Saturday, March 31, 2012

Meeting my third Sea World skier

Over Super Bowl weekend, I gave three talks in the Miami area (none about football).

One was at the enchanting Books & Books bookstore in Coral Gables. Adding to the specialness of the evening was a surprise attendee: Diane D. Smith, one of the former Sea World water skiing superheroes I interviewed for my big blog feature last summer and the third I've met in person.

Here is me with the first two and here is me with Diane:

Diane and her husband kindly drove more than three hours to be there, knowing we didn't know when our next chance would be. In the interview process, she was one of the most generous and illuminating of the skiers. She told some great stories and has been more than complimentary and gracious about the finished feature.

Thank you again, Diane, for giving of your time and spirit to my project.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


The March 26 & April 2, 2012 issue of Newsweek demonstrates one way for print magazines in the digital age to stay competitive: go back to when they had no competition.

In a nifty gimmick, the articles are about current events, but (inspired by Mad Men) the design is vintage 1960s—even the ads:

In this back-to-the-future ad, can you find the funniest, wink-winkiest line?

I can’t imagine how much this challenge added to the production time, but in my estimation, it was worth it.

Any number of sites sport a retro slant, but it stands out more when an established old-school brand like Newsweek does it. This all but guarantees that a publication about news will make news.

One of the throwback ads is positively meta:

Yes, a 1960s-styled ad promoting reading on paper, the irony being that in the 1960s, no such ad would have been necessary.

I checked out the site it indicates and my favorite line there was this: “Bringing in the mail is one of the few things we all still have in common.” Though I find this claim a bit of a stretch, as a nostalgia fiend I do appreciate the intention. To wit, this is one of my favorite picture books:

It may not be immediately apparent how risky it was to publish The Milkman by Carol Foskett Cordsen and Douglas B. Jones, but putting out a kids’ book in the 2000s about a cultural element that disappeared from most communities several generations before today’s kids were born is bold indeed. And that’s but one reason it’s one of my favorites and, by extension, why I applaud the Newsweek gamble, too.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Rethinking my autograph "policy"

At school visits, typically the only thing I will sign is copies of my books—not scraps of paper, autograph books, backpacks, T-shirts, wrappers, or arms.

It’s not that I mind signing; in fact, I am honored every time someone asks and impressed with any student who has the courage to approach an author after a presentation. I don’t think I would have been that kid.

I do worry that some students want an autograph simply because they perceive every author as famous without taking to heart the reason authors come to schools in the first place—to reinforce the importance (and fun) of reading and writing. But this is also not why I have not been signing miscellany.

No, the reason I adopted this sign-only-books policy is equality. It is rarely feasible for an author to sign for every student who heard him. So if I scribble my name on only some students’ slips of paper, it’s unfair to those who didn’t get a signature.

But if a student is vested enough to buy one of an author's books, he has “earned” a signature (even though the real value is, of course, the book itself). This idea has been in place since before I entered the scene.

Still, I thought many other authors of books for young people were not as regimented about signatures as I have been…until my first of four days at International School Nido de Aguilas in Santiago, Chile.

At lunch after I spoke, two students came up to me and politely asked for an autograph. I thanked them, explained the above, and then spontaneously offered the consolation of me posing for a photo with them if they wanted. They seemed fine with that and left, planning to bring a camera the next day.

I turned to my host (the school librarian) and apologized if my policy came off as insensitive. I hoped I hadn't just undermined my purpose in being there. She assured me not to worry—what I did is apparently the same as what all the previous authors who’d visited the school had done.

I was surprised.
And also relieved.

Then I was surprised again because I realized that my autograph policy actually goes against one of my core beliefs about education. I believe in fairness, of courseand part of that is teaching kids that life is not always fair.

I am disappointed when I find that a school does not allow competition; this does not prepare kids for real life! It’s okay to lose or miss out sometimes, and adults have a responsibility to impart this to young people.

(I also realized that for me to decline to sign but then offer to pose is illogical. Whether signature or photo, students who did not get one could feel slighted.)

If I don't sign for anyone, I am reinforcing the notion that not everyone gets everything he wants every time. Yet if I sign for some but don't get to sign for all, I am sending the same message. In other words, authors show that life isn't always fair whether or not we sign scraps.

So perhaps I should sign more autographs, time permitting (but still not on backpacks, T-shirts, or arms). In other scenarios we say "better some than none"...why not in this case?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Elkins Pointe Middle School

On 3/26/12, I spoke in Roswell...but not because of this book I wrote:

No, I was in the Roswell in Georgia, not New Mexico (though a movie theater there is cleverly called "Area 51").

