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For the second year in a row, I was invited to speak at Gregory-Portland Intermediate School in Portland, TX. And for the second year in a row, my kind host Cati Partridge sent me a thick stack of thank you letters from the students who were forced to listen to me for an hour. And for the second year in a row, I was struck by many of them. Here are some comments that stood out:
- “It takes a real man to look up that much information! If it were my opinion, you actually made history!”
- “Out of all the guest speakers, you were the best…and the most hilarious. You have inspired me to follow through with all of my dreams and goals. My first goal is to make varsity soccer and my second is to become an open heart surgeon. I think you helped a lot with making them come true.”
- “I honestly thought it was going to be another boring author, but you turned out to be really interesting! Superheroes aren’t real but I can certainly see one in you!”
- “I think your dedication to your writing is very inspiring and many other authors could learn from you. You’re a funny, awesome, and a nobleman [sic].”
- “Now you’re famous and you inspired many people in my school, including me. You are the best person I know that has good speeching [sic] skills.”
- “In Language class, we’re doing a project where we pick an author and research them. I wish I would’ve known about your books!”
- “What is it like to be a superhero…writer?”
- “I want to do what you do—investigate and look for stuff people don’t even know about. Mr. Nobleman, is all of this you do worth it?”
- “If only Bill Finger or Batman could see you now.”
- “I was stunned when my teachers told us that an author was coming to our school. I thought that our little town was finally getting recognized by people. But then I remembered that you came last year and we were already on the map thanks to you.”
- “Thank you, not just for coming to our school but for taking time out of your life to find these things out. To give credit to those who were given none and to shine light on those who were put in darkness. To me, however insignificant this letter may be, you are a hero.”
- “When my dad picked me up from school, I told him everything [you said]! He said I’ve never said I liked something at school.”
- “Halloween would have been much more boring without [Bill Finger]!”
- “You are a loyal, great, hard-working fan of superheroes. It’s almost like you’re their hero.”
Thank you, Claire Kirsch, for your fine reportage on my recent visit to Penns Manor Elementary and my collaboration with the students to create the horrible & dreadful Baby Pandasaurus Rex! Read all about it here.
On 4/23-24/14, I participated in the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival in the United Arab Emirates; while I was here for four days of the two-week event, other featured American children’s book authors/illustrators included Peter Brown, Meghan McCarthy, and Stephen Messer.
Our appearances consisted of two types: morning talks at schools in Sharjah and an evening panel with academics from the Arab community.
Both were considerably different than any previous author experience I’ve had, and my compatriots had similar reactions.
Both of my Sharjah schools were all-girl and Arab; some authors spoke at Australian or Indian schools and/or all-boy schools. My students were about 12 and 13 years old.
Simply getting to the schools was an adventure. In my first week in the UAE, I’ve been in a lot of cars (not to mention three hotels), and none of the drivers have used GPS. I don’t recall seeing traffic lights in Sharjah. (And the hotels don’t have addresses in the sense we’re used to—no street number. Just “Corniche Street.” Or sometimes even just “near the Expo Center.”) Drivers seem to be guesstimating how to get to places.
My two schools were not only all-girl but also all-shy. I understand. I get the impression they rarely if ever have guest speakers, and almost certainly never a foreign, male guest speaker. I was surprised and impressed that the schools were open to a visitor like me.
Al Noof Government SchoolShyness aside, the students were very sweet, and at the first school, the girls did come around by the end of my hourlong talk; a few asked questions, in part thanks to their teacher’s words of encouragement (in English). She invited me to come back and even gave me her cell phone so I could give her notice.
Using humor in this context was tricky. Different culture, different sensibility. The one time I remember the girls at the second school laughing was at the end of my presentation. I was trying to make them feel comfortable enough to ask questions so I said I have children of my own and they ask me lots of questions:
It was that last one that elicited some giggles.
- “May I please stay up later?”
- “May I please have another cookie?”
- “Daddy, would you please stop talking?”
Action at A Ta'la School.
On 4/23/14, Peter and Meghan were on a panel with two Arab speakers. The topic was something like “reading and media.” Each of the four panelists spoke for about 10 minutes each. (We were told in advance that some panelists would not be sticking to the already-vague topics. It’s a cultural thing.)
One of the others on their panel was, I believe, a children’s book author as well. The last was an Egyptian psychiatrist whose focus was the prevention of predatory behavior online. Certainly important, and she was certainly well-spoken, but a strange pairing with children’s authors.
The highlight of that panel (for me as an audience member) was what turned out to be one of many “incidents” during panels at the festival. While the psychiatrist was explaining the gravity and prevalence of child endangerment via the Internet, a man in the audience began to call out at her (in Arabic). Everyone—panelists and audience members alike—had small Star Trek devices in our ears for translations (English to Arabic or vice versa, depending on what you needed).
