Jane Yolen, author of the popular children's book How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?  (Scholastic, 2000), loves receiving questions from her young readers via e-mail. "If you even dream stories, do you ever catch a break?"and "Can you separate your real life from your imagined life?" are some of the things their inquiring minds have wanted to know. ("That second question is worth an entire essay," Yolen laughs.) Joking aside, there's nothing more inspirational or enlightening for students than interacting with real-life authors or illustrators. Today-thanks to technology-limited funding and geographical distance are no longer a barrier between these literary stars and their devoted fans. Like Yolen, many writers are more than happy to take a virtual leap to interact with their readers. Careful sleuthing will help you find authors who would welcome interactions with your class. With their help, you'll be able to infuse your study of literature with increased understanding of an author's process, behind-the-scenes glimpses into the creation of the story, and, if you're lucky, some great writing advice for your students. Three simple types of virtual visits are practical for almost every classroom teacher: E-mail, virtual chats, and webcam visits.

How to Start an E-Mail Exchange
Select an author.
Find the author's personal web page and use the e-mail link to ask the author whether he/she would be willing to participate in an e-mail correspondence with your class. Be sure to discuss procedures, time frame, and possible fees. Read and Discuss. With your students, read and discuss the author's work. Then, build on the curriculum connections (for example, you might mark the towns mentioned in the story on a map, research local animals and plants, and draw or act out scenes together). Compile questions. In a brainstorming session, encourage your students to use this opportunity to ask anything they want to know. To avoid repetition, compile student questions into a single e-mail to the author.

How to Hold a Virtual Chat
Research. Contact the author or his or her publisher to learn if the author is available for a virtual chat visit. ? Discuss procedures, time frame, and fees. Unlike with e-mail, there are standard fees for a virtual chat (approx- imately $100 for an hour-long visit). Again, you will read and discuss the author's work, and explore the many curriculum connections a great children's book provides. Download and install. Download and install a free instant messenging program with chat features onto your hard drive. You might try AOL Instant Messenger (available at http://www.aim.com/). set up a time Set up a date and time to meet the author online. Use one computer. If possible, connect the computer to a data projector, so everyone can read along. Have students relay their individual questions to the adult "pilot" who types. Practice. Ask a colleague to participate in a just-for-fun IM with you and your class in advance, to make sure you are comfortable with the equipment and procedure. Brainstorm! For large chats with multiple classes, prepare core questions beforehand. After working through this list with the author, allow impromptu questioning. Here are some tips: Use a laser pointer to call students' attention quickly to important points. Have students take turns reading the author's replies aloud.  Save the transcript and print it to share with future classes.

How to Host a Webcam Visit
Learn the ropes.
A webcam is a digital video camera (costing from $40-$100) that connects to your computer and allows both audio and video communication. Once you acquire one, download and install video-chat or netmeeting software onto your hard drive. (Try the simple, free download at http://www.paltalk.com/.) Again, practice using this set-up in advance of the visit. contact your author As before, contact the author to discuss procedures, time frame, and fees, which will be similar to those for a virtual chat. Do the homework. After reading, discussing, and extending the author's work, have students brainstorm questions that they will ask the author. Set up your studio. Place one chair in direct view of the camera and have students take turns sitting in it during the session. Share these tips for sitting in front of the camera: Try not to move while speaking. Speak slowly and clearly. Look up at the camera, rather than at the computer screen.Whichever approach you take, a virtual author visit can be an exciting learning experience. When students get the chance to talk with and ask questions of an author, they understand the writing process in a whole new way.