While I didn’t encounter any UFOs in the Georgia Roswell, I did encounter something else rare and noteworthy: Susan Grigsby, my kind host, was the 2011 Georgia Library Media Specialist of the Year. Another congrats, Susan!

I spoke three times at Elkins Pointe and was more than humbled when Susan told me that some of the students who attended the first presentation asked if they could go again to my second or third (which was the same presentation).

And I was heartened that the school/teachers allowed that. To me, such a decision exemplifies the best of effective education: spontaneous support of a student who shows interest in something beneficial, even if it means deviating from the schedule. Thanks again for having me, Elkins Pointe.

I thought it was cool the way the PowerPoint projected
before the screen was set up.

This, I believe, was the first school to include my not-yet-released
Batman book in a welcome display.

This is a first for me: seeing that a school library subscribes to a comic book.
I commend their choice.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Georgia Children's Literature Conference

On 3/24/12, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Georgia Children's Literature Conference in picturesque and musically historic Athens, GA. I also got to catch up with author/illustrator friends Meghan McCarthy, Mike Wimmer, and Jody Feldman. People don't get much nicer than those people. Bonus: I got to hear two of them present; sitting in on colleagues' talks is a rare treat at conferences.

I had only one session but you'd never know it by the quantity of books they brought in:

While in Athens, I also got to visit the inspiration for the title of my favorite R.E.M. album:

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Word of the Week: vocabulary cartoons

In 2005, the first of my two Scholastic books called Vocabulary Cartoon of the Day came out. Shortly after, a company called Educational Insights called me to ask if I would like to create a similar product, but in mini-poster form.

Thus was begot a three-edition series called “Word of the Week,” each for a different (but overlapping) grade range.

Like the cartoons in my Scholastic books, each Word of the Week cartoon contains a vocabulary word; to get the gag, you must learn the definition. The idea is to display one new cartoon a week for the entire school year.

When supply allows, I give these packs out as thank yous to schools that invite me. It’s always a good sign to me when an educator or a school is willing to incorporate humor in education. We remember what we laugh at, so I feel it’s a smart tactic.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Easter Island vs. Athens, GA

Barely four days after returning from Easter Island, I had to leave again...this time for the Georgia Conference on Children’s Literature in Athens, where I am speaking today.

Julie Meehan, an enterprising and very funny high school friend of mine who lives in Athens, saw the quirkiness in this and took initiative to prepare me for the transition. To say any more would spoil the fun, so with her permission but without further ado...

And for the record, what I've already seen of Athens has been lovely. No possums yet.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The girl with the "Vanished" trailer

In 11/11, I stumbled upon a trailer a stranger named Jaclyn had made for my book Vanished: True Stories of the Missing.

I Facebooked her to thank her. She wrote back to thank me for thanking her. At the time, I could not tell that Jaclyn was a sixth grader.

Her mom stepped in, and I’m glad she did, for multiple reasons. First, I’m a parent myself, and you get the rest. Second, it brought to light a fortunate coincidence.

It turned out that Jaclyn attended school in the Seattle area, and as it happened, I was scheduled to make my first-ever trip to Seattle in late February.

I asked Jaclyn’s mom if Jaclyn’s school might be interested in an author visit. Indeed they were. The school had just finished building a shiny new library, and I had the honor of helping to christen it.

But best of all, I got to meet Jaclyn and thank her again, face-to-face this time, for taking an interest in my book.

Posted with permission of Jaclyn's mother.

And I got to do it in front of her classmates and teachers. (I did not want to risk making Jaclyn uncomfortable so I first asked her mother, who gave me the green light in advance.)

I think this connection had an impact not only on me and on Jaclyn but also on her peers. They got to see how an enterprising young person can attract the attention of the author, which may just lead to an in-person meeting. That, in turn, reinforces the reason authors do this in the first place.

These days, when we are all perpetually but often anonymously inter(net)twined digitally, we can lose sight of the fact that there is a real-live human being at the other end of the click. Sometimes rewarding things happen if you only ask "Who are you?"

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Santiago and Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

I’m not a big holiday person—except Thanksgiving and Halloweenbut I am a big history person.

So it didn’t faze me to hit a milestone when alone and on the road. I turned 40 while speaking at the international school in Santiago.

It was the first time I had a school visit on my birthday. The students sang to me and that night the hotel sent up a slice of cake and glass of champagne—plus I still get to celebrate with family and friends when I get back.

But between Santiago and home, another treat was on the horizon, one (literally) heavy on the history. My engagement in Santiago enabled me to tack on a side trip to a place I’ve long wanted to go but honestly thought I would never see.

Easter Island.

Long before I got to Chile, I saw two omens.