But the translator in the back of the room could not clearly hear the shouting audience man, who continued to interrupt the psychiatrist (and therefore disrupt the room) to the point that the translator began to plead “Peter Brown, Peter Brown, I can’t work like this! Please intervene!”
Though Peter was sitting next to the psychiatrist, what he (or anyone) could have done to remedy the situation was anyone’s guess. Luckily, the psychiatrist seemed to shut down the shouting man by saying “There is a fine line between commenting and insulting.”
On 4/24/14, Peter, Meghan, and I went from Sharjah to Dubai to see the Dubai Mall, currently the world’s largest in terms of area, and Burj Khalifa, currently the world’s tallest building. When in a foreign country for the first time, ordinarily none of us would likely go to a mall, but in the UAE, it’s another story.
The mall is indeed a spectacle. It is home to a huge, shark-filled aquarium in which you can scuba dive; presumably the sharks aren’t the human-chomping kind. The mall also includes almost any store you’ve ever heard of and probably at least a couple twice because the second one didn’t know the first one existed.
Meghan and Peter looking tough in front of a model of
the mall and the tallest building.
We are American. Sorry, this is not enough.
The first Häagen-Dazs I have seen that has a menu.
A hardcover one, no less.Five times a day in Muslim communities, the call to prayer goes out. I haven’t heard it five times a day—it depends on where you are—but when I do here, it’s quite lovely. And it was even piped into the mall.
At the bottom of “At the Top” (the observation deck,
which is the highest point paying customers are allowed to go).
By association, this must be the world’s longest shadow.
(Longest manmade shadow?)
View from the 124th-floor observation deck up the rest
of the 163-floor building (and up my nose).
You could pose against a green screen to be superimposed on a scene
of peril atop the building. Fun to watch people get in position.
For a fleeting moment, not counting people in planes,
we were the highest children’s book creators in the world.
Babies may not be accompanied by adults.
That night was my panel. It was supposed to be me and two Arabs in the field, but only one showed. The topic was equally vague as the night before; it involved the importance of the book and also the development of curriculum.
Due to the disruption, Peter and Meghan’s panel didn’t get to audience questions but mine did. However, it was not like Q&A during American panels. A woman asked question that the moderator didn’t ask us to answer—the mic was passed immediately to another audience member who made a statement, then another. Only then did the moderator ask me a question—but it didn’t seem to be a question that had come from the audience. I was confused but did the best I could, and some people were nodding so I guess I didn’t waste their time completely.
A view from the panel.It was a curious honor that anyone who came to a panel about education with a focus on the Middle East would care what an American author with no Arabic experience had to say. But I am all for bridging gaps between cultures whenever possible.
After graduating college, I lived in New York City, which to a guy who grew up in small-town Connecticut felt exotic, almost mythic. If only I would have known then that one day I’d be setting up shop for two weeks in the United Arab Emirates.
In late December, I was invited to the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival and gladly immediately accepted. I recommended author friends and the festival invited three of them, two of whom (Peter Brown and Meghan McCarthy) accepted. I also managed to set up author visits at eight schools (five in Abu Dhabi, three in Dubai) for the surrounding days.
Then I packed sunscreen, slept lying down on a plane for the first time (no, not on the floor), and landed amidst a fantastic cultural experience.
Among the tidbits I have learned so far:
- The United Arab Emirates consists of seven emirates, of which I will see three (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah), and as an entity, it’s only a little over 40 years old.
- The school week is Sunday to Thursday.
- There is virtually no crime. Most locals are wealthy and 70% of the population is from other countries. Those who are here as laborers would get deported if they broke the law, so they don’t. I ran at night along a long, sometimes dark path along the water. It was lovely.
- As many know, some Arab women in public wear covering to varying degrees. Laborers who’ve come from other countries are typically men who leave behind their wives. Therefore, some Westerners with exposed shoulders or legs stand out to laborers and report discomfort at their “male gaze”; however, because of bullet #3 above (if not their own morals), laborers do nothing more than look.
- Abu Dhabi is home to what I was told is the world’s only 7-star hotel. Apparently there are others but this one (resembling a palace) is a stunner.
- Little fruit grows in the UAE and some report that the imported fruit loses its taste in transit.
Pristine Corniche Beach, Abu Dhabi. Only minutes by foot from my hotel.
An entrance to the beach. Note the unusual blue brick.
Every beach could use a library.
After the beach library and the banner promoting reading,
a third writing-related sign near my hotel.
The two crosswalk signs are not synchronized.
My first school visit in UAE was the wonderfully welcoming
American Community School of Abu Dhabi,
where I was greeted by a larger-than-life banner
and spoke to six dynamic groups over two days.
On 3/20-21/14, I had the privilege of speaking at four schools in lovely Charlottesville, VA:
- Stone-Robinson Elementary
- Baker-Butler Elementary
- Agnor-Hurt Elementary
- Sutherland Middle
This school district obviously has a thing for hyphens.
