Thursday, July 12, 2018

Nerd Camp 2018

I've considered every camp I've attended to be nerd camp, simply because I was there. Exhibit 1: me at camp in 1987, carrying around my Walkman...and journal.


Now I have finally experienced Nerd Camp In Caps. (Photos below. All Walkman-free.) 

The annual summer gathering, now in its sixth year, draws educators, authors, school administrators, and other book lovers/literary thought leaders to Parma, MI, for two high-energy days (this year, July 9 and 10) to learn from each other and celebrate the art, the craft, and the indispensable value of books. People come from far and wide. I even bumped into a teacher from an international school I spoke at in Malaysia!

For several years, author friends (hello Jenni Holm and Erica Perl) have urged me to go and I'm so glad this year brought me the chance to take that advice.

I speak at a lot of literacy/literary conferences, and the DNA of most overlaps: enthusiasm for reading, desire to gain new understanding from allies in the field, respect for and belief in children, long lines for mediocre food. But ask any Nerd Camp nerd (I otherwise avoid labels but Nerd Camp attendees embrace this one for this event) what makes Nerd Camp special and you'll likely get a response couching the event in near-sacred terms. The high school that hosts Nerd Camp is physically big enough to fit the 1,600 or so attendees, yet the love on site is bursting out through the cracks. 

The reasons for that love will vary from person to person, but one is universal: this is an event built from scratch by educators/child advocates, starting with Colby and Alaina Sharp (alas, I did not meet Alaina), and continuing right through the event itself because everyone has an equal chance to participate by pitching sessions on day 2. Many if not most attendees (educator and author alike) come on their own dime so they are vested. And I did not make it to any food trucks but hear good grub was to be gotten.

It's a camp of class acts. I came already knowing a good number of the attending speakers and teachers too numerous to list. It was an honor to meet—indeed present with—many more. The graphic novel panel that kicked off day 1 was a delight and the subsequent seven-minute Nerd Talks were capsule supernovas of inspiration. Everyone was so polished; many spoke truth to power in ways that felt new. (An important metric for me: if I'm getting a message I've already internalized, am I getting it in a different way?) After camp, the nerds scattered recharged and recommitted to being our best selves to help others do the same. An army of awareness. A sea of support. 

Naturally one does not get to hear or meet every presenter at an event of this scope, but experiencing even a fraction of it is enriching. Among the meaningful professional moments and realizations in my small corner of Nerd Camp:


  • having another opportunity to listen to Donalyn Miller synthesize best practices for promoting literacy with her trademark blend of knowledge, accessibility, and humor
  • becoming a fan of people I'd not met before including the dynamic Chad Everett and the compelling Sara Ahmed
  • bearing witness to the humble generosity of Dav Pilkey and John Schu 
  • sitting in on one of Jonathan Auxier's intriguing talks during Nerd Camp Jr. (when the audience was kids); his room was on the other side of the building from my room and I had only a half-hour window, but he made it totally worth the sprint 


I had lovely conversations (some for the first time in person, some for the first time ever, some for longer than two minutes!) with Travis Jonker, Elissa Brent Weissman, Jarrett Lerner, Jess Keating, Carter Higgins, Lindsey Anderson, Josh Funk, Don Miller, Tim Miller, Jim Bailey, Terry Thompson, Story Mamas Courtney and Kimberly, Debbie Freedman. Not enough time with others including Jen Vincent, Therese Hubbell, Courtney Doyle, Becky Calzada, Molly O'Neill, Pernille Ripp, Michelle Holstine, Andrea McEvoy, Hena Khan, Laura Shovan, Stephanie Stinemetz, Emma Ledbetter. 

Special shoutout to my carpool Minh Lé, Lauren Castillo, and Alison Morris. We didn't get into as much road trip trouble as I was hoping, but it was a blast nonetheless and maybe sandwiches should not be that big. Great to meet you along the way, Natasha Smith and Seantele Foreman.

Another special shoutout to Sarah Albee for e-introducing me to Andrea Childes months ago. Bummed I did not see Sarah more than in passing.

An extra-sized shoutout to Pam Warren for being such a great helper...and under such hot conditions! However, you were warmer than the room.

Great fun to talk pop culture and more serious subjects with Jarrett Krosoczka. Pure bliss to meet the glowing soul Debbie Ridpath Ohi. Huge treat to see Raúl the Third again so soon after first hanging out with him in March.

It was an absolute pleasure to get to know the gentleman's gentleman James Ponti, who kindly came back from Nerd Camp to unstrand me from the hotel and whose compassion and strength equals his quick wit. Same with Judd Winick, a name I've known for years; so nice to finally shake your hand and talk a bit of (comics) shop.

Thank you to Laurie Keller and Andrea Childes for agreeing to panel with me. You were both such team players. It was a privilege to revisit and break down hilarious books for an hour with you. Plus it was a boost to our immune systems!

Another tip of the hat to the fellow storytellers of my research panel/improv troupe: James, Kat Zhang, Stuart Gibbs, Sarah Mlynowski, and surprise guest/old pal Nathan Hale. You're all well-spoken and funny and I'm both friend and fan. I've done tons of panels and the chemistry on this one—patchworked together a mere hour earlier—was stellar. What a lively audience, too.

If I have left out anyone with whom I shared a nerdy word, I apologize. But please know that while my brain/memory sometimes lapses, my heart doesn't. 

There were a handful of people I was hoping to meet—I even made a (partial) list—but didn't. Yet another reason to return.

Thank you again to Colby, Alaina, Donalyn, Jess, and all others who made it possible for me—for all of us—to be there.

Glimpses:

 My carpool crew Alison Morris, Lauren Castillo, and Minh Lé flew 
into a different terminal than I did. (This photo would've been funnier 
ten minutes earlier when I was among many drivers 
holding similar signs.)

We stopped in Ann Arbor en route to visit Literati bookstore and eat.
We laughed at the sun spotlight targeting just my head.

 On day 1, Molly O'Neill made our carpool into a fab five.

 I hid four fairies around Nerd Camp.
Find one, find me, win a book.


 My day 1 panel on the educational value of funny picture books 
drew a great crowd and here you see why: creator Laurie Keller 
and teacher Andrea Childes. As far as I can recall,
this was my first time sharing a panel with both an author
and an educator. The different perspectives in part
informed by different job titles made this all the more
interesting for me and, I think, the turnout.

 My day 2 research panel: Nathan Hale, Kat Zhang, 
Stuart Gibbs, James Ponti, me, Sarah Mlynowski.
We were even kind of color-coordinated (except for me).

 Reunion with Lindsey Anderson and Nathan Hale,
both of whom I met when we three and James Barry did
a progam at the 2013 Southern Festival of Books.

 Debbie Ridpath Ohi. I'm holding a book illustrated by
her good friend Eliza Wheeler.

 Middle school teacher Paul Bach, who reached out 
to me a few days earlier to tell me he's used both
my Bill Finger book and TED Talk to great effect 
in his classroom. He clearly has great taste in T-shirts.
(As you saw in the research panel photo above,
it inspired my outfit for day 2.)

 At first I thought this photo was a hallucination or Photoshop prank, 
but turns out that on Monday night, we did did indeed go to 
Denny's at 1:30 a.m. A Nerd Camp tradition, I learned.
(clockwise starting with the closest to the camera:
Don Miller, Terry Thompson, me, Laura Given,
Donalyn Miller, Molly O'Neill, John Schu, Travis Jonker,
Jarrett Lerner, Josh Funk, Minh )




The Nerd Camp equivalent of fairy dust is now everywhere...

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