Sunday, October 22, 2017

Humboldt County Children's Author Festival 2017

This is a new one.

Not new in general. New to me.

I've done other festivals where a squad of authors speaks to a fleet of children over several days. They fall into two categories: 

  1. an event where the authors stay in one spot (often on a college campus), kids are bused in, and the authors speak to rotating groups
  2. an event where volunteers drive the authors to various schools in the region (one author per school at one time, but typically authors speak to multiple schools over two or more days)

The Humboldt County Children's Author Festival is the latter kind—so that's not what makes it stand out. Humboldt County is about a five-hour drive north of San Francisco and two hours south of the Oregon border. It's a picturesque, vast, and largely depressed area; once a lumber and fishing mecca, it's now particularly known for its marijuana production. The historic downtown is charming, though marked with a surprisingly significant population of people down on their luck. 

The schools are spread out (some authors were driven two hours to theirs) and often small. My two schools, Blue Lake Elementary School in Blue Lake and Loleta School in Loleta (each only a 20-minute drive from the historic/haunted Eureka Inn where we stayed) had at most two classes per grade, so small by my suburban East Coast standards—but not the smallest. I spoke with one educator whose public school has only 14 kids—from kindergarten to 8th grade.

The committee and community rallies and hustles to give these kids the chance to meet authors in person—and the result is not only moving but also impressive. It's an event with a staggering amount of moving parts and it's run very smoothly. 

This festival has been running every other year since the 1970s and lasts three days. The first two days are the school visits, the third day is a four-hour group book signing at the public library. The first night (Wednesday) was a cocktail mixer, the second night was a potluck dinner where a group of students from a performing arts high school acted out a book from three of the authors (including, to my great honor, The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra; the main one was Kirby Larson's Hattie Big Sky), and the final night was a ticketed banquet where all 25 authors spoke—three minutes apiece, (semi-)strongly enforced. I was impressed with how polished most of the semi-extemporaneous mini-speeches were—lots of these folks have slick comic timing. 

I arrived in Eureka Tuesday afternoon because this area is one of the foggiest in the nation and apparently flights are often delayed because of this. 

I'm geographically oblivious so it was pure happy fluke that I saw a map Tuesday night and noticed that I was a mere two-hour, fifteen-minute drive from Brookings, OR—setting of my upcoming picture book Thirty Minutes Over Oregon.

So though I planned to spend Wednesday exploring the redwood forests, I changed course to include a drive up the rugged coastline to Brookings, where I'd never been. I was at the rental car place when they opened at 7:30 am and enjoyed the drive north, which was punctuated by a number of things I'd never seen before—including redwoods. I managed to fit it all in and still get back to Eureka with time to spare before the 5:30 pm mixer.

Glimpses of it all (sadly, none with author friends including Deb Heiligman, Kirby Larson, Barbara Kerley, Dan Gemeinhart, Kelly Milner Halls, Bruce Hale, Barry Deutsch, and beyond *):

 First of four signs I posed in front of.

 The town closest to where Japanese pilot Nobuo Fujita's
bombs hit in his 1942 WWII raid on the U.S. mainland.

 This is the library in Brookings, which remotely helped me
with research numerous times.

 The 450-year-old heirloom samurai sword that
Fujita gifted to the town in 1962 as an apology,
on display at the library.


 One of the hundreds of articles about the bombing and aftermath
archived at the library.

 On the way back.

 The route.

 Combative elk. Dozens more elk were in the vicinity, 
undisturbed by the cars driving through their territory.

 He's right behind me, isn't he?


 McCreepy is a good fit in ways, but also McLovely.

 Mysterious standalone fireplace along the road. 
One theory: the wooden house that it was once part of
burned in one of the fires that have swept through the area.

 The students and staff at Blue Lake gave me
chupacabra hot sauce, goat cheese 
(inside joke if you've read the book), 
and an adorable card/drawing.

 The first graders at Loleta wrote their
own sequel to The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra!

 Stained glass in the (also haunted) Carson Mansion
one of the most (if not the most) notable Victorian houses 
in the United States; custom-made for under $300 in 1885, 
its four figures represent 
music, art, literature, and science.
The house is now a private club.


Thank you again to JoAnn Bauer for inviting me, my driver volunteers Jean and Ruth, ultra-patient travel agent Bev, and the rest of the committee for your enormous efforts to make this festival happen. I was honored to be a part of it.

* I did get a photo (in front of a bookstore, no less) with author Jay Asher, whom I bumped into in the San Francisco airport en route home.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Nobleman in Noblesville

Starting 9/25/17, I spoke at a school a day for five days in Noblesville, IN. 

I felt right at home.