Baker-Butler had on display an actual size igloo ingeniously made by librarian Anita Mays and a partner…out of empty milk containers.They followed the procedure as described in the 1981 book propped up on the black cube (only subbing gallon jugs for snow bricks). They also turned the installation into a teaching moment, as seen by the question posed on the whiteboard.
Speaking of ingenious, Baker-Butler also showcased a 2nd grade art project involving two notable artists. This is one mashup I’d not seen before, and I think it’s wonderful.
Sutherland was holding a school event immediately following my afternoon presentation. Spot the clue:Answer:You can tell by the way I use my walk I’m in middle schoolNo time to talk
Thank you to the four librarians who hosted me, and to the Virginia Festival of the Book for arranging the visits.
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As I mentioned yesterday, Target offers grant money to schools and organizations who need help with an early reading program. An early reading program might entail hiring a children’s book author/illustrator to present to students (he said rather shamelessly).
Dollar General also has a grant program for early literacy/youth development—as does Barbara Bush, Verizon, Scripps-Howard, and Clorox.
Here is a round-up of foundations who offer grant money for summer reading programs. Here are awards & grants available from the International Reading Association.
If you would like a detailed description of my presentations to help you apply for these grants, be sure to give me a yell!
If you’re a school librarian looking to hire an author or illustrator to present to your students (hint, hint) Target is accepting applications for Early Childhood Reading Grants.
I’m busily putting together a world tour. I’ll be barnstorming across New York State and Pennsylvania—maybe winding up in Connecticut—September/October 2014.
I’ll be in the Pittsburgh area for Read Across America Week, March 2 – 6, 2015.
If I’m booked for 2 or more consecutive days in the same area, I’ll give those schools a discount on my speaking fee. If you’re interested e-mail Lisa at Bookings@johnmanders.com.
On 2/24/14, I had the honor of presenting at Gregory-Portland Intermediate School in Portland, TX (near Corpus Christi) for the second year in a row.
Another round of thanks to Cati (first syllable rhymes with “cat,” not “Kate”) Partridge for inviting me to speak with her students.
As before, the school (particularly library aide Cindy) created award-worthy displays to welcome me:
Prop pay phone! (I told Cati that there is no pressure to outdo themselves each time!)
And I had another honor this trip: I got to meet the genuine and articulate Ron Dennis, who is a friend of Cati’s and who is the grandson of Walter Dennis…who is a possible visual inspiration for Clark Kent.
I’d forgotten that I already knew of Walter; he is mentioned (and pictured!) in Superman: The Complete History.
Superman: The Complete History by Les Daniels
Superman: The Complete History, page 19
Ron was kind to answer some questions:
me with Clark Kent
me with Superman
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I am booking school visits in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area for Read Across America Week, March 2 – 6, 2015. Friday the 6th just got reserved this morning. If I can book the whole week, everybody gets me for 25% off the regular rate.
Contact Lisa— firstname.lastname@example.org
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Yesterday was Read Across America Day and the day schools celebrated Dr. Seuss’ birthday… and I had such a fabulous day! I had the opportunity to visit Mineral Springs Elementary School and share Being Frank with Pre-K through 2nd grade students! Big thanks to Jerry Ethridge for the pics below! Filed under: writing for children […]
As often is the case, I find myself thanking for a thank you. Thank you, Cluny School of Newport!
The Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman source page:
More photos from the author variety show (contributed by and used with permission of the school):
me fumbling through emceeing with the other authors in the wings
taking bows: Mike Rex, Susan Hood, Meghan McCarthy, Vincent X. Kirsch,
Tracy Dockray, Bruce Degen, Katie Davis, Daniel Kirk, easel,
Alan Katz, projector, Bob Shea, Tad Hills, me
On 3/8/11, I spoke at Pleasant Ridge Elementary in Overland Park, KS, notable for being the first school in which I sat in a bathtub in the library. (Also notable for being a great school.)
More than a year later, the school shared some flattering news about its Battle of the Books competition. A group of 4th graders who had lost the previous year changed their team name and tried again as 5th graders. In 5/11, they won. The team name?
posted with permission (two stuffed animals were harmed in the making of that mascot)
During my presentations, after polling the audience, I sketch a couple of characters. Invariably, one ends up being a dinobunny (sometimes dino-bunny, sometimes rabbitosaurus).
(not taken at Pleasant Ridge but he always looks the same)
Several years ago, I emailed Marjorie Cohen, a teacher at Cold Spring Elementary in Potomac, MD, introducing myself as an author who speaks in schools. I’d come across her name in the alumni magazine of our alma mater, Brandeis University.
I didn’t hear back. I tried again.
I didn’t hear back again.
In 2012, the school booked me through another channel. I had forgotten the Marjorie connection but she reminded me after I got there.
