…White has been a storyteller from the get-go. He first told stories about the pandas on his bedroom wallpaper, and in middle school he published his own stories, mimeographing them for the benefit of classmates. He read voraciously—Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, and Stephen King—and favorite books included Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. He was so enamored of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain that he never read the final book (The High King), because “once I read it, the story would be over. I may read it on my deathbed…”
Reading, for little me, was more akin to an actual experience than a recreational activity. I didn’t read about Narnia; I visited Narnia. The lessons I learned there felt as real and substantial as lessons learned in real life, possibly even more substantial for a daydreamy kid with his nose perpetually stuck in a book…
I couldn’t believe how fast this story is. It is like action on every page and I felt like I was actually in the book with Kara as she was bringing the book to life and as she started seeing Grace for what she was and the power they both had…The book ended with a major cliffhanger and totally left me wanting to read more…
I met Paul Durham, the author I would be touring with that day, for breakfast, and we instantly hit it off. Paul, a former lawyer and author of the excellent middle-grade novel THE LUCK UGLIES, lives up in New Hampshire with his wife and two daughters. He’s laid back, funny, and an all around good guy. He also writes in a refurbished chicken coop, which is ridiculously cool.
Ginny, our media guide that day, took us to two schools in the New Bedford area. Doing a shorter version of my presentation was a nice change of pace, and it was fun to play off Paul when we were answering student questions. Paul is an engaging speaker with all sorts of tricks up his sleeves, such as writing on bananas and making kids wear crazy masks. It makes a lot more sense when you see it!
Our bookstore engagement that evening was at Wellesley Books, where Paul and I chatted about our lives, writing, and inspirations. Allison, one of the booksellers there, asked us to discuss our favorite deleted scene from our respective novels. What a good question! (Quick answer: THE THICKETY was originally written in an omniscient voice, jumping from character to character, before I realized that would make it far too long. I miss the scenes written from Grace’s point-of-view.)
I spent that evening walking around New Bedford. It was once a major whaling village, and as I was staying right by the water I took some time to check out the ships and narrow cobblestone streets. As it grew dark I was reminded of another coastal town, this one from the H.P. Lovecraft story “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but that’s probably just me. (I’m sure there are no cults that worship ancient underwater sea creatures in New Bedford. Probably.)
The next day Ginny drove me all the way from New Bedford to Cohasset, a little over an hour. Although I was pretty drained by this point in the tour, I really enjoyed the scenic drive past thick foliage and cranberry bogs, as well as our pleasant conversation about books and family. When we arrived in Cohasset I snagged coffee at Marylou’s, which proudly announced, via a bright pink sign, that it had the “BEST COFFEE IN TOWN.” (It was the only coffee I drank in Cohasset, so I have no point of comparison, but it was way better than Starbucks!)
The first school I spoke at was Inly School. The path to the office was lined with colorful cow statues, so I immediately knew I would like this place—and I wasn’t disappointed. However, the librarian at Inly School, Shelley Sommer, did a much better job writing about my visit there than I ever could, so though I’ve already tweeted it I’ll re-include her post here:
(Her blog is a great resource for teachers and librarians—I particularly liked the post about 10 picture books for teaching kindness and compassion: http://sommerreading.wordpress.com/2012/08/04/ten-picture-books-about-caring-and-compassion/)
After Inly School we journeyed to Buttonwood Books and Toys, where I did some shopping (they give visiting authors a free book—so cool!—but as they have a great selection I couldn’t settle on just one for my kids). I also picked up a copy of THE COLD SONG by Linn Ullmann, a Norwegian thriller that is also an IndieNext pick. How could I resist?
Ginny and I enjoyed sandwiches in the back room (with cranberry sauce, a local thing that I felt was a definite improvement over the usual condiments). Afterwards, we headed over to Hingham Middle School, which was a blast! The kids were incredibly enthusiastic, cheering and applauding throughout my presentation. The fact that they were on the verge of a long Memorial Day weekend might have had something to do with that. One student, who had done his research on my website, asked me the level of my Skyrim character…and shook his head sadly at my pathetic answer. Another student asked me for the name of my favorite horror movie. I started saying the real answer—SUSPIRIA—but then scrambled for something relatively more kid friendly and came up with UGETSU, the great Japanese ghost story.
