Author Studies

By Gina Reich Guzman. Reprinted with permission.

Why Author Studies?

I really like author studies for two reasons.  One, they can be taught like an informal unit study that really creates an environment for children to make their own connections between the materials and the author as a person.  Two, being familiar with a wide variety of authors allows children to make considerably better book choices at the library and bookstore.  Too many times I see children looking completely lost in the library or bookstore simply because they don’t know where to begin looking.  When this happens children’s first instinct is to stick with the tried and true or the familiar.  Marketers for books based on pop culture and tv count on this happening! A child who has favorite authors is much more likely to look for other books by that same author or another author who writes in a similar fashion rather than picking up the nearest book that features their favorite tv show or that is part of a formula written mega-series. I love taking my children to the bookstore or library and hearing them discuss the merits of their favorite authors. I can often get them to try new books by playing to their author preferences. In many ways a favorite author can become “a friend-in-print”.

Note: You can use the author studies format to study poets and songwriters as well.  

Here’s How I Do It…

  1. Choose an author to study based on your child’s preferences, what you are currently studying, or even what book-based movie is currently in the theaters.
  2. Research the author online or at the library.  I like to start with the author’s website.  Some authors have fantastic websites that will really give you a head start. Most libraries have books of author biographies in their resource collections. There are also teacher resource books geared toward author studies. There are also biographies and autobiographies of several famous children’s authors.
  3. Determine whether you want this to be a quick week-long study or an in-depth study that lasts a month or more.  Will you take a formal or an informal approach? This is very important as it will determine exactly how many and what resources you will need. My older two kids tend to do just one or two formal author studies per year while my youngest prefers to do many impromptu/informal studies throughout the year.
  4. With your child, create a list of exactly which books, by that author, they want to read. This is where you, the parent, add in any that you feel mustn’t be missed. Next, choose one, two or three to really focus on.  The other selections can be read with little parental input. Personally, I think it is important for learners to have a chance to read at least some of the author’s work on their own with little parental input or analysis, even in a more formal approach. This adds to the child’s pleasure in exploring the author.
  5. Find some literature guides for the books you chose to read together.  This can be a hands-on activity guide or an analysis guide depending on your child’s age and needs.
  6. Start actual instruction by introducing the biographical information of the author verbally or using resources you have found.  I like to informally discuss where and when the author lived and how that may have influenced their writing. Some learners may enjoy making a chart comparing the author’s life experiences to today’s lifestyle.
  7. I then like to begin any map work that we may include; usually based on where the author is from and where the books take place. Local authors can be particularly fun. One year we studied only local authors!
  8. Little by little, we work our way through the books discussing them and doing the activities as we go.
  9. Long unit studies benefit from a wrap-up activity that shows how the books all related to each other. If you are doing the study as a family you may want each family member to give an oral report of their favorite book by that author telling exactly why they preferred that book.
  10. Be sure to point out authors from this and past studies as you go about life. Be open to author studies leading to further studies or stemming from other studies.  One year one of our units studies, sled dogs, led to an author study of Jack London.

Keep in Mind…

  1. Include your child in the planning process if they are interested; particularly if the author is very popular or a prolific writer.
  2. The one thing to watch out for in an author study is monotony and boredom.  Reading only books turns some kids off of author studies.  My kids enjoy author studies best when I use a mixed media approach.  Often we will read the focus books but then use audio or video versions for the rest of the books. This way you can get more of the author’s stories into your child without overwhelming them with too much reading. Some of the more popular and classic authors have even had cookbooks written based on their books (ie, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Roald Dahl). Almost every winter my family does an author study that ends in a family trip to the movie theater to see how the book compared to the movie (there is almost always a movie based on a children’s book making the rounds at Christmas time). My teen enjoys it whenever we are able to find current news and magazine articles related to our author studies.  Classic authors often have articles written relating their works to our modern world.
  3. Watch your bookstores and libraries for author readings; esp. by local authors.  My kids have had the privilege of hearing some authors read their own work and that author almost always becomes a favorite. You can also learn interesting tidbits about the publishing world (one year my girls learned that their two favorite book series were actually partially written by the same person using two different names!). Local author studies can often lead to fun field trips.  We really got to know more about the Portland, Oregon area when we studied Beverly Cleary a few years ago.  To this day my kids love it when we find ourselves on one of the streets mentioned in her books.  It can be great fun to match your author study to anniversary and other important dates.  Anne of Green Gables is celebrating her 100th “birthday”?  Then, by all means, include L.M. Montgomery as one of your authors.
  4. Do not make the author study a chore.  If your child isn’t into the author you have chosen just move on to one that is a better match. The great thing about author studies is that there is no “required reading” list.
  5. Be open to ideas from your children.  It is not unusual for my kids to get so into the author we are studying that they come up with activities on their own that are just as valid as the ones I had planned. In my opinion, there is no one correct way to do an author study!
  6. Talk about the authors and books even after the author study is completed. Book discussions are so much more meaningful when we all get into the habit of knowing the author as well as the book. It’s almost like they become favored members of our family whom we love fondly recalling.
  7. Many children’s authors also write books for adults so be sure you know which is which!!! This is also true when it comes to knowing what book an author is promoting at book signings and readings.

Some of Our Favorite Authors for Author Studies

Some authors, like James Herriot and Demi, write for more than one grade level. Some authors, such as Gary Paulson and Roald Dahl, could be studied during either the grammar stage or the logic stage. Other authors, such as Mark Twain, can be studied during either the logic stage or the rhetoric stage.  I recommend previewing a few books by the author before deciding whether you want to use them for an author study. 

Grammar Stage:

  • Demi (folktales)
  • Jan Brett
  • Beatrix Potter (animals)
  • Thornton  Burgess (animals)
  • Bruce Coville
  • Beverly Cleary
  • Roald Dahl
  • Lynne Reid Banks
  • Jean Craighead George
  • Avi
  • Dick King Smith (animals)
  • Lois Lowry
  • Marguerite Henry (horses) 

Logic Stage

  • Eloise Jarvis McGraw 
  • Laurence Yep
  • Lloyd Alexander (Welsh based fantasy) 
  • Howard Pyle (historical legends)++
  • Madeline L’Engle (fantasy)
  • Terry Pratchett
  • Geraldine McCaughrean
  • Russell Freeman (biographies)  
  • Susan Fletcher
  • Rosemary Sutcliff  
  • Louisa May Alcott
  • Demi (biographies)
  • Tamora Pierce (high fantasy)

Rhetoric Stage: 

  • Mark Twain 
  • Isaac Asimov
  • Ursula LeGuin (fantasy)
  • Shakespeare
  • JRR Tolkien
  • Anton Chekov (Russian plays)
  • Garth Nix 
  • Charles Dickens