each booktalk is 150-300 words long, and it takes me several drafts to get the script smooth. I find it helpful to read it aloud a bunch of times, cutting anything that doesn’t need to be there. Then I practice some more; I pace around my office, or up and down the bike path, talking to myself. Starting out, it can be useful to record and watch the practice sessions.

I try to have a strong booktalk ready before I take it into the schools, but I often do a few more revisions once I see what is and isn’t working for my middle grade audience. Usually the script settles within a couple of weeks, and I’ll have it memorized without really trying. (I do keep a “cheat sheet” script taped to the back of the book for emergencies, but the presentation is way more fun once it feels like storytelling rather than a rehearsed script.)

When I’m in front of my audience, it’s all about being “on”—providing a dynamic, live performance. I want the kids to get completely caught up in the stories, so I put myself in that space too.

DP: Your level of preparation is such a gift to young readers. I love the idea of a booktalk being a dynamic, live performance. Do you have a template or “formula” that you use to put your booktalks together?  Are there any particular do’s and don’ts you would offer?

AM: I don’t have a particular formula that I use—different books need different approaches—but being a writer myself helps me shape my booktalks. I look at:

1) Who is the main character? This is the person (animal, entity) the reader is going to connect with, so getting to know this character is an important part of the booktalk. I often include a couple of quirky details about the character or their situation.

2) What important change happens at the beginning of the story? This inciting (and hopefully exciting) incident can often be used as the primary hook for the booktalk. It sets the story in motion. Many of my booktalks will have a paragraph about the character and their situation when the story opens, then the second paragraph introduces the change, opening with some form of, “Then one day…”

3) What does the main character want more than anything? What is getting in their way? This combination of desire and obstacles shapes the course of the story and gives the audience a glimpse of the central question the story will answer. 

A few years ago I had a full day of classes at a middle school. At lunch time, a sixth grade girl from the first period class came back into the media center where I was set up. “I have a question about one of the books,” she said. “A couple of them actually.” And then she proceeded to go down the line of books and ask the central question I’d alluded to, but hadn’t stated directly: “Did he pull it off?” (Great Greene Heist.) “Do they survive?” (Michael Vey.) “What happened to the cousin?” (London Eye Mystery.) “What’s wrong with the kids? Are they robots?” (Under Their Skin.) “Do they get in a big fight?” (Hidden.) “Did she make it?” (The War That Saved My Life.) “Who was the girl?” (Listen to the Moon.) She wanted her curiosity satisfied.

DP: This is absolutely awesome!

AM: As for do’s and don’ts. I’d say the most important thing is not to give too much away. Except on rare occasion, I only include story elements revealed in the first quarter of the book, and often less.

Other guidelines I follow are:

Treat the booktalk as a performance. Bring energy, enthusiasm, funny voices, dramatic pauses, props…

Use what the author has given you in the book. Make use of direct quotes or specific phrases the author uses, to give a flavor of the story. Exploit an appropriate chapter cliffhanger in the early part of the book to use as a cliffhanger end to your booktalk.

Choose books with a good hook. Mysteries and thrillers are an easy place to start. But that being said…

Be honest in the booktalk. Do not make a quiet friendship story sound like a spine-chilling adventure just so more kids will pick it up. You may deter the true audience for the book, and you’ll disappoint the adventure-obsessed reader who does try it.

DP: This is such great info, Anna. I want to listen in on your booktalks (more on that later!) Also, I want to point out that the three things you look at when shaping a booktalk are also good things for authors to look at when shaping the books we're writing! 

I'm curious if there are particular approaches/formats that you’ve learned that kids really enjoy the most? Does your approach vary for different age groups of young readers?

AM: I love including some interactive aspects in my presentations. It helps kids get engaged in the talk. One of my favorites was handing out superpowers after booktalking The Mighty Odds by Amy Ignatow.

In the story, the main characters each gain an unusual superpower. Nick can suddenly teleport, but only four inches to the left. Cookie can read people’s minds, but only if they’re thinking about directions. Farshad gains super strength, but only in his thumbs… When I was working on my booktalk for this title, I came up with similarly bizarre superpowers and wrote them on popsicle sticks. (i.e. You have super hearing, but only for insect noises. You can breathe under water, but only within sight of a shark. You can communicate by telepathy, but only while singing 1980s songs…)

After booktalking this title, I would let a handful of kids draw out a popsicle stick and learn their new superpower. The kids loved it. LOVED IT. It was totally fun. And I kept the superpowers in a handy duct tape pouch that I then used as a lead-in to booktalking a duct tape craft book and introducing the library’s teen duct tape club.

DP: You are brilliant! I LOVE this SO MUCH!

AM: Other times, I’ve included a bit of reader’s theatre. Last year I booktalked Mac Undercover, the first book in Mac Barnett’s series, Mac B., Kid Spy. I took a key scene – where the Queen of England calls up Mac out of the blue and asks him to find the stolen Crown Jewels – and I wrote out a very short dialog. Kids loved to volunteer to be the Queen or Mac. There were some great Queens of England! I now have a virtual booktalk for Mac Undercover (it's totally fun -- the 89-year-old mother of a British friend of mine recorded the Queen's part of the dialog for me -- remotely from her care home in England!).

DP: What fun! I incorporate reader's theatre into my picture book-related activities (examples for Pirate and Cowgirl here and here), but I've not considered that as an activity option for older readers. Great idea!

What inspired you to start giving booktalks?