The first was in The New Yorker I looked through in the Washington DC airport:

The second was in a bookstore during my layover at the Miami airport:

When traveling, I document but I don’t take 11 photos of any one site. I typically take at least two or three, but later choose only the best to keep. (I blink a lot.) I also avoid taking “generic” shots of famous sites. Instead I position myself or a friend in as many photos as possible—otherwise they are simply the same images you’ve already seen in books and online. (I do allow myself to skip inserting the human element in some cases of striking beauty.)

Easter Island was my home far, far away from home from March 16 to 19. It was a transcendent experience, and it seems that everyone else who has visited there feels the same. The place fills you with hunger for knowledge we may never acquire—why? When exactly? How?

It is remote—in fact, one of the three most remote yet inhabited islands on Earth.
 It is uncrowded, it is simple but not primitive, it is adventurous without being dangerous (most of the time).

Someone called the entire island an open-air museum, and I agree—with one key difference. At most of the sites we visited, we were the only ones there, no matter the time of day, and you can get quite close to most of the ruins. (But as at other museums, no touching.)

Here are some of the highlights (and even though this may seem like a lot, I tried to be selective):

The airport. It has one gate.

Anakena beach:

One of these blockheads is not a moai.

This is after sunrise (though overcast) on a Saturday.
Besides my friend and me, only two others were there.


This site boasts the most standing moai (fifteen); it is the number one sunrise spot on Easter Island (and possibly the South Pacific, or some might say the world) and it is the largest ceremonial structure in Polynesia.

After daybreak but before sunrise.

Flip side of sunrise, flip side of Tongariki.

Under these circumstances, strangers become instant friends.
These were from Chile, France, and Brazil.
(They, too, met each other on Easter Island.)

Just beyond Tongariki is what looks like a bombed-out house.
No roof, no walls in parts, but indications that it was fairly modern.
There are literally no other houses for miles.
I'm going to try to find out what it was and what happened.
[4/9/12 update: British Honorary Consul of Easter Island
James Grant Peterkin explained: "It was due to be opened as a restaurant
about 10 years ago, which was contentious anyway given that it's pretty much
on National Park land. It was the project of a Belgian man and a local,
although the local man sadly killed himself drunk driving
(you might have seen a cross on the south coast
decorated with fish...he was a fisherman),
and when his family then took on the project, it caught fire before they could open.
Many felt that its location next to the statues was fairly unsuitable anyway,
and you can imagine all the theories here regarding their continued bad luck..."]

The entrance to Tongariki is guarded by the traveling moai;
he has left Easter Island (for museums and the like)
only to return to his post.
He knows a good thing when he sees it.


The most popular sunset spot on Easter Island.
This is currently the only moai with eyes, made from coral.
(They were added relatively recently though
the Rapanui people would insert coral eyes at times, likely for rituals.)

The top of the middle of nowhere.

Rano Raraku:

This is the quarry where the moai were mined and carved. It is widely considered the most absorbing site on the island. Whereas all the moai scattered along the coastline were toppled during tribal wars, the moai here have remained standing exactly where they were abandoned centuries ago. (Of the hundreds of moai elsewhere on the island, a bit more than 50 have been re-erected starting in 1955.)

Look closely at this moai's belly.
It eerily depicts a collision of cultures...a Spanish ship.

He's right behind me, isn't he?

Elsewhere on the island:

Alien landscape along our five-hour hike
from Anakena beach back to Hanga Roa, the lone town.

Face-painted with my longtime friend Seth,
who didn't know a moai from a Mai Tai
before I shanghaied him into joining me on this memorable trip.

On my last morning on Easter Island, I visited the main elementary/middle school. (There are apparently two others, both smaller.) I tried to contact them in advance to announce myself, but didn't hear back. However, when we showed up, they were most welcoming. They gave us a tour and I gave them three of my books (though most of their students don't speak English). As it happens, they are looking for an English teacher...

She is teaching the Rapanui language.

The cafeteria.

Easter Island is a mystical place. Much of what happened there remains a mystery. So it was apropos that, while there, I walked into a mystery of my own: how is that at Tongariki, one of the most isolated and sacred sites on Earth, I came across a stranger reading my book Boys of Steel?

And it only got more bizarre from there. Over at Rano Raraku, one of the moai had also gotten ahold of the book:

Perhaps I should not be surprised; after all, oral legends claim that when carvers finished a moai at the quarry, the moai would walk to its platform elsewhere on the island. Like many secrets buried at Rapa Nui, this one may go forever unexplained.

Lastly, speaking of superheroes, I often say that Superman and Batman are so popular, so pervasive, that you'd be hard-pressed to find a spot anywhere in the world, however cut off, where they have no presence.

That holds true for Easter Island: