D181 kids take on role of interviewer

Students question accomplished writers Ben and Tonya Mezrich for foundation webinar

Best-selling author Ben Mezrich has been interviewed by CNBC, Vanity Fair and Pharrell Williams. Oh, and nine students from Community Consolidated District 181.

Ben and his wife, Tonya, who co-author the "Charlie Numbers" series, fielded the students' questions during a 97-minute Jan. 14 webinar sponsored by the District 181 Foundation.

Students said they felt some trepidation about interviewing a famous writer whose books had been made into movies like "21" and "The Social Network." And they knew 150 people were watching.

The assignment could appear deceptively simple, said Fiona Duffy Schimpf, 10, a fifth-grader at Prospect School.

" 'Aw, that must have been pretty easy - all you do is go up and ask the question,' " Fiona said some might have thought. "But it takes a lot of preparation. I have to say it was pretty stressful."

The opportunity to talk to published authors outweighed any anxiety the kids felt.

"I was very interested in this because I've never done an author interview before," said Sanya Sidhu, 11, a sixth-grader at Clarendon Hills Middle School. "When I read one of their books, I thought it was really interesting and thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience to interview them."

Theo Jakobsen, 11, also a sixth-grader at CHMS, agreed.

"I read one of their books, 'Charlie Numbers and the Woolly Mammoth.' I really liked it and I've never met an author. I wanted to meet the author - and the author of a good book," he said.

The students' first task was brainstorming a list of questions and then deciding which ones to use in the interview.

"I feel like another hard part was thinking of the questions, because you don't really want to have level-1 questions, simple questions. You want to ask in-depth questions," said Jaylen Doshi, 12, a sixth-grader at Hinsdale Middle School.

The Mezrichs shared a lot of information about the process of writing books, both the "Charlie Numbers" children's series they've primarily written together and the 20 books Ben has worked on alone. Students said they didn't realize just how hard being an author is.

"I never assumed that much work goes into writing a book. I think that was interesting and I was really surprised," said Tiffany Tu, 15, an eighth-grader at HMS.

She also enjoyed learning Ben's trick for keeping the narrative going from one day to the next.

"He said that he would be writing a sentence and he would always stop halfway through. That way, the next day it would be easy for him to pick up and start off," Tu related.

Nikhal Rao, a sixth-grader at CHMS, said he appreciated the insight into the challenges of the writing process and the number of tips he heard to aid with his own writing.

"You have to have a good story and good grammar and good spelling," he said. "You have to make your readers enticed in the story. They have to want to read it."

The students posed some personal questions to the couple as well, which left Sanya feeling a little uncomfortable.

"I felt a little weird asking Mrs. Mezrich why she chose writing and she didn't choose the other jobs she had done," Sanya said. "I didn't know her. It was weird asking her those personal questions."

Heather Scott, a sixth-grade language arts teacher at HMS and the teacher rep for the foundation, said she never would have guessed the students were nervous.

"You made it look like it was no big deal," she said. "It came across like you do this every day."

The project helped students develop a number of skills, Scott said, from researching the writers to writing, categorizing and selecting the queries.

"There was a lot of analysis and evaluation of what would be a good question," she said.

District 181 board member Sinead Duffy, Fiona's mom, knows the Mezrichs from the time both families lived in Boston. She arranged for the couple to participate and helped moderate the webinar.

"I was probably more nervous than the students," she said. "They all did a fabulous job in asking the questions, and Ben and Tonya were so impressed. I actually would say I learned a lot in the webinar that I didn't know, even though I know Ben and Tonya."

Tonya told The Hinsdalean she appreciated the format and thought it was a smart way to engage kids.

"We were very impressed," she said. "They had such well thought-out questions that were intelligent and very mature for their age group.

"I was surprised at how young they were," she added. "They showed such maturity and thinking on their feet.

Tonya and Ben have two kids of their own, Arya, 8, and Asher, 10. Tonya enjoyed seeing Asher's former mom and baby classmate all grown up.

"It really warmed my heart, seeing the kids and just making that connection with Sinead and her daughter," she said.

She also appreciated how many audience members stayed on the Zoom for the entire program and credited the enthusiasm of the interviewers.

"We just really love that they were excited," she said. "That made us excited. It was all good all around."