The theme of my standard school presentation is persistence. I don’t come in and announce this; I work it in gradually, stealthily, narratively. But the takeaway is clear: persistence (perhaps even more than talent) is essential to success.
After I spoke at Cold Spring, before the kids were dismissed, Marjorie stood up and asked for their attention.
Then she came clean.
She told them how I had emailed her and how she dismissed me once, twice. But now that she’d heard me speak, she admitted she should’ve paid attention.
I don’t fault her. Regardless of what we do, many of us are pitched a lot. We don’t have the bandwidth to fully consider each pitch.
She said she was glad I was persistent. She was glad I came. And now that she saw my focus, it all made sense.
In fact, it worked out better this way because Marjorie was able to reinforce my 30-minute message with a short, real-life anecdote. “The guy who just tried to persuade you to adopt persistence actually walks the walk—and it got him here, despite me.” (Paraphrasing, of course.)
It’s one of those spontaneous moments that make it all even more worth it.
On 11/7/12, with fallen snow as fresh as the newly re-elected president, I spoke several times at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts.The stage in the auditorium where I gave my first presentation of the day was set up for a play:At a lovely reception with teachers-in-training, they distributed this bookmark:The poster designed for my final talk of the day is one of the coolest ever done in connection to my work:I enjoyed the first snowfall of the season except for the fact that the only shoes I brought were these:
Kids are sometimes quick to point out that Batman doesn’t fly. We know he took the train to Washington DC when writing for the Army Pictorial Center circa 1969-70; he was apparently thrilled to get Pentagon clearance. But he never took a plane anywhere.The farthest I’ve tracked him is an unlikely destination for an unlikely reason. At point, probably in the 1950s, Bill went to a seder…in Texas.
Neither did Bill Finger.
He lived in New York most of his life, and as far as we know, usually did not wander too far. We know he vacationed in Provincetown (Cape Cod), MA.
Yes, Bill the non-observant Jew celebrated Passover in the not-particularly-Jewish-y Lone Star State.
And on 4/8/13, I went to Texas for the first time since Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman came out to speak to the sixth graders at Gregory-Portland Intermediate School in the Corpus Christi suburb of Portland. The district’s theme for the year is superheroes. I was honored to be asked to be a part of it. (They did not know the Bill Finger connection before I came.)
It was the first time I’ve presented flanked by two bodyguards.Favorite question of the day: “If you didn’t write this book on Bill Finger, do you think anyone else would have?”
Thank you, GPI, for allowing me to symbolically follow in the footsteps of Bill Finger, and for hosting such a lovely visit.
humor pinned to board in teachers’ lounge
GPI sent me a thick stack of thank-you letters and they contained an unusually large number of irresistible quotables:
- “I can’t believe you went to other states just to get information.”
- “What did you think about us as audience?”
- “I am now part of the Bill [Finger] army! I will go around and spread the word.”
- “I liked how you had clarity, and great eye contact. Just keep on doing that and you won’t have anything to worry about.”
- “Could you consider writing a book about a superhero piglet? Maybe it could be a winning idea for a children’s series.”
- “It was a privilege to see where the first Superman comic was typed.”
- “from the third kid in the first row”
- “You kinda look like my Uncle, but with hair.”
- “I am sure someday you and I will be famous writers.”
- “You inspired me not just to do your best but also be unique in what I love to do.”
- “The part with the paperweight really teared me up. I almost cried!”
- “Maybe I will write a book about you and you can give me the paperweight?”
- “When my dad was little he loved to watch Superman movies or read comics. I told my dad all the information and he was amazed and I thank you for that.”
- “If they could, I bet Jerry, Joe, and Bill would say thank you.”
That last one especially moved me.
On 2/6/13, I visited my first Denver school since Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman has come out. This is worth mentioning because Denver is the city in which Bill Finger was born. My appearance at West Woods Elementary in Arvada was about two years in the making and the school was a lovely host. One highlight was when a student asked me how I could have written as many books as I have when I'm only in my "thirties or twenties." Forty-year-old me said "Some are short."
Another was when a student hand-delivered a string-bound pile of handmade thank you cards from her class maybe an hour or so after their presentation ended.
A third was this line from one of the cards: "One thing that I will remember [about your presentation] is that even if you are crazy nervous, that you don't let it stop you."
A fourth was a line from another card: "Your presentation was as golden as the sun."
So were you, West Woods, home of the wolves and the very cool gym wall painting.
When I reflected on the shooting tragedy that took place in Aurora, Colorado, in July 2012, it did not occur to me that I would ever go there.
When Sunrise Elementary School in Aurora invited me in the fall of 2012 to do an author visit on 2/8/13, I was surprised and (as always) flattered and excited—but also a bit worried. I told my kind host, librarian Susie Isaac, that my latest book is about Batman and asked if, under the circumstances, it would be insensitive to bring it up during my presentation. Mind you, I am not one who shies away from having tough conversations when situations call for it, but I was not about to risk upsetting young people.