I liked that some of the schools focused not on heroes but specifically on unsung heroes; an example from White River Elementary:

They sold some books:

Noble Crossing Elementary of Noblesville warmly welcomed this Nobleman:

Two weeks earlier, I was blown away by a mob of Chupacabras as drawn by an entire school. Noble Crossing also had Chupacabras posted throughout:

This school also marked the first time I signed a copy of the book to a person who has the same name as one of the three (named) characters in the book. Not Bumsie. Not Pep. Yes, it was...

I'm part of the second-highest group:


Special thanks to Jessica Homan for spearheading the week's visits and Sherrie McGovern for putting in a good word!

Monday, September 25, 2017

"Chupacabra" art in Society of Illustrators annual exhibit

¡Felicitaciones! to Ana Aranda, whose delicious art for The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra will be featured in the Society of Illustrators annual exhibit "The Original Art" at its Museum of Illustration in New York City from 11/1 through 12/23/17. 

The exhibit "showcases the original art from the year's best children's books."

The full list of distinguished participants is here.

Congrats to all honored!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The problem with mentioning sexual orientation in an elementary assembly

In my hourlong author presentation for grades 3 and up, I say that Bill Finger's only son Fred was gay.

It is an essential point in the story because it misdirected researchers for years into thinking Bill had no living heirs after Fred died in 1992.

It is a part of life and always has been.

And as of 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage, it is a legally sanctioned part of life in the United States.

Yet unfortunately, none of this means that all accept it as part of life. 

This month, I spoke at eight elementary schools in multiple Illinois towns and, as usual, had a blast. The audiences rode the emotional roller coaster of a story the whole time, laughing, getting angry, and getting sad on cue. The principals, teachers, and librarians said kind things. A local paper wrote a nice piece on one of the visits.

Then I got an email from the principal of one of the schools (not the one in the article), who copied the superintendent, assistant superintendent for early childhood and elementary education, and that school's library media specialist. Here it is, anonymized:

I wanted to share a concern from a parent about the presentation you gave to our students. As you were sharing your story about meeting the son of one of the creators, there were comments made about his sexual orientation. This parent's daughter was very uncomfortable about the comments and the parent expressed her displeasure at this being included in a school assembly for 1st-5th graders.
I wanted to make you aware. As a building administrator I want to have information about the content of presentations and I want assurance that the content is suitable for the audience. You were recommended to us through the school system. Prior to the assembly I reviewed your website and was excited about the connections we would make to encourage reading. I didn't have reason to be concerned, however this parent's concern has increased my resolve to ask direct questions and avoid potential issues.
Thank you again for your time at [our school].

In my seven years of telling some form of this story to students from kindergartners to high school seniors in more than half the 50 states and almost a dozen countries, there have been ignorant and disrespectful reactions from audience members (which I immediately tamp down on), but this is the first time I have heard from an administrator. 

But then, of course, I'm not really hearing from an administrator. The principal is passing along a parent's concern. I want to believe that the principal does not agree with the parent. (After one of my talks at this school, this principal paid me a compliment, though I don't remember if it was the assembly in which I mentioned Fred's sexual orientation.) Because the principal is not asking for any action from me, and because the principal copied top-level administrators, it seems clear that the principal is simply covering for him/herself. Otherwise, now that the assembly is over, there would be no reason to involve me.

This is not the appropriate response to this situation. 

The only appropriate response is to address the problem.

The problem is not that an author mentioned a person's sexual orientation to students but rather that a parent reported the topic as inappropriate.

There was a time when mentioning sexual orientation to elementary students would have been provocative…but it never would have been inappropriate because it never would have been inappropriate to mention that a man loves a woman or a woman loves a man. 

There is so much to criticize and combat in this world, but when any two people love each other is not one of them.

After my talks, most school staff say nothing about my mention of Fred's sexuality. As I said, it's part of life. And some have commented to the contrary of what some in their community believe. One librarian in a southern state told me "They need to hear about this."

I would hope that this is what a principal would say to a concerned parent.

To address specific points in the principal's email:

  • "comments made about his sexual orientation": As already explained, it was comment, singular, a simple statement of fact: Fred was gay. For the people who were not at the assembly but who were copied on the email, this phrasing could imply I was soapboxing or even going into detail that would indeed be inappropriate for the age of the audience. But referencing sexual orientation is not referencing sex.
  • "This parent's daughter was very uncomfortable": The child was uncomfortable because the parent—whether through modeling or explicit instruction—taught her to be. Children are not born intolerant.
  • "school assembly for 1st-5th graders": I did not mention Fred's sexual orientation (or Fred) to grades 1 and 2—but only because I cut out a lot of the detective story for kids that age. It's purely logistical. I'd happily address homosexuality (and the nuances of other points I omit) in an age-appropriate way to kids of any age, but presenters always have to weigh the value of including a point versus the time it will take to sensitively explain it when compared against other points we want to make.
  • "I reviewed your website and was excited about the connections we would make to encourage reading": Yet the principal did not indicate to the administrators that this is precisely what the kids got. (See the last line of the article above.)
  • "increased my resolve to ask direct questions and avoid potential issues": I hope this does not mean that the principal will be asking potential future presenters in advance if they will mention a person's sexual orientation (or religion, or race, or...). Denying kids the benefit of a good author talk because of one issue that the unenlightened may object to (and that is not the main topic of the talk) is a colossal disservice to our future leaders, and to ourselves as well. 

In short: it's prejudiced. 

Every adult has a responsibility to model empathy for every child.

There may be kids at this school who have an openly gay parent or two gay parents. There are definitely kids at this school who are gay themselves, even though they may not know it yet. I am equal parts disappointed and enraged that they are in a school system where simply mentioning this aspect of themselves could be a "potential issue." But based on my experiences in schools in all parts of the country, I am confident in the ability of 21st century youth to be proud of who they are and to speak up against injustice.

Still, when doing so, they need the support of adults.

I debated replying to the principal and others copied on the email with some form of the above. But ultimately I decided that short is best. The point here is not the one point one person disliked (an opinion that probably won't change no matter what I say) but rather the merit of the experience as a whole for the majority. So this was my reply:

Thank you again for having me at your school. I had a lovely time; the kids were enthusiastic and engaged. In case you missed this, here is how the local paper covered my visit. [hyperlinked]
What did you and your staff think of my presentation?

As of this writing, I have not heard back.

But if I do, and the response is along the same lines as the initial email, I will direct the person responding to this post.

Saturday, September 23, 2017


On 9/18/17, two years to the day of the Bill Finger credit announcement, I spoke twice about the man: during the day at a school in Reston, VA and at night at Alley, a New York-founded company that recently opened a DC office.

daughter of friend/fellow author Kwame Alexander attends the Reston school; Kwame kindly sat in on one of my talks and joined me and librarian Kim Sigle for lunch.

The Alley talk was open to the public and free of charge.

My host told me that two of the women who attended have come to previous free events he's spearheaded. He believes they leap-frog night-to-night from free event to free event, partake of the free booze, then leave. In this case, one had a couple of beers and walked out in the middle of my talk. The other stayed...wearing sunglasses, indoors, the whole time.

Oddity and all, a more than nice way to spend the anniversary. Thank you again to Kim, Kwame, and Alley.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

My first Amazon orders

In the publishing community, is a polarizing topic. I see both sides. We can discuss. But not here.

This is purely nostalgia.

I was working as a marketing associate in book publishing when Amazon launched in 1995. I remember a group huddling around a blocky computer to catch our first glimpse of the home page, which looks so quaint now:

That's the standard "Amazon home page 1995" you can find around the internet. I wish I had documented it myself but didn't because (like most) I had no inkling what it would become.

I use Amazon and have since 1997 (a year before its offerings expanded beyond books). By that point, at age two, it looked only slightly more polished:

Number of times I ordered from Amazon during my first five years as a customer (not counting gifts for others):

2000—13 (some with multiple items, often books for research)

The first four:

 No surprise the subject of my first purchase. 
(A friend had the 1988 book when we were in high school. 
That must've seemed like a lifetime ago when
I bought my own copy in 1997.)

 I loved The New Yorker almost as much as superheroes. 
Weirdly, this devotion began in high school (because of the cartoons)
and continued into college.

the Gatorade commercial song about Michael Jordan.
Not proud.
(But still have in my music library.)

Another New Yorker book.

Now Amazon may sell nearly everything but it's not the original Everything Store. This is.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

A week of school visits in scenic IL

I kicked off the 2017-18 school visit year by returning to the lovely part of Illinois I first experienced exactly a year ago. From 9/11 to 9/15/18, I spoke at eight elementaries in Crystal Lake, St. Charles, and Woodstock, IL.

Librarian Gayle Johnston of Glacier Ridge Elementary in Crystal Lake first heard me speak at Northern Illinois University in 2016. She took thorough notes—and repurposed some of my sound bites on signs in the hallway and library.

I loved the statement posted outside the Glacier Ridge art room. The art teacher confessed that she found it online but that makes it no less touching.

Speaking of Glacier Ridge signage, I signed a healthy amount of books...

...and a Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice display.

But this was my favorite display at Glacier Ridge (and, possibly, ever): every student in the school drew his/her own version of the star of The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra. ¡Ay, caramba!

The kids of Husmann Elementary also flexed their buy-my-books muscles.

Husmann's librarian Tina Serra simultaneously honored Bill Finger's legacy and boosted my spirit by asking her students to create their own gimmick books.

Greenwood Elementary in Woodstock boasts something I have not seen in my 13 years of author visits: a fireplace. The school was built in 1949 and the fireplace has since been converted to gas...but it's still in use (Christmas storytimes).

Thank you again to the eight schools who took time out of your regularly scheduled programming to bring me in, and special thanks to Terry Jacobsen of Canterbury Elementary for tirelessly ringleading this trip. 
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