Archive for October 29, 2013

How I Survived a Night in a Texas Graveyard with R.L. Stine

For a minute there, I wasn’t sure.

I didn’t know.

I was not exactly confident that we would make it out alive.

The hordes kept shuffling toward us out of the darkness, closer and closer they crept . . .

Art by Iacopo Bruno, from Good Night Zombie (Scary Tales #3), by James Preller.

Well, okay.

Let’s backtrack a minute.

I was in Austin, Texas, on a Saturday night, scheduled for a reading in the Texas State Cemetery with R.L. Stine. A creepy literature crawl in a graveyard. What mad genius, I wondered, devises such things?

I met Bob in his 15th-floor hotel room — yes, he lets me call him “Bob,” a name that no one under the age of seven actually bears anymore, they’re all named “Brendan” and “Colby” and “Luke.” We sat and chatted for half an hour or so, the old days at Scholastic, our experiences with school visits, this and that and whatnot. Time passed amiably. At seven, we crept to the cemetery, where we quickly learned that Austin was more than good beer, righteous food, and great live music.

It’s a town that loves books.

Forty-five minutes ahead of schedule, hundreds of R.L. Stine fans had already gathered amidst a sea of tombstones. It was an incredible vision. Many sat under the high flood lights, but others sat on the edges, and waited patiently in the graveyard’s deeper, darker, gloomier pastures.

My task was to serve as the opening act, like a lone slice of cucumber on a plate. Bon appetit! Bob was the hearty main course and the reason they came, so ravenous. By 8:00, it was time to get the show started. I spoke, elicited a laugh or two, told them that the scariest thing I ever encountered was kids who didn’t like books (because they grew up and voted, and sometimes even got elected to Congress). I read the “Bloody Mary” section from Home Sweet Horror, the creepiest part of the first book in my SCARY TALES series. I had the sense to keep it brief, with no intention of messing with Texas. Next I had the pleasure, the honor, to introduce the beloved author, R.L. Stine.

Beloved? Revered? Idolized? Worshipped? Words fail me. What I witnessed was that deep connection between reader and book. I saw what it was all about. The power of the word.

The crowd, I mean to say, went a little bananas.

They love him, you see. On a deep and profound level, the books of R.L. Stine had impacted these people — and they were there to see the man, to shake his hand, to thank him, to tell him what those stories meant to their lives.

The first books they ever really, really loved.

Goosebumps. Fear Street. The most trusted name in book-learnin’: R.L. Stine.

After the reading, it was time for us to sign. They don’t really do lines in Texas, unless, I guess, it’s for dancing. Somebody should have brought a fiddle. Fortunately a couple of good-natured cops came by restore order (at the end, after thank you’s, they even asked us both to sign a few books for ’em, which we gratefully did).

Of course, R.L. was the star attraction. I mostly sat nearby, making sure Bob had water, a Sharpie, a small flashlight to see, and, sure, I even signed a few books of my own, basking in that borrowed light. I took a few lousy snapshots, which you see here.

The entire night was a revelation and a confirmation. The power of story. The impact of books. And how lucky I was to do this job, to be in this place, to share in these moments.

Near 10:00, the last of the line had finally wound down. Time to go.

We headed to the car through the big iron gate, which swung shut behind us with a clang.

Bob smiled. “It was a good night,” he said.

“Yes,” I agreed. “It was.”

And I thanked R.L. Stine — Bob, my friend — for the gift of letting me share a small part of it. And to see again what it can mean to write a book, and for that book to be read, and for it to be loved by someone, by anyone, somewhere, anywhere.

It’s a beautiful thing. Even in a graveyard. Even at night. Especially with R.L. Stine.

WHERE’S JIMMY: “If This Is Saturday, It Must Be Austin.”

I won’t be blogging for the next 7-10 days, but I’m confident the world will keep spinning. But don’t think that I’ll be relaxing, people. I’m actually going on a book tour, my first ever, and I’ll be talking up the new SCARY TALES series.

Check out this schedule:

Monday, 10/21: Flying to San Francisco, staying in Petaluma. I’m having dinner with educators and young readers, arranged by the kind folks at Cooperfield’s.