Susie was as cheerful as the name of her school. She assured me that all would be fine. She said none of their students were directly affected and the Batman connection to the tragedy did not dim the students’ enthusiasm for the Dark Knight.
That dynamic alone would make for a memorable visit, but amplifying that, Susie went all out to prepare for my arrival.
Every school day for the month prior, she lobbed a trivia question about me to the kids.
She ran a contest for the students to design their own superheroes and decked out the library with their creative submissions.
And she shared my books with the kids, who then welcomed me with great gusto.Before the presentations, I was interviewed on the students’ morning news show. One student announced that there were no birthdays that day.
Oh, but there was. Bill Finger was born on 2/8. Adding even more poignancy, Bill Finger was born in Denver.
Of course this visit had the same purpose as any I’ve done: motivate, educate, entertain. Yet as I was trying to deliver on those goals, I was privately grateful to be able to mourn strangers on their own turf, strangers I may have been more drawn to than other victims due to the movie they were watching when their lives were senselessly cut short. They were watching a movie about a hero who shuns guns.
Thank you, Susie and the students of Aurora, for inviting me into your community.
Following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, on 12/14/12, I was a by-the-numbers part of the stunned collective: I cried, I mourned, I signed online petitions, I emailed senators and representatives, I lost focus, I held my own kids close wishing I never had to let go.
But I was also desperate for a way to do more than these things. I wanted to do something that might, in some small way, directly and immediately help the Sandy Hook community.
So the next day, hesitantly, I emailed a bunch of kidlit author/illustrator friends who live within two hours of Newtown to ask if they’d be interested in proposing to the school what I called a variety show. An excerpt:
I envision a group of us going on the same day [to put on] a kidlit author/illustrator variety show and to play games inspired by our books or just games in general (kids vs. authors soccer/volleyball/tug of war/three-legged race). I have ideas. Sure you would, too. We'd figure it out. Whatever we do, we'd keep it low maintenance. They provide the microphone, we do the rest.
It was clear that Sandy Hook’s focus for the foreseeable future would be healing. I thought a group of people with considerable experience speaking to young people could bring a bit of that, secretly wrapped up in what the kids would see as pure entertainment.
Just about everyone I asked said yes. Some, bearing out my hesitancy, worried about the delicate and overwhelming nature of the situation, as did I. When—if ever—would be the appropriate time to offer such a thing? To offer anything? The only way to find out would be to ask.
On Monday 12/17, I emailed the United Way (coordinating relief efforts) and the public library to ask if they had a sense of whether or not I should pursue the idea. That week, the children’s librarian at the town library, Alana Bennison, said she thought this would be just the kind of event that could be therapeutic. A short while later, she got back to me to say that it was okay for me to contact the Sandy Hook librarian, Yvonne Cech. I left Yvonne a message.
Understandably, I did not hear back.
However, on 12/28, Isabel Almeida of the United Way called. She said of all the offers they’d received (including some from pro sports teams), the group the superintendent wanted first was the authors. She asked if it would be possible to pull it together for the second day back to school—meaning one week from then.
I said we were all prepared to be flexible…but given how many were involved, we would all be better off with a little more time to organize, if possible. On New Year’s Eve, after polling the authors, I suggested 1/14/13. Approximately twenty authors were on board. Two days later, that date was approved.
Two hours later, I was asked if we could move the date to February…now known as Hurdle #1.
I said that it would be ideal if there was any way to keep 1/14, but in the meantime I proposed 2/11…to them only. I did not tell the authors that the 1/14 date was subject to change, holding out hope for as long as possible that it would not.
On 1/8, figuring I could wait no longer, I told the authors that 1/14 was being reconsidered. I asked them to please hold 2/11 as a backup. Astoundingly and luckily, seventeen of them still had that day available, too.
On 1/13, Isabel confirmed 2/11. I immediately notified the authors.
On 1/17, hoping that I would not be “too terribly upset,” Isabel reported that the superintendent asked if we could push back to later than 2/25. This was Hurdle #2.
As before, I held off on telling the authors—partly to keep group emails to a minimum, partly due to a weird mix of disappointment and hope.
And as before, I told Isabel that we would accommodate whatever works for the school, but pointed out that I feared that if we changed the date again, we would almost certainly lose participants who had already committed. It seemed statistically impossible that everyone would have a third proposed date free.
More to the point, in inferring understandable concerns, I sent Isabel an impassioned appeal revolving around this: “Our mission is to come and reinforce the challenging and critical work you are all doing every day and late into the night; we don't want to disrupt momentum but rather support it. We want to be part of the healing.”
For me, that night was fitful. On 1/18, Isabel called to say she had forwarded my email to the superintendent…who had then said we can keep the 2/11 date.