Here are the FINAL tallies for “Which is scarier?”—along with my choices:
abandoned hospitals (7) vs. abandoned amusement parks (2), 1 tie. I have always had a thing for abandoned amusement parks, and I feel like there is a story there somewhere, waiting to be told.
spiders (5) vs. cockroaches (5). It ends in a tie! I’m not particularly frightened of either one of these—spiders eat other insects, which is why I try to let them do their thing, and cockroaches are pretty gross, but not really scary. Millipedes, on the other hand…I hate millipedes.
creepy children (8) vs. dolls (2). I think I’m going to write a story about a creepy child carrying a doll. It will be the scariest story ever written.
clowns (8) vs. the dark (2). I was really surprised by this one! I don’t find clowns particularly scary at all, just kind of sad. Mimes, on the other hand…
In conclusion, when my next novel is published, you’ll know where I got the idea. It’s called CLOWNS AND CREEPY CHILDREN IN THE COCKROACH-INFESTED SPIDER HOSPITAL. NY Times Bestseller Listhere I come!
Tri-state area events next…
From the moment I received my book tour itinerary, I have expected Cincinnati to be the worst day of my tour. This has nothing to do with Cincinnati itself. In fact, I don’t know anything about Cincinnati, other than the Reds and WKRP are there. But the way my schedule shook out on that particular day was brutal. I left my Chicago hotel room at 4:30AM for my flight (luckily it was the airport hotel, so I just had to wheel my luggage through some moderately creepy tunnels to get there). However, my flight to Boston was due to depart that same night at 8:15; I would wake up in Chicago, spend the day in Cincinnati, and sleep in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
At the airport, a nice dude at the baggage check counter, seeing my schedule, suggested that I send my luggage straight through from Chicago to Boston, bypassing Cincinnati altogether. This meant I wouldn’t have to go through the hassle of baggage claim and checking my bag all over again, but the idea of all my clothes going AWOL for day made me nervous. This might have had something to do with the way the conversation played out:
ME: Wow, send it straight to Boston, huh? That sounds great! You can do that?
NICE DUDE: Um…sure. Yeah. We can do that.
ME: So I’ll just leave my bag here and pick it up in Boston?
NICE DUDE: Yeah. I think. It might get there before you, though. So if you can’t find it on the baggage carousel…just ask around.
NICE DUDE: I’m sure it’ll be somewhere.
For the rest of the day, I was concerned that the clothes currently on my back would be the ones I wore for the remainder of the tour. Promise I’ll get back to that story at the end of this post…
I met Annette, my media escort for the day, at the airport. She could not have been sweeter. As an introduction, she even gave me a little care package filled with chocolate and other goodies. This would be a harbinger of things to come: people in Cincinnati are ridiculously, improbably, unnaturally NICE. This phenomenon continued as we arrived at Sts. Peter and Paul Academy, where I met Kelly and Dave from JosephBeth Booksellers. They were both the absolute coolest, and despite my increasingly comatose state I could see that it was going to be a fun day.
As I did my presentation in the cafeteria, I grew worried that the students were bored or disinterested, because they just stared at me the whole time without making a sound. Then I started worrying that there was something on my face and they were just too polite to say anything; remaining silent might have been the only way they could restrain themselves from bursting into hysterical laughter. (Sleep deprivation does funny things.) It was only at the end, as I answered the students’ thoughtful questions, that I realized they had been totally invested in what I was saying and were just preternaturally well behaved. And their questions! Whoa! So smart! Even the teachers got into it, asking me about themes and my writing process and all manner of things that kept me on my toes.
“Which is scarier?” results…
abandoned hospitals vs. abandoned amusement parks (abandoned hospitals)
spiders vs. cockroaches (spiders)
dolls vs. creepy children (creepy children)
the dark vs. clowns (the dark—first time winner!)
After the presentation we went to JosephBeth Booksellers—what an amazing bookstore! It’s HUGE, but it also feels cozy and welcoming, a neat trick to pull off. Kelly and Molly–queen of the children’s department and another stellar example of Cincinnati friendliness–had tag-teamed to make THE THICKETY the Kids’ Book of the Month for May. Pretty sweet!
We had lunch at the cute café attached to the bookstore (turkey sandwich, much laughter) and then, as there was still time before my next school visit, I did what comes naturally and shopped for books. On the plane ride I had read THE DINNER by Herbert Koch—which was unsettling in the best way possible—but now I was looking for something a little lighter. I decided on MR. PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE by Robin Sloan. It sounded kind of quirky, but more importantly it had been recommended by a member of the staff, which is always the way to go at independent bookstores.
My second presentation that day was to an adorable group of third graders at the Cincinnati Public Library, a building larger than most malls and/or airport terminals. It was HUGE! Being in front of a group of third graders was pretty comfortable for me (being a third-grade teacher and all) but it did make me miss my students.
In the “Which is scarier?” survey, my library group picked hospitals, cockroaches, creepy children, and clowns, bringing the current totals to:
abandoned hospitals (4) vs. abandoned amusement parks (1), 1 tie
spiders (3) vs. cockroaches (3)—this one’s close!
creepy children (5) vs. dolls (1)
clowns (5) vs. the dark (1)
I was nervous about making my flight after my JosephBeth event, since we were cutting things kind of close schedule-wise. Annette drove like a champion, however, and I was in plenty of time. (The fact that there was NO LINE at security helped a lot.) Since I had some extra time at the gate I figured I would check on my bag’s status. I didn’t think the woman at the counter would be able to help me, but I decided to try anyway—and lo and behold, she found my bag…which was still in Cincinnati. She asked, “Would you like this to come to Boston with you?” to which I replied, “That would be swell.”
Moral of the story: It never hurts to ask.
Next stop: Boston!
During my flight to Chicago I was able to finish Paul Durham’s THE LUCK UGLIES, which is a great new middle-grade novel. Although technically it falls into the fantasy genre, I think of it more as a “swashbuckling adventure with monsters,” despite its notable lack of swashes and buckles. It definitely made the time just vanish—and when you get right down to it, isn’t that the best compliment you can pay a book?
Our first stop was Puffer School in Downers Grove. The librarian, Ms. Box, showed me her wall of fame: dozens of photographs of all the famous writers she has met over the years. Although I am hardly in that category, I got to take a photo with Ms. Box, and after some fancy lamination I’ll be on the wall of fame as well! (Federal law 732.A7 mandates that anything hanging on a school wall must be laminated.)
An incredibly well spoken boy named Jake introduced me to the students. His speech was hilarious; he had done his homework via my website, and while he agrees that THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is an awesome movie, he couldn’t resist taking a dig at my beloved Mets. Actually, I think his speech was more entertaining than my presentation! Nothing will check your ego more than be completely upstaged by an elementary school student.
Here are the “Which is scarier?” tallies for Puffin School:
abandoned hospitals vs. abandoned amusement parks (abandoned hospitals)
spiders vs. cockroaches (spiders)
dolls vs. creepy children (creepy children)
the dark vs. clowns (clowns)
I’m still a little surprised that more kids are choosing creepy children as opposed to dolls. I suppose they’ve never read the short story “Prey” by Richard Matheson, or seen the filmed version in the TV movie Trilogy of Terror. That would change their minds quickly, I think.
My media escort for the day, Bill Young, took me to a beautiful local bookstore/café in St. Charles called Town House books. After that it was off to Lincoln School. Ms. Dainko, the librarian there, had done an amazing job decorating the library window for my appearance! The school itself was so incredible! The front part of the school is very sleek and modern, but this was a later addition to the school; once you cross beneath this stunning archway you are in the older, original building (which of course I prefer, as the chance of ghosts rises exponentially). Each room has these beautiful, recessed shelves, and the kindergarten room even has a small pond with tiny fish! After following Ms. Dainko through a labyrinthine series of passageways, I found myself in a first grade classroom, which is where I gave my presentation to a large group of upper-elementary students.
Here were their answers to “Which is scarier?”:
Abandoned hospitals vs. abandoned amusement parks (hospitals)
Spiders vs. cockroaches (cockroaches)
Dolls vs. creepy children (creepy children again—have all these kids recently watched THE SHINING or something?)
The dark vs. clowns (big surprise—clowns)
Here are the totals so far:
abandoned hospitals (2) vs. abandoned amusement parks (1), 1 tie
spiders (2) vs. cockroaches (2)
creepy children (3) vs. dolls (1)
clowns (4) vs. the dark (0)
After Bill took me to a scrumptious dinner of hot dogs and beefsteaks, I attended an event at Anderson’s Bookshop. It’s located in Naperville, an idyllic suburb that looks like it has been time warped from the 1950s—save, perhaps, the Apple Store and Starbucks. (I actually didn’t see a Starbucks, but I’m going to play the odds and assume we just didn’t drive past it.) I really loved the town, and wished I could have spent more time there. The other thing I really loved—and that came as a complete surprise—was that Anderson’s lets their visiting authors choose any book in the store as a parting gift. Thank you!! Tons of food and now free books! This writing gig keeps getting better and better!
