Each year in September, the Berlin International Literature Festival (ilb) offers a selection of readings in English by international authors. The English teachers try to take as many classes to these readings as possible. Usually the authors and their works are lesser known, meaning that the teachers cannot predict how students will receive the books being presented. Some classes are eager to read the book before attending the event, while others wait until they have seen the author to decide whether or not to read his or her work.
In 2014 several SESB and Regelzug classes attended the first-ever opening ceremony for the Kinder- und Jugendliteraturfest on September 10. The speaker was Patrick Ness, a US-born author of both children's and adult fiction. After explaining that he had forgotten to pick up his suit bag on the way off the airplane, Ness launched into a prepared talk and a reading that were almost as informal as his attire. Lots of digressions, a healthy dose of four-letter words, and occasional comments directed toward the audience kept students focused and interested. While he was growing up, Ness's family attended a very conservative church in the state of Washington. At the age of eight, Ness listened as the pastor gave a sermon stating that the world would end within a year, and everyone would go to heaven or hell. Living for one year with that fear, and not having anyone he could talk to about it, was one of several examples of what Ness described as feeling absolutely alone. Books can make readers feel less alone by showing them that someone else has similar problems. That's one of the reasons why Patrick Ness writes.
Many of the authors and their works featured at the ilb have been extremely well received by our students. In September 2012, the 9th-grade classes enjoyed listening to Kate DiGoldi, an Australian author whose novel The Ten PM Question deals with difficult issues such as phobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. At the reading, Ms. DiGoldi revealed that many of the details in the book were based on experiences she had had with people in her family. Despite the serious subject matter, the ninth graders enjoyed reading the book, and the majority recommended that we add The Ten PM Question to the SESB booklist.
The reaction was equally enthusiastic in the 10th-grade classes, who attended a presentation by John Green of his novel The Fault in Our Stars. Green is both an established author of books for young people and a very successful blogger with a large fan base in the United States. Students commented on how “normal” and “honest” Green appeared as he chatted quite openly about the challenges of writing from the perspective of his heroine, a 16-year-old terminally ill girl named Hazel. Green decided to write the book after accompanying a terminally ill girl while he was working as a chaplain at a children’s hospital. Another topic that Green discussed both in his presentation and in his novel is the notion that authors “own” their stories and should know how their books might continue. Like his fictional author character, Van Houten, Green says that once a book is finished, it’s finished. The characters do not really exist, so readers must make up their own versions of how the story might have continued.
In 2011, students in the 8th and 9th grades were particularly impressed by Robert Williams, author of Luke and Jon. In his talk, Williams revealed how working in a boring job and being in an unsuccessful rock band led him to write. On a whim he entered several chapters of his incomplete novel in a writing contest, won the prize, and went on to become an overnight success in Britain and abroad. Despite his newfound fame, Williams came across as very humble, friendly and accessible. Most students were eager to line up for an autograph after the session.