On 1/25, Isabel emailed me leading with the words “don’t panic.” She said that though the superintendent had approved the 2/11 assembly, word did not immediately reach the school…which had another event already scheduled for 2/11. Hurdle #3.
Of course I understood. What this community was going through is unfathomable to the rest of us. Still, I asked if the other event was smaller in scope and therefore possibly easier to shift. Thus began another tense period for me, but a relatively short one: by day’s end, I was relieved to hear that the other event could indeed be rescheduled and we could keep 2/11.
Rehearsals? Hah! Who needs them? Well, it would’ve been great, but it was hard enough getting everyone together for the actual show.
However, we were briefed on trauma guidelines. No loud or sudden noises. No flashes of light. No all-black outfits. And no mention of “healing.” We were already planning to leave that to the experts.
On 1/29, thanks to the logistical efforts of (my friend since fourth grade) Christian Campagnuolo and Jen Campbell, the design work of Tim Connor, and the production/printing by Balmar (all donated), we would have 1,700 bookmarks to distribute to every elementary student in Newtown.
Imagine this folded in half and laminated.
On 2/2, I spoke with Yvonne for the first time. She did not remember my message from 12/22; I did not expect her to. She was in the middle of an unenviable flurry of far more pressing issues.
It was so lovely to discover that Yvonne was as enthusiastic and easy to work with as Isabel. The three of us conferenced and refined the schedule I had proposed.
Then came Hurdle #4.
And this hurdle had a name.
On 2/8 into 2/9, the monster storm Nemo blanketed Connecticut.
Yet 2/8 was a Friday, and Yvonne had the foresight to set up the assembly the day before in case school was canceled—which, of course, it was. No matter, that meant that everything would be ready to go Monday morning.
Except we didn’t expect Hurdle #5.
On 2/10, as I was en route by bus from Maryland to New York (and literally a minute after I realized I had forgotten the flash drive with the master PowerPoint presentation on it), Yvonne emailed to warn me about the potential for a Monday school delay or even cancellation due to predicted icy conditions. Compounding the risk: Nemo was so big that, two days after, some streets were still unplowed (including the street of at least one participating author).
At about 5 p.m., as I was en route by train from New York to Connecticut—so close—Yvonne called with The News: school was indeed canceled.
I felt like the train had evaporated from under me.
Part 2 (with many photos).
After six weeks of planning an unprecedented 17-author variety show for Sandy Hook Elementary School, and while en route from Maryland to Connecticut the day before the event, I learned that school had been canceled for the following day.
One thing we had not arranged: a raindate. (Well, snowdate.)
With heavy heart, at 5:31 p.m., I emailed the authors. As the understanding responses came in, I tried to figure out how to proceed. I arrived at only one viable option. At 6:42 p.m., after clearing it with Yvonne, I went back to the group to ask who could do Tuesday, 2/13.
Originally, eleven of the seventeen could. (On Monday afternoon, one dropped out, and Tuesday morning another did, both due to illness.) That was plenty good enough for me; I worried that if I tried to find yet another new date, even fewer would be free. I felt it was Tuesday or never.
So I seized Tuesday.
However, we’d worked out a schedule for seventeen so I scrambled to round up as many A-list pinch-hitters as I could. As before, just about everyone I asked would have liked to participate, but they got all “I’m super busy and generally speaking 24 hours is not enough notice to prepare multiple acts and arrange to travel two hours away.” I kid. They were extremely gracious, supportive, regretful. Most said to keep them in mind if I’m ever involved in another event like it. (I hope I am, just not under such circumstances.)
Sunday night yielded no one. But Monday morning, alas—three signed on: Daniel Kirk, Bruce Degen (who lives in Newtown), and Vincent X. Kirsch. Bless them.
Tuesday morning. Two days shy of two months since the tragedy. I drove the hour from where I was staying to Newtown, arriving at Chalk Hill School (where Sandy Hook is currently housed) at 8:30.
I was already looking forward to hugging Yvonne and Isabel.
One of my biggest concerns was punctuality, but I needn’t have worried; all eleven cast members arrived on time.
Tad Hills and Bob Shea in the nerve center
Tracy Dockray drawing Ramona
Tad Hills and DuckI owe each thanks for so many other things and here are one or two per person:
- Katie Davis—For stepping up and going first when the original opening act (Phil Bildner) could not make the rescheduled date, and for podcasting the day.
- Bruce Degen—For stepping in at the last minute and for being the hometown representative. (When I emailed him the schedule the day before—a schedule most of the rest had been familiar with for two weeks—he wrote back “The schedule is complicated.” He was right.)
- Tracy Dockray—For being a trooper when we determined (just before the show started) that I had not gotten the PowerPoint slides she emailed, and for recommending Vincent.
- Alan Katz—For reassuring me several days before that this was a worthwhile effort and for making it back in time from a conference Denver despite Nemo.
- Daniel Kirk—For stepping in at the last minute even though his drive would be one of the longest and for being the only one of us to play guitar, which I wish I could do.
- Vincent X. Kirsch—For adding one of the most diverse elements to the show—a toy theater—and for jumping on board less than a day before.
- Tad Hills—For being one of my partners at the second school and for being the first author to hug me goodbye. I needed that.
- Susan Hood—For being a cheerleader from the start, flexible and generous, and for being my partner in what was likely to be the most challenging aspect of the day: presenting to the first graders, the group most affected (in terms of proximity but probably psychologically, too) by the tragedy.
- Meghan McCarthy—For rearranging her work schedule more than once, for committing even though she’d be getting back from vacation the day before, and for providing one of the biggest laughs of the show: a YouTube clip of a (fake) flying car.
- Mike Rex—For being a class act through and through, from agreeing to stay an extra night in a hotel when Monday school was canceled to buying me a drink after.
- Bob Shea—For being true to his values, willing to make sacrifices to give a good show, and for closing us out with a wonderful sense of humor.
The eight authors who were in the 2/11 lineup but could not do the next day:
We missed you all so very much, as did the kids. The school had made signs for each of us, which (along with our books) were displayed behind the performance space, so you were there in spirit in more ways than one.
- Phil Bildner
- Sophie Blackall
- Peter Brown
- Brian Floca
- Ross MacDonald
- John Bemelmans Marciano
- Julia Sarcone-Roach
- Lauren Tarshis
First some of the authors visited with the kindergartners and first graders in their classrooms; we were told that these little ones were the most fragile, and not just because of their age. But if you walked in any of the rooms, you’d never know it. They reacted as kids that age do—they laughed, they called out, they got off subject, they were bursting with enthusiasm. They were, simply, precious.
At 10 a.m., we kicked off Sandy Hook’s first assembly since the tragedy—and possibly the first-ever author variety show. It was divided into two parts. Each 45-minute half featured six authors with back-to-back acts of approximately five minutes apiece, with a brief intermission so the audience could swap out (the room could not hold the entire 2nd through 4th grade at once). We kept it moving on schedule…mostly. When the second half ran long, everyone went right along with us.
It was my first time as emcee. I introduced the show by saying the 12 authors and illustrators on hand had, combined, produced close to 500 books…but not all at the same time. I said we’d come in from four states bringing characters including the Magic School Bus, Batman, Ramona Quimby, Fangbone, Balto the hero dog, and Rocket the reading dog. (One of reasons I was bummed Peter Brown had to bow out at the last minute due to illness: I could’ve then included Chowder the Bouncing Dog. Rule of threes, baby.) I meant to joke that neither snow nor rain would have kept us from coming, but we are apparently not as powerful as postal workers and weather did sabotage Plan A.
I said the kids would see a side of us they might not expect. I suggested they think of it as Authors Got Talent.
I thanked the administration, staff, parents, and kids, and made special mention of my two pillars throughout this endeavor, Isabel and Yvonne. This was a significant group effort. Without their tireless help, it would have remained merely a vision.
Isabel Almeida, lavender shirt, Yvonne CechI announced our little gift: a bookmark for each student in Newtown.When I was up, I told the kids that it would be AWK-ward if I introduced myself, so I asked for a volunteer. Thank you again, brave young man who did so!
Meghan McCarthy, Daniel Kirk, Susan Hood,
Vincent X. Kirsch, Mike Rex, Rocco Staino
Vincent X. Kirsch, Yvonne Cech, Alan Katz, Bruce Degen,
Meghan McCarthy, Susan Hood
Vincent X. Kirsch, Tad Hills, Rocco Staino, and Daniel Kirk
join the audienceThe variety show went gangbusters. The first time the kids erupted with laughter, I felt that attempting this had been a [sic] right thing to do. Even more so because that was not the only time they erupted with laughter.After the show, we (and staff) enjoyed lunch generously donated by the PTA, signed books, posed for photos, and listened to Principal Donna Page’s touching thank you. She said she chose authors as the first assembly because she wanted the return to some form of normalcy to involve teaching, learning, and reading. She gifted each of us a bracelet with an angel on it; a kind donor had sent many of these and Donna asked this donor if she could “pay it forward.” The donor agreed.When Donna teared up, so did many of us, and it was time. I, for one, wanted a moment to let down any sign of a professional façade and be a lump-in-throat human being.
Katie Davis, Mike Rex, Daniel Kirk
Meghan McCarthy, Marc Tyler Nobleman, Mike Rex, Tracy Dockray
Alan Katz, Marc Tyler Nobleman, Tracy Dockray, Mike Rex,
Meghan McCarthy, Katie Davis
Then we split into three groups of four, bookmarks in hand, and from 2 to 3 p.m., did hourlong assemblies at the other three elementaries in Newtown. After, we regrouped at the lovely Inn at Newtown for a chance to sit, sip, and reflect as a group. Yvonne and several other Sandy Hook staff joined us.
