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Authors field questions in 'Meet Xpress' format

X-Team reporters "shine' during a press conference with author at the Times' Festival of Reading.

By DONNA WINCHESTER

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Ally Sikora was a little nervous when she arrived at Eckerd College for the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading Saturday morning. The Tarpon Springs Fundamental Elementary fifth-grader was about to meet her first published author -- three of them, in fact -- and she didn't know what to expect.

But she had done her homework. She had read two of the authors' books and had carefully prepared five questions to ask them. She joined fellow members of the Times X-Team on the stage in Dendy-McNair Auditorium shortly before 11:30, ready to demonstrate her journalistic skills.

Ally is one of 12 Pinellas County students who writes for Xpress, a weekly feature appearing in the Floridian section of the Times. The pages showcase the work of elementary, middle and high school students who have a passion and a proficiency for writing.

Times promotions coordinator Marti Galloway invited the students to participate in the festival after three local children's authors contacted her.

She thought that instead of having the authors field questions from adults, it would be more interesting to bring the authors face to face with young readers.

"We've invited children's authors to the festival before, but they've never been involved on a big scale," Galloway said. "They've been part of the children's stage, but they haven't appeared in the same format as the adult authors."

Galloway approached Lifestyles editor Gretchen Letterman, who also is the X-Team's editor, about getting the students involved in an author-reader panel.

She and Letterman agreed that a press-conference format would be a great opportunity for the young writers because they could practice their interviewing skills while gaining experience in a public setting.

Letterman started preparing the students for the event last month by providing them with the authors' books and their background information. She also held a mini-workshop to coach the students in writing questions that get good answers.

"I suggested that they ask the authors about what motivated them to write and when they made the decision to become writers," Letterman said.

But, she said, the students came up with the questions on their own. When two nervous authors called her a few days before the festival wondering what the students were going to ask, she told them she honestly didn't know.

At the press conference, the X-Team proved that the authors had nothing to worry about. The students' questions ranged from simple to complex, but all of them were intelligent and thought-provoking.

Vincent Valenty, a seventh-grader at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Clearwater, was interested in the basics.

He asked Holly Bea how long it took her to write her latest book, Good Night God. He asked Linda Trice how much time she spent researching her biography, Charles Drew: Pioneer of Blood Plasma. He asked Peggy Nolan where she got the idea to write The Spy Who Came In From the Sea, a story about a 14-year-old boy set during War War II.

Nick Linguanti, an eighth-grader at Southside Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg, wanted to know more personal things about the authors. He asked Bea what some of her favorite bedtime stories were when she was a child.

He wanted to know if Trice had met any of Charles Drew's relatives. He asked Nolan if she's happy or sad when she finishes writing a book.

A couple of the students were interested in the collaborative process between author and illustrator.

Nine-year-old Alex Zimmet, a fourth-grader at Cypress Woods Elementary in Palm Harbor, wanted to know where Bea got the idea for the illustrations in her book. Palm Harbor University High School 11th-grader Sarah Wheaton asked Bea if the writing process is different for a book with illustrations.

Stephen Graves, 11, asked Nolan a question that seemed to come from his personal experience.

He wanted to know if she ever decides halfway through a book that she doesn't like the project she's working on. The Bay Point Middle School sixth-grader wondered if she keeps writing anyway or if she moves on to another book.

The audience, swelling to 75 members, paid close attention to the exchange between young writers and older writers.

A mother nodded as her daughter asked one of the authors if her children serve as critics for her work. A father smiled as his son asked an author whether it was easier or harder to write a book once the first one has been published.

When it was all over, the X-Team's editor was pleased.

"I was really proud of the kids," Letterman said. "They really shined."

She considers the press conference a success because it was good for the kids and it was an interesting program as well.

The day after meeting her first author, Ally barely remembered the nervousness she felt at the start of the press conference. As she turns her attention to her next writing assignment for Xpress, she said she feels a little more comfortable about going out and talking to people -- and a little surprised that she had so much fun at the festival.

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