The ability to engage the attention of young students takes talent, but entrancing a group of 50 high-school students for a solid hour is a rare gift and one that is highly appreciated by those who work with them all the time. The combination of these skills in one person, who also has something important to teach the students, is a windfall!
As one teacher put it, “Even [a certain student’s] constant inappropriate comments were on topic.” At a recent visit to our school, multi-talented author and playwright Marty Chan did just that in, tailoring each of the four sessions to the grade level present, simultaneously entertaining and teaching students about writing.
How to Catch a Teenager
Marty Chan’s currently published works include a picture book called True Story and six novels for grades 3-6. He is currently working on a steam-punk novel for teens. His presentations to junior and senior high students focused on finding and developing stories from real life. He had their attention within a few moments with a story that illustrated how capitalizing on the reader or listener’s preconceived expectations can result in a hilariously ironic story. He explained that it is the development of conflict that makes a good story and shared his ‘cheat code’ for creating conflict: “OMO”, which stands for ‘Objective’…what the main character wants, ‘Motivation’….why the character is after the objective, and ‘Obstacle’…what or who gets in the way of success.
He described a play that he produced for the Edmonton Fringe Festival in 1998 – a thriller called “The Bone House” – and explained how he produced tension in the audience by employing mystery, anticipation, isolation and using the audience members’ own expectations and imaginations. When it was clear that to produce the same chilling effect these 15 years later the audience would have to be deprived of their cell phones, students were overwhelmingly willing to surrender theirs for the experience. Marty also discussed how those same cell phones could be used to augment the thrill, through a little bit of hacking, were it possible, while the phones were stored during the play. Students then played parts in a group-created scene using the “OMO” elements to build the story.
Where to Get a Story
Marty Chan emphasized in all of his presentations how he uses events and characters from his life as inspiration for his stories. Growing up as the only Chinese Canadian in small town Morinville, Alberta, where his parents had bought the Super A grocery store when he was six, provided all kinds of funny and not-so-funny incidents that he has turned into fodder for his novels and plays. Inspiration came from a particularly unpleasant gym teacher, the graveyard that backed onto their first home, sparking a fear of zombies, and how a famous movie starring Bruce Lee changed his classmates’ perceptions of him.
Having read half of The Mystery of the Cyber Bully during library classes, Grades 4-6 students particularly enjoyed meeting the real Marty Chan, since that is also the name of the character in the novel. Marty explained that he used his own name in his mystery series to acknowledge its semi-autobiographical nature. Marty then demonstrated to these students and the Grades 1-3 how adding details is important in building a story by playing a ‘cops & robbers’ game with them where the cop had to identify the robber by the spectators’ descriptions.
Primary Students Love Farts
Grade 1-3 students enjoyed learning that Max and Buddy, from Marty Chan’s picture book, True Story, are Marty’s real-life cats. Max’ tongue is too long and he is a sneaky pen-thief. Buddy has a disease that makes him ever-so-humourously’ flatulent when he is stressed. Buddy also waddles around with crossed eyes in a ‘balloon head’. What better story inspirations?
Marty showed Lorna Bennett’s first sketches of Max and Buddy and how the illustrations for the book developed through her story-board drawings. We’re still looking for the secret photos of Buddy and Max on Marty’s website. This group also acted out a story as suggested by the group and were left in hysterics when it ended with Buddy (made of two students – one for his front and one for his back) and Max (played by another student), saving the duck (teacher, Mr. Raymond) from choking on Max’ broken claw.
I had previously chosen two students from each division to thank Marty on behalf of their division after each presentation. Preparation included a suggestion to mention something from the presentation that they particularly enjoyed. None of the ‘thank-you people’ had any trouble coming up with something to highlight for Marty when they stood up in front of their classmates and shook his hand. Effusive enthusiasm was the order of the day and still now in the hallways and in class, days later.
Books Flying into the Hands of the Kids
Marty Chan has published seven books. The long waiting list for the multiple school library copies is being somewhat alleviated by the growing personal order list that will be sent to Marty in a few days. He divulged that his favourite is his first, The Mystery of the Frozen Brains, because it took two years to write through numerous drafts. He remarked that the thrill of a having a first novel accepted for publication can never be repeated and so he is deeply attached to it.
Marty Chan has turned his strategy of looking at life’s challenges with humour into a varied, productive and successful career. Although he began his university career in engineering, he graduated instead with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English and Drama. His plays have been shown all over Canada, in Scotland and New York. His television show “The Orange Seed”, based on a series of CBC radio plays called “Dim Sum Diaries”, was nominated for a Gemini Award.
I recommend Marty Chan very highly for school author visits. He is also available for week-long writer-in-residence programs that could be partially funded by the YABS Taleblazers Festival, which covered travel and accommodation for this visit. Other funding could be accessed through the Writers’ Guild of Alberta and/or The Alberta Foundation for the Arts. It would be great to take the benefit of an author’s visit a step further by having an author like Marty Chan take a class or two from start to finish in a week-long writing project…a hope for next year.