AM: Jackson County Library Services, in Southern Oregon, offers a free booktalk presentation to any fourth, fifth, or sixth grade class in the county. When I found out about the program, I thought it would be an awesome job to have. A few years later, I was hired as their new booktalker.

I was already involved in the kidlit writing community, so I was thrilled to have a position that required reading kids’ books and one that got me out sharing books with my target audience. It’s heartening to see students get so enthusiastic about stories!

DP: It sounds like a perfect job match, indeed! I'm wondering if you have a favorite booktalk experience you’d like to share?

AM: One of my favorite experiences is when kids call me “evil.” It means I’ve done a good job getting them totally caught up in the story, and then—slam—I leave them with an unforgivable cliffhanger. One time a sixth grade boy told me, “If I hear one more cliffhanger, my head is going to explode!”

DP: That is so marvelous. 

Any mishaps or cautionary tales that others might benefit from knowing about (or simply get a kick out of)?

AM: Flexibility is key for a successful school visit—whether it’s a booktalk visit or author visit. At some point, there’s going to be a fire drill, intruder drill, earthquake drill. Or a last-minute assembly. Or a substitute teacher who didn’t know to send the class to the library.

I always carry an extra set of handouts because sometimes I have one teacher signed up for a presentation, but they don’t tell me their teaching partner is bringing a class in as well. Being easy-going about the whole thing makes the experience better for everyone.

At the same time, I have learned to set certain boundaries: yes, adding an unexpected fourth grade class to a fourth grade presentation is great. Adding a seventh grade class to a fourth grade presentation…not so much.

DP: Excellent advice, Anna. 

As you likely know, I have two new potty-humor picture books that came out last October. One is cowgirl-themed and the other is pirate-themed, geared for kids ages 3-8, for whom potty humor is at the height of its glory. If you have any great ideas for book talking either of these titles to young audiences, I’m all ears!

AM: I wish I had a great suggestion for you! The techniques I use with the middle graders transfer easily to teens and adults, but I haven’t tried it with picture books. Picture books have a different sort of magic – and the great advantage of actually being able to read aloud the entire book in a short amount of time. I am currently considering adapting my program for third graders, so maybe soon I will have more thoughts on working with a younger audience!

DP: I actually think many of the tips you've provided will transfer to younger audiences, but I suspect you will gain even more insights if you decide to bring your programs to third graders. 

Before we wrap up, let’s shift gears a bit. I suspect that the same elements that go into a successful booktalk, could be applied to a successful agent/editor pitch. Based on your experience developing and delivering booktalks, what tips would you suggest to authors as they develop and deliver pitches for their books?

AM: When I first pitched my middle-grade novel to agents at the Willamette Writers Conference, I was intimidated by how limited the time was. Years of sweat went into that manuscript. Tens of thousands of words. Plot twists. Character development. How could I share everything I needed to in only seven minutes?!

What I’ve learned from booktalking is how much information can be conveyed – and how much desperate enthusiasm can be generated – in just 2-3 minutes. That’s all it takes. A couple of minutes is absolutely enough time to pull listeners into a unique story world and get their curiosity engaged.

When I returned to Willamette Writers to pitch again, after a couple years of doing booktalks, I wrote a “booktalk” for my manuscript. I asked myself the same questions I was using on my real booktalks: Who is the main character? What important change happens at the beginning of the story? What does the main character want more than anything? And why?

I used specific details and wording from my manuscript, as I often do in my regular booktalks, to give a flavor of the writing. I ignored a lot of the backstory that I had included in my original round of pitching—instead I went for visual details that would either convey the specificity of the world or the stakes for the character.

DP: This is really excellent advice, Anna, and I especially love the term "desperate enthusiasm." I will definitely try to create that the next time a prepare a pitch, or even a query letter. 

Is there something you wished I would have asked you that you haven’t had the opportunity to share?

AM: It’s hard to imagine I have anything more to say! Maybe just one last thought: A booktalk isn’t about convincing someone to read a particular book. It’s about opening up stories so kids can see which ones resonate with them. I reassure kids at the beginning of my presentation that I am not there to tell them they “should” read any of the books I’ve brought. Instead, I want them to see which books they are excited to read. Maybe they’ll like all of them. Or maybe only one—and that’s okay. It’s their choice that is important.

DP: That's such an empowering approach, Anna, and a perfect note to end on. 

I can't thank you enough for sharing your expertise with us. 

AM: Thank you, Dawn, for inviting me to share about booktalking! I hope this is a useful glimpse into the process.

DP: I've learned so much from you, Anna. It's VERY useful, indeed. Thanks again for taking the time to share with us. 

Readers: Between the time that I interviewed Anna and the time when I formatted the interview for publication, COVID-19 significantly changed the way that authors, librarians, teachers, and booksellers can interact with readers. Anna has recently created a virtual booktalk channel on YouTube, where she will post weekly booktalks for readers in grades 4-7. I encourage you to check it out and share it with others. You can search "JCLS booktalks" on YouTube, or follow this link

Anna Monders has been the booktalk specialist for Jackson County Library Services in Southern Oregon for the past five years. She presents booktalks to over 5000 kids a year, primarily in fourth to sixth grade. She’s thrilled when kids in her audience swarm the school library or go home and beg their parents to take them to the public library. Many of her booktalks are available on The Booktalk Blog.

Have Swag Will Travel is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to Oregon Reads Aloud and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at www.dawnprochovnic.com.