Living where I do, in the hole of the donut (read: Albany area), I don’t get to meet many children’s book authors and illustrators. So Children’s Book Day at Sunnyside presented a rare opportunity to eyeball the competition. I mean to say: hang out with my colleagues!
During the two-hour signing session, I found myself sitting next to Rebecca Stead. Who is, like, a really big deal. Fortunately, she doesn’t seem to know it. She’s down-to-earth, totally unpretentious. So I kind of had to like her, even though she’s an award-winner and everything.
Whenever a kid came up to Rebecca to have a book signed, Rebecca smiled sweetly — with those straight white teeth of hers — and gestured to an array of six different-colored markers. She asked, “Which color would you like?”
This made me look pretty bad, what with my one lousy black Sharpie. I silently fumed. The audacity! I mean, did she have to wear the Newbery Medal around her neck? Really? So maybe I kicked the table a few times, right when Rebecca was signing. “Oh, gee, sorry, it looks like you ruined another book,” I’d apologize.
It felt good.
And yes, I’m lying about the Newbery Medal necklace.
Sometimes kids would slide over to me and ask for an autograph. I’d hold up my lone Sharpie, glare hatefully at Rebecca, and ask, “Which color?” I’d add in a whisper, “Say black.”
Anyway, despite the horror show of the whole marker situation, it was a decent day and a treat for me to make personal connections with some people I knew only through their books. By happenstance, my daughter, Maggie, is reading When You Reach Me right now. In fact, I read the first few chapters aloud to her, and was again reminded of Rebecca’s gift.
I think one of the most difficult things to do as a writer — something I struggle with all the time — is to create a loose, informal tone and yet still write well-crafted sentences — especially when writing in the first person. To write informally, I’ll tend to insert filler words like “just” and “kind of” and “like” or whatever. You know, the empty words people actually use. But if you aren’t careful, those sentences get flabby. Wordy. Soft around the edges. And I hate flabby sentences. So you have to work hard to find a balance between the casualness of a conversational tone and, say, the ruthlessness of the hard, clear, lean, direct writing which I value.
Rebecca’s book has been justly praised for its plotting — the remarkable puzzle-mystery she constructed — but for me, it’s the sentences. The humor. The tone. The way she writes, word by word, sentence by sentence.
Another fabulous celebrity I’ve meet is Charise Harper (she tweets!). We sat next to each other last year (I guess that’s how I meet people, they plop down next to me and if they aren’t stuffy with South London accents, we’re okay). Charise is one of those endlessly creative people — always making, drawing, folding, doing. A playful spirit and a little nutty in a good way. I think she’s a true, bone-deep artist.
She makes fun little videos, too:
Jimmy, thank you for these very nice words (mostly). It was a pleasure to rub elbows with you (couldn’t really help it, since we were sitting on that hill and you kept sliding off your chair), and to watch your fans line up. Hoping that Maggie likes the book, and that our paths cross again soon.
P.S. I only remembered to bring the pens because last year I brought NO pens, and ended up “borrowing” a Sharpie from the lovely Nora Raleigh Baskin. A year later, I am older and wiser. And I still experience pangs of guilt whenever I see her pen on my desk.
And thus we learn that the 2009 Newbery Medal Winner can take a joke.
I doubt we’ll get invited to many of the same parties, but hopefully our paths will indeed cross somewhere down the line.
Why do I feel like I’m channeling Kathy Griffin?
I met Nora at last year’s event. I complimented her book, ANYTHING BUT NORMAL. I liked the cover, too. Nora was worried about the new paperback cover, which she hadn’t seen yet. Now that it’s out, I can say that it looks TERRIFIC.