My librarian friend Sharron McElmeel has some excellent suggestions for teachers considering having their children write to an author. I’m posting them with her permission. They’re well-worth considering if you want to get a response and have the experience be a pleasant one for both author and children. Please feel free to share these suggestions with your colleagues
1) BEFORE doing anything make sure your district server has the author/illustrator’s e-mail address white-listed. NOTE: to author/illustrators – when you have a “form” on your website for contact you have effectively hidden your e-mail from the public and others are not able to whitelist it. Google and hotmail e-mails are routinely blocked because others using that domain have abused the system. But those addresses can still be white-listed by the IT server administrator – an extra step but often necessary.
2) Before asking children to compose and send e-mails, send a “test” e-mail. This has two purposes: a) provides the author an opportunity to suggest one e-mail or individual, grouping questions, etc. AND b) gives you (the teacher) an opportunity to ascertain if the author/illustrator’s e-mail is going to be received in return.
3) Monitor the e-mails going out for grammar, spelling, and appropriateness — no questions that can not be answered with one’s own research efforts, i.e. How many books have you written? (Eric: I might add that asking how the author met his wife and fell in love is an inappropriate question. Yes, that really happened.)
4) Do NOT request free copies of books, a pair of the author/illustrator’s old shoes (seriously one teacher had her students each write a request to various authors requesting a pair of old shoes, as she wanted the children to “feel what it was like to walk in a famous person’s shoes.” ). Think about the cost of sending plus the time involved and the cost of the item itself — quite a request– those “old shoes.” WHAT was the teacher really thinking? One can only wonder…. (Eric: A good point. I automatically delete begging letters.)
5 Allow students to choose their own author either as a class or an individual, and write a sincere letter, not one dictated by the teacher. (Eric: it is much better to write a single class letter than to have the children send the author twenty-five or more letters, all saying the same thing and asking the same questions.)
6) Encourage the letter writing to the author/illustrator if it is a sincere effort. If it is merely an assignment to teach the technique of e-mailing or letter writing, ask their parent/guardian for an appropriate family member’s e-mail and send an e-mail to that family member.
Eric: I would add a few more suggestions. Do not have children mail individual letters to an author. Send them all in one envelope with the teacher’s school return address. Don’t fold the letters or put them in sealed envelopes. That just wastes time, especially if you have over twenty letters. Never have children write to an author using their personal home return address. In many cases they have not written their return address correctly and there is no way to contact them. The same applies to email. I send a test email to the address before answering. If it comes back because the address is faulty or a school’s filter is throwing it out, I delete the letter. What else can I do? Also, I think it’s a bad idea for children to send their personal contact information to people they really don’t know. Use a school, librarian, or parent’s email address. Or the “Ask Eric” button on the website. Again, make sure you give me a correct email address so I can write back. I always try to write back. If you haven’t heard from me in several days, something’s wrong. Try again.