What Author Would You Most Like to Meet?

What Author Would You Most Like to Meet?

Has a book ever made such a big impression on you that you felt a deep connection with the author? Perhaps you found it to be extremely moving, or you thought it spoke directly to your experiences in life.

Have you ever wished you could meet that writer and talk about that book and its significance to you?

In “A Bronx Teacher Asked. Tommy Orange Answered.,” Elisabeth Egan writes about how a high school English class recently had that wish granted:

Tommy Orange sat at the front of a classroom in the Bronx, listening as a group of high school students discussed his novel “There There.”

A boy wearing blue glasses raised his hand. “All the characters have some form of disconnection, even trauma,” Michael Almanzar, 19, said. “That’s the world we live in. That’s all around us. It’s not like it’s in some faraway land. That’s literally your next-door neighbor.”

The class broke into a round of finger snaps, as if we were at an old-school poetry slam on the Lower East Side and not in an English class at Millennium Art Academy, on the corner of Lafayette and Pugsley Avenues.

Orange took it all in with a mixture of gratitude and humility — the semicircle of earnest, engaged teenagers; the bulletin board decorated with words describing “There There” (“hope,” “struggle,” “mourning,” “discovery”); the shelf of well-thumbed copies wearing dust jackets in various stages of disintegration.

His eyebrows shot up when a student wearing a sweatshirt that said “I Am My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams” compared the book to “The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy. When three consecutive students spoke about how they related to Orange’s work because of their own mental health struggles, he was on the verge of tears.

“That’s what drew me to reading in the first place,” Orange said, “The feeling of not being as alone as you thought you were.”

It’s not often that an author walks into a room full of readers, let alone teenagers, who talk about characters born in his imagination as if they’re living, breathing human beings. And it’s equally rare for students to spend time with an author whose fictional world feels like a refuge. Of all the classroom visits he’s made since “There There” came out in 2018, the one at Millennium Art Academy earlier this month was, Orange said later, “the most intense connection I’ve ever experienced.”

The article recounts how the classroom visit came to be. It was thanks to Rick Ouimet, an energetic, pony-tailed English teacher who took a chance and reached out to the author:

Last month, Ouimet learned that Orange, who lives in Oakland, was going to be in New York promoting his second novel, “Wandering Stars.” An idea started to percolate. Ouimet had never invited an author to his classroom before; such visits can be pricey and, as he pointed out, Shakespeare and Zora Neale Hurston aren’t available.

Ouimet composed a message in his head for over a week, he said, and on Monday, March 4, just after midnight, he fired it off to the Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau.

“The email felt like a raw rough draft, but I didn’t agonize,” he said. “It was my midlife college essay.”

The 827-word missive was written in the go-for-broke style Ouimet encourages in his students’ work, full of personality, texture and detail, without the corporate-speak that infiltrates so much Important Professional Correspondence.

Ouimet wrote: “In our 12th-grade English classroom, in our diverse corner of the South Bronx, in an under-resourced but vibrant urban neighborhood not unlike the Fruitvale, you’re our rock star. Our more than rock star. You’re our MF Doom, our Eminem, our Earl Sweatshirt, our Tribe Called Red, our Beethoven, our Bobby Big Medicine, our email to Manny, our ethnically ambiguous woman in the next stall, our camera pointing into a tunnel of darkness.”

Orange, he added, was a hero to these kids: “You’ve changed lives.” There was Tahqari Koonce, 17, who drew a parallel between the Oakland Coliseum and the Roman Colosseum; and Natalia Melendez, also 17, who noted that a white gun symbolized oppression of Native tribes. And then there was Dalvyn Urena, 18, who “said he’d never read an entire book until ‘There There,’” and was now comparing it to a Shakespearean sonnet.

He ended with: “Well, it was worth a shot. Thanks for taking the time to read this — if it ever finds its way to you. In appreciation (and awe), Rick Ouimet.”

“I took a chance,” Ouimet said. And why not? “My students take a chance every time they open a new book. There’s groaning, and they open the page. To see what they gave this book? The love was palpable.”

The article concludes:

Eventually the bell sounded. The students pushed back from their desks and lined up to have their books signed by Orange, who took a moment to chat with each one.

Over the din, to anyone who was still listening, Ouimet called: “If you love a book, talk about it! If you love a story, let other people know!”

Students, read the entire article and then tell us:

  • What author would you most like to meet — and why? What would you say to that person about how his or her writing has moved and affected you? What questions would you ask?

  • During Tommy Orange’s visit to the Bronx, many students told him that his novel “There There” spoke directly to them. Have you ever read a book that felt as if it was describing your life and the world you live in?

  • The article says that the author found a way to work a visit to the high school into a packed, 24-city tour for his new book, “Wandering Stars.” Why do you think he made such an effort to visit a high school in the Bronx? What do you think he gained from the experience?

  • What is your reaction to Rick Ouimet’s passion for teaching and the power of the written word? Have you ever had a teacher who made books and their authors come alive in the classroom? Did anyone ever invite an author to visit your class?

  • Inspired by the story? It’s your turn to take a chance writing a letter to invite an author to visit your class — in person or via Zoom. (You can reach out to the book publisher for contact information.) Be sure to include your personal connection to that writer’s books and be persuasive as you extend your invitation. Use the Bronx teacher’s passionate letter — “full of personality, texture and detail” — as a model. Good luck!

Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public and may appear in print.

Find more Student Opinion questions here. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate these prompts into your classroom.