November 22, 2015
I never tire of speaking about Ray Bradbury. In fact, I’m more enthusiastic now—after working for 15 years as his biographer—than ever before. I relish the opportunity to bring my enthusiasm and knowledge of Bradbury’s life and work to colleges, universities, libraries, high schools, middle schools and beyond. If, along the way, I’m able to intrigue even one reluctant reader to investigate the imaginative stories of Bradbury, I deem my efforts a success. I’m passionate about Bradbury and I will take any opportunity to share this love with others. I’m certain this is why he selected me to tell his life fantastic.
I have given hundreds of lectures on Bradbury around the world. In the last two weeks alone I delivered presentations at Governor’s State University in Oak Forest, Illinois, and to Maryville University in St. Louis. The GSU event was part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ ongoing heroic national reading initiative “The Big Read.” I have spoken at dozens and dozens of NEA “Big Read” programs in the last decade and can say with tremendous confidence that these community events surrounding a single literary work have helped reverse a long and concerning decline in reading in the United States. Reading, as the NEA pointed out in its 2008 report, Reading on the Rise, is enjoying a strong resurgence. For me, having the opportunity to speak about Ray Bradbury (and specifically Fahrenheit 451), to attempt to engage people’s curiosity about the author and his work, is a challenge I accept with gratitude and sureness. Bring it, I say. One of the goals in my presentations is to get people to run out and read Bradbury. Right away. In my mind, there is no better writer to engage reluctant readers. Bradbury’s stories are at once entertaining, instructive, literary and, for young readers, often just plain fun. He is our finest gateway author, helping to light the path for YA readers into the, at times, intimidating forest of literary reading.
I have made many friends along the way over these 15 years, four books, one graphic novel and myriad events. Last week, at Maryville University, one such Bradburian companion—Andy Burnside—came out for my keynote presentation for the “Maryville Reads” program. I have known Andy for a few years now. It started with a simple fan letter he wrote to me about my book, The Bradbury Chronicles. We’ve stayed in touch ever since. Andy teaches 5th grade in downstate Illinois and he does what Bradbury always maintained great teachers do—he inspires. I’ve had the good fortune to Skype with Andy’s students a few times now. They are always a mind-blowing lot filled with uber-intelligence, mile-high imagination, curiosity and gusto. They ask pointed questions. They are eager and they are engaged and they love Ray Bradbury because their great teacher has shared his love with them. Andy has them study Bradbury and then the students go on to read several of my own Bradburyesque short stories. Then I call them and we have a marvelous time talking about story and the elements of writing. It’s all a wonderful opportunity to connect with kids and to watch their imaginations lift of like Atlas rockets towards far-wonderland.
(The 5th grade class at Eunice Smith Elementary School after reading Sam Weller’s short story, “Night Summons,” in Rosebud magazine)
Two weeks ago, while at Governor’s State University, I dined before my keynote event with University President Elaine Maimon and Provost Deborah Bordelon. We had a thought-provoking conversation around the notion of “Educating the Imagination.” These two administrators GOT IT. They understood that, through imaginative engagement, comes a stoking of the curiosity fires. The ignition of the Atlas engines.
And when a student of any age becomes curious, they begin to learn on their own. This simple, yet often elusive pedagogical principle can and very often does create lifetime learners. Ray always told me that the best learning happens for a child when they don’t know they are learning at all.
And this is what Mr. Burnside does at Eunice Smith Elementary School in Alton, Illinois. He brings his excitement. He brings his passion and his knowledge. He engages each child in his classroom, through individualized instruction and as a group. Most importantly, he gets them excited about reading and learning. He calls each of the students in his class “Doctor.” When they enter his classroom, they become, as he puts it, “Doctors of Thinkology.” These kids are eager to walk through his door each day. How do I know this? Some of his past students came to my event at Maryville last week. They weren’t assigned to do this. They were just curious.
What people like Mr. Burnside and President Maimon (and Ray Bradbury) understand is clear and simple. It is a concept that is at the very epicenter of the NEA’s push for community reading events. As writer, critic and activist Margaret Fuller once aptly stated:
“Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.”
Sam Weller has given more than 350 talks worldwide. For booking information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org