Five cities in six days.
That’s how things rolled on my first book tour this October. I flew into a city, slept, woke up and visited two or three schools. Then I’d go the airport, fly to the next city, sleep and visit more schools.
I traveled to Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cincinnati, Ohio; Chicago, Illinois; Salt Lake City, Utah; and San Francisco, California this way.
My audience was kindergarteners through second graders. My topic was my new book SOPHIE’S SQUASH GO TO SCHOOL, the sequel to SOPHIE’S SQUASH. I used the books to talk about how an idea can become a story and a story can become a book, touching on creativity and persistence along the way.
I worked hard on my presentation, and I think the kids learned things from me. But my big take-away from the tour was how many things I learned from the students and their teachers. Things that will make be a better writer, a better presenter and a better person.
Public education is not equal. Intellectually, I guess I knew this, but seeing it firsthand was sobering. I was in some public schools so well-equipped and fancy and full of resources, that they looked like mini colleges. One school offered its students catered lunches from local sushi restaurants. I was in other public schools that were old and worn and had few resources. One school had no library at all. Another had a library but no librarian. And another had one librarian working valiantly to serve seven separate schools. All the kids were curious and eager, and all the teachers and librarians were doing their best, but the difference in resources was striking. And sometimes sad.
Schools across America are very diverse. After seeing the schools and kids I did, I have a much better understanding of who my audience is. And now that I know firsthand, I will never, ever write a book the same way. I live in Wisconsin, which certainly has diverse schools, but also has sections of the state that are almost exclusively Caucasian. This was not the case on my tour. One school I spoke at was 95 percent African-American. Another was largely Hispanic with a substantial African immigrant population. A third was mostly Asian and East Indian. These schools were in urban and suburban neighborhoods, and each had its own feel. Being face-to-face with so many great kids from so many great backgrounds in so many different locations was enlightening and affirming. I want to respectfully reflect those schools in my books.
Everything I’ve read about school visits going best when the teachers or librarians have talked you up and prepped the kids for your arrival is true. Several schools had the kids so well-prepared that they thought I was a rock star and reacted accordingly. Those visits were great. Other schools had done no prep work and the kid were herded in with little fanfare or expectation setting. In one case, I heard one kid ask another, “Why are we here?” Those visits were more of a challenge, but still turned out OK. And, I was in enough schools to learn common phrases teachers use, like: “We’re going to sit on our bottoms with our hands in our laps and put on our listening ears and show Mrs. Miller what good Spartan behavior looks like.” And: “Who has a question? Something they don’t know but they’d like to find out. Not a story, but a question.” Oh, and if you ever visit schools, make sure to bring your driver’s license even if you aren’t driving. Many schools ran my license through a machine that printed out a visitor’s pass with my photo on it and, I’m told, vetted me against a sexual predator list.
Librarians make a difference. In one school, I saw a librarian take a delighted child by the hand and say, “Have I got a book for YOU!” Another librarian helped a kindergartner decide which of two books to check out. And, a third librarian had two book-loving sixth-graders assisting her in the library, and they were so pleased to talk with her about what they were reading. And many of the librarians had spent time before my visit reading my books to the kids, showing them videos of me and making bulletin boards or signs with the kids and posting them around the school. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I love librarians.
Booksellers are awesome. I adore bookstores too and was lucky enough to be able to visit and browse in many of the stores that helped coordinate my visit. I had some great discussions with booksellers about their favorite books. Several also shared what they’ve done in their communities to promote SOPHIE’S SQUASH, which was great. I bought so many books, I had to ship them home separately because they wouldn’t fit in my luggage. Much love to Boswell Books, The Blue Manatee, The King’s English, The Book Stall and Rakestraw Books.
A lot of cool things happened that don’t fit into the above categories, so here are …
My 10 most memorable moments:
- A girl saying, “It’s going to be a GREAT day.” I asked her why and she said, “Because I met you.”
- A tiny girl whispering to me, “I’m going to go home and tell my mom I want to write books.”
- A school receptionist greeting me with: “Don’t touch the counter! We just had a student with pink eye and he touched EVERYTHING.” (Then, thankfully, she gave me hand sanitizer.)
- A group of eighth graders who were in the library for a study hall while I was speaking to the younger kids. As I left, an eighth grader picked up SOPHIE’S SQUASH and started reading it to his friends.
- Seeing pictures of a student’s cousin who loved SOPHIE’S SQUASH so much that she acquired several butternut squashes of her own, which her mom sewed beds for. The pictures showed all the squash tucked into bed. It broke the cuteness meter.
- Being asked: “Where’s your dad?” during an open question-and-answer session. I have no idea what prompted that question, but I answered it – in Oshkosh, Wisconsin – and we moved on. My next favorite where-did-that-come-from question was: “Are your glasses real?” If you’re wondering the same thing, the answer is “Yes.”
- A librarian saying the fourth-graders were sorry they didn’t get a chance to hear me. So I offered to do a presentation just for them, and we fit it in before I had to leave for the airport.
- Several students who showed me books they were working on. Usually it was notebooks full of words, but once it was a beautifully drawn cover with blank pages afterward waiting for the story.
- A first- or second-grader who surprised me by accurately defining alliteration. I told him he was my new best friend.
- A boy who asked if he could take a selfie with me. We did, he left and then he came back because he wanted to shake my hand.
So the tour was awesome, and I’m extremely grateful to Schwartz & Wade for sending me on it and to Chris Barton, Phil Bildner and Liz Garton Scanlon for giving me invaluable tour tips. (Highlights included: “Always say ‘yes,’ if someone asks if you need to visit the restroom.” “Bring your own wireless clicker to advance your slides so you can walk around while you talk.” “Teachers love it when you talk about revision.” “Have a Plan B if your technology fails.”)
And, while I’ve finished reading all the books I had shipped home, I’m still processing everything I experienced and making notes on what I’d do differently if I ever get to visit five cities in six days again.
I know for sure it would be worth the trip.