I picked THAT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA! by Mo Willems, because Colin and Logan love his books!
Next stop: Cincinnati!
This was my first trip to Texas, so I had two very concrete goals in mind: I wanted to eat authentic Texas barbecue and also some awesome Mexican food. For me, it’s all about the food. Luckily, as I was soon to learn, the city of Houston revolves around food, which is dished out in behemothic portions. A match made in heaven.
My flight landed two hours late, so I didn’t arrive at my hotel until late Thursday night. The hotel restaurant was closed, but I did manage to find a noodle joint in the shopping plaza just next door, where I had something called “Sexy Chicken Noodles.” I’m still not sold on this overly generous estimation of my dinner’s physical attractiveness—but it was pretty yummy nonetheless.
The next morning, my media escort Mary Ann picked me up bright and early. (A media escort is the hugely important person who meets an author in each city and gets them where they need to be.) Mary Ann couldn’t have been more gracious and helpful. Not only is she known and loved by, as far as I could tell, EVERY SINGLE PERSON IN TEXAS, but she also told me fascinating stories about Houston and other authors she has toured. The hours flew by in her company.
Our first stop that Friday was Victory Lakes Intermediate School, where I was completely stunned to find that the art students had decorated the entire library Thickety-style, including a corn maze, a scarecrow (by Elizabeth), two one-eyed birds (by Mason), and a beautifully drawn map of De’Noran on burlap (by Jacob). One student, Nora, even wore the blue cloak that Kara wears in the trailer, and their cool performing arts teacher, Mr. Shukis, recorded the prologue to The Thickety and played it for all the classes beforehand. (He was also kind enough to give me a copy of his performance, and let me tell you—the man has skills.) It was a joy to meet Jeanie Dawson, the remarkable librarian at Victory Lakes, who put all this together and clearly inspires a love of reading in her students on a daily basis. They are so very lucky to have her.
As for my presentation…my Jedi Master Soman Chainani had wisely suggested that I include an interactive component, and as he is the bestselling writer of The School for Good and Evil and I am the new kid on the block, I thought it would be prudent to listen. Luckily, the kids at Victory Lakes, an amazingly attentive audience, were totally into it. Every five minutes or so I gave them two options and asked them to vote on which one was scarier. I promised I would keep a running tally during my tour, so here goes….
Which is scarier?
Victory Lakes edition
Abandoned hospitals or abandoned amusement parks (tie)
Spiders or cockroaches (spiders)
Dolls or creepy children (close, but creepy children)
The dark or clowns (almost unanimously clowns)
Between schools Mary Ann and Cathy, from Blue Willow Bookshop, took me out to a Mexican restaurant called Chuy’s, where Cathy convinced me—with remarkably little prodding—to try to the shrimp tacos. The good news is they were heavenly. The bad news is that Cathy and Mary Ann have completely ruined Mexican food for me in the tri-state area, because all the choices there pale in comparison.
Thanks, ladies. Thanks.
My next stop was Bobby Shaw Middle School. Here I met another extraordinary librarian, Julie Mulkey, who introduced me to a small group of enthusiastic kids for a casual Q and A. Plus, there were cookies! After this, I did a larger presentation for all the sixth graders in the school cafeteria.
Which is scarier?
Bobby Shaw Middle School edition
Abandoned hospitals or abandoned amusement parks (abandoned hospitals)
Spiders or cockroaches (cockroaches)
Dolls or creepy children (really close, but dolls)
The dark or clowns (once again, clowns by a landslide)
I was presented with my very own Bobby Shaw Middle School journal (which I used to make notes for Thickety 3 when I got back to the hotel that night). I also got to sign this awesome chair in Ms. Mulvey’s library, featuring all the authors who have previously visited. I’m right next to Lisa McMann! How cool is that?
We made an impromptu stop at gorgeous Blue Willow Bookshop, where I had a fun conversation with a girl named Charlotte who liked my book (yay!) and asked lots of astute questions. I also got to sign Blue Willow’s wall of authors!
The next day, after the most incredible barbecue in the history of barbecued things, Mary Ann brought me to another independent bookstore, Brazos Bookstore, where I said, “Hey!” and signed things. I only spent a few minutes there; I probably could have spent all day just gawking.
From there, Mary Ann and I headed out to a Barnes and Noble in College Park, which is about an hour and a half outside of Houston. Here I finally got to meet my Twitter buddy Kelsey, who had set up an awesome signing with balloons and cookies. It was her last day of work before moving to New York—she’ll actually get there before I will. Good luck, Kelsey!