People began to depart around 5 p.m. I was one of them, or so I thought. But then Yvonne, Mike Rex, Meghan McCarthy and I ended up staying. Yvonne opened up to us about what it was like on December 14. It was hard to hear, but that doesn’t even come close to the edge of how hard it was for her to live through. We were in awe at her composure.
At 7 p.m., everyone left…but me.
I stayed behind to call my kids and tell them I love them.
* * Thank you to Rocco Staino, who sensitively covered the show for School Library Journal.
And thank you to the Newtown Bee.
I will never be done singing the praises of Isabel and Yvonne. Both of them had to deliver dispiriting news to me multiple times, but each did it with candor and kindness (not to mention sorrow). Yet it didn’t take long for them to regroup and try to salvage whatever it was that had just (seemingly) fallen apart. Their patience with my persistence was inspiring. It is to their great credit, and the credit of the superintendent and principal, that this event happened at all. Even I suspect I would have declined the offer. Too big. Too soon. We have too many other priorities.
The bookmark says “Authors Love Sandy Hook Elementary,” but who doesn’t?
En route home, I stopped at a Newtown restaurant for dinner and was still wearing the green/white ribbon the school gave each of us. The owner of the restaurant (who had no idea who I was, of course, or why I was there) came over, pointed to the ribbon, and said "Sandy Hook?" I said yes (without elaborating).
He shook my hand and simply said “Thank you.”
The day was precisely what I pitched it as: upbeat, funny, escapist. Yet for this one moment, I will depart from that tone. I heard the following song the week after the tragedy, and although it is about a romance, it amplified my tears. Listening to the lyrics now (particularly the first verse and the chorus), it seems even more fitting. You’ll hear what I mean.
Sandy Hook, we’d call again anytime, no matter how much planning. No matter how much snow.No matter anything.
In 3/10, I made my first trip to Alabama to speak at Randolph School in Huntsville.
I was honored to be invited back, especially since the school wanted to tie themes of Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman into their character development initiatives.
My time at Randolph comprised three talks—two (different) writing workshops and one assembly for grades 5-8. I simply love unfurling the tragic story of Bill Finger to young people because they are fascinated (and often moved) to hear that the life of a figure as popular as Batman was anything but easy.
A highlight of the day was partaking in Randolph’s generosity. Last time, they donated one of the three sessions they were paying for to a nearby school that did not have funds for enrichment. It was the first (and still only) time a school I’ve gone to has done that.
This time, they exceeded that generosity by again donating one of my sessions to an underprivileged school, but this time, they brought some of their own students along. By campus van, my host (and college friend) Jon Bluestein drove me and thirteen fifth graders who are avid readers to University Place Elementary. I ran a writing workshop for this combined group and I was elated to see that the UP kids were also eager to participate. The Randolph kids and the UP kids were even mixed up so each group could get to know the other a bit more (though we admittedly had almost no downtime for that).
Thank you again, Randolph, for this unique experience. I remain hopeful that other schools of means will take Randolph’s lead. It provides a lesson more powerful than a locomotive.
On 3/8/13, I had the privilege of doing three assemblies at a lovely school in Virginia. I usually leave for a school visit an hour earlier than the GPS indicates because you can never (as in ever) be late. In this case, because of zero traffic, it meant I arrived an hour early.
The kids hit their cues like pros: enthusiastic when appropriate and pindrop silent at the right times. After presentations, kids often come up to authors to say hi, high five, fist bump, ask another question, get an autograph, or share a drawing. Authors love when a teacher or librarian tells us that one of those students was not one he or she would have expected. That’s what it’s about—making connections, reinforcing what teachers do every day, and finding another way to excite kids (especially reluctant readers/writers) about the arts. It makes the soul race.
My hand got a workout, too:
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I was honored to participate in two Washington DC literacy-themed events in the same day. Both bring authors of books for young people to schools that do not have the resources to do so on their own.
On 3/12/13, I spoke at Bancroft Elementary under the auspices of Open Book, and thanks to a generous contribution from the Junior League, every student in the audience received a signed copy of one of my books. (To be clear, the Junior League contributed the books. I contributed the signature.)
That evening, I made my fourth appearance at a school for Turning the Page, this time at the Walker-Jones Education Campus. I especially loved the school Internet password: I spoke first to a combined group of parents and their children (ranging from itty bitty to what looked like middle schoolers if not high schoolers). Then the kids left for superhero-themed activities and I took questions from the parents.
After, I signed books that were, again, generously provided, this time by TTP. One woman who got a Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman signed then asked “What can I do to help you fight for Bill Finger?”
I told her she just did.
Whether or not you buy or even read my book, please share the story of Bill Finger. Awareness will lead to action. Action may lead to redemption.