For just two weeks, I am going to be changing the format of this blog from a “writing lesson” blog to a “book tour” blog. For you teachers who have signed on solely for the purpose of lesson ideas, I won’t be offended if you jump ship for a little while, and I promise I’ll share a few more lessons before summer vacation. As a parting gift, here’s a link to an AWESOME lesson about creating a blog from the point-of-view of a fictional character:
Now onto the tour stuff…
Part of the reason I’m writing this is because I want to record all these once-in-a-lifetime experiences before I forget them–which, given my memory, means I better write fast. The other reason is so the students that I abandoned back home can read about what their teacher is up to at other schools. (Hey kids! I miss you! I hope you are listening to Ms. Rodrigues! Rhino Romp and Field Day soon!)
My first stop, on May 9th, was my very own Ridgewood Avenue School, where I teach third grade. I wanted to start my tour here because I anticipated being somewhat nervous, and I thought having a home field advantage would make things easier. This ended up being true and…not so much with the true. It was nice knowing my locale so well, but what I hadn’t anticipated was the MIND STAGGERING outpouring of support from parents, teachers, and students. The Home and School Association purchased one copy of the novel for every family in our school and all teachers, via Watchung Booksellers, an awesome local independent bookseller. The Home & School also printed Thickety t-shirts to sell to the kids, and gave a t-shirt to each teacher! In the week leading up to the event, food inspired by The Thickety was cooked by the fabulous Sharon and sold in the cafeteria, including beef stew (yum) and apple pie (double yum).
Sadly, there was no hushfruit, but I’ll forgive Sharon, because hushfruit doesn’t actually exist.
The books were handed out to students on publication day (May 6th) so they could have three days to read as much as they could before the author “visit.” And man, did they ever dive in! Walking through the hallways and seeing all these kids reading my novel was just such an incredible experience. As an author, I don’t think anything can top that.
On the day of the event, Harper Collins provided Thickety buttons for each student. Parents designed an amazingly elaborate entrance to the auditorium so students could “enter the Thickety,” and even rented something called a gobo (which sounds like a creature from my book but is apparently a real thing) to create shadowy tree effects on the walls.
The front row was packed with my family and friends, who were kind enough to log in some serious travel time in order to attend, and at one o’clock the kids spilled into the auditorium, along with many of their parents. All told, there were about 700 people there, waiting for me to say something meaningful.
Mr. Donovan, our principal and stalwart supporter of me during this whole crazy journey, gave a very moving introduction, and then I did my thing for a little over an hour. I admit this part is a little fuzzy. I know I talked about how The Thickety was published, read an entire chapter (the part when Kara first finds the grimoire), riffed on the importance of reading and writing for young people, and told a story about cheese whiz, but mostly I kept thinking in my head, Don’t say anything stupid. Don’t say anything stupid. If you mess up, you see these people EVERY DAY. Don’t say anything stupid.
Although I paced back and forth as I am wont to do, I did not trip. Not even once. I am very proud of this fact.
The students asked questions afterwards, and I quickly learned that this will absolutely be my favorite part of touring. Since many of the kids had already finished the book (in three days!!!) there were some crazy insightful queries. Some of my favorites:
“What is Grace’s backstory?” (Complicated.)
“Where do you get the ideas for all your scary monsters?” (I wish I knew!)
“Are any of these characters based on kids you’ve taught?” (Nope—but I did use some names I liked.)
After the event at Ridgewood Avenue School, I journeyed down the road to Watchung Booksellers in Montclair. It’s such a cozy, comfortable environment—perfect for browsing—and this allowed me to chat with some very enthusiastic readers about the novel and what it’s like to be an author. It was a welcome change of pace after the larger crowd. Both events were very memorable, but in different ways.
All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the public appearance side of my writing career, and I am so grateful for the warmth and support of everyone. Ridgewood Avenue School really is my second home.
Now onto Texas!
Final note: During my presentation, I showed the Thickety book trailer and a short film called “Good Vs. Wiivil,” which I made with my friend Jack Paccione Jr. a few years back. A number of students have asked for the links, so here they are!
Good Vs. Wiivil (in HD)
J. A. White defied conventional wisdom by selling his first novel – soon to be a trilogy – without selling one piece of short fiction to magazines. How did he do it? Also, how does he maintain page-turning tension without the reader suffering fatigue, how does he balance character development and world building, and how does he find time to write with so much else on his plate…?