Tuesday, 10/22: Visiting the Old Adobe Charter School, Liberty School, and McDowell School for presentations to about 550 students. Swinging by Cooperfield’s to sign books. Then driving to San Francisco for the night.

Wednesday, 10/23: Thanks to Books Inc, I’ll be visiting at the San Francisco Day School and Brandeis Hillel Day School. Flying to Los Angeles.

Thursday, 10/24: In a day arranged by Miss Nelson’s Book Store, visiting at Telesis Academy and Shelyn Elementary. Flying to Chicago.

Friday, 10/25: Thanks to Anderson’s book store, I’ll be visiting with students at Builta and Churchill Schools, and later that night should enjoy a fun-filled Halloween celebration at Anderson’s, book signing, and free dental.

Saturday, 10/26: Flying to Austin, where I’ll be attending a cocktail party and then heading off to a cemetery for a literary walk with R.L. Stine to scare readers silly.

Sunday, 10/27: Flying home.

Monday, 10/28: The New York State Reading Association Conference in Albany, NY, for a luncheon, then a panel discussion with Ann Burg, and a brief dinner presentation along with Joe Bruchac and Adam Gidwitz.

Congratulations, Iacopo Bruno: The Not-So-Secret Weapon Behind SCARY TALES!

All we really want in life is to be appreciated. That’s basically it.

I’m not talking about authors or illustrators. I’m talking . . . everybody.

A word of recognition, a note of thanks.

We saw what you did.

We want it from our children, our spouses, our friends & co-workers.

So I was very glad to see that Iacopo Bruno was recognized by the Society of Illustrators for his brilliant work on the first book in the SCARY TALES series: Home Sweet Horror.

His illustrations will be included in — and I quote — “an annual exhibit created to showcase illustrations from the year’s best children’s books published in the U.S.”

The exhibit, titled “The Original Art,” will be in NYC from October 23 through December 21, 2013. After it closes, select pieces will travel to galleries, museums, and exhibit halls across the country for a year.

I can’t take any credit for this, the honor is Iacopo’s alone. But I’m grateful to have our book bask in that warm light. It is a great feeling to be well-published. An honor and a privilege.

I’m feeling blessed.

Quick Teacher Pass-Along

Neil Gaiman: “Well-Meaning Adults Can Destroy a Child’s Love of Reading.”

“Well-meaning adults can easily destroy

a child’s love of reading.

Stop them reading what they enjoy

or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like

–- the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian ‘improving’ literature –-

you’ll wind up with a generation

convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.”

— Neil Gaiman.

In a recent lecture, Neil Gaiman passionately warned of the danger of adults trying to dictate what children should or should not read. He believes children should decide for themselves, they should read what they love, and that the wrong kind of interference, no matter how well-intentioned, can snub out a child’s interest in reading forever.

From The Guardian:

[Gaiman] said: “I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children.” Every now and again there was a fashion for saying that Enid Blyton or RL Stine was a bad author or that comics fostered illiteracy. “It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness.”

This all reminded me of an interview I conducted with Thomas Newkirk, author of the important book, Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture, Newkirk spoke to these same issues — the imposition of adult tastes on students, particularly young boys.

Newkirk told me:

“I don’t think that means that we give up on asking students to read and write realistic genres — but we need to be open to other tastes as well. Fantasy allows us to escape, to be bigger and braver than we are, to suspend the limitations of time and space. I think we all need that freedom as well.”

He continued: “I think we all like some AKA crap. No one is high brow all the time. So it seems to me OK to ask kids to value what we value; but we also have to understand the appeal of what they like. It can’t be all one or the other. We have values and goals for their reading and writing; but we won’t win the cooperation of students if our attitude toward their culture is one of dismissal. One challenge is to look at books from the boy’s point of view. I don’t think gender is an absolute barrier here. What’s needed is an open mind, a sense of curiosity. What makes this boy tick? What are the themes, passions, competencies in his life that I can build on? To teach we all need to get outside ourselves, and into someone else’s skin. I know many female teachers who are wonderful at this. And it seems to me that when a boy senses a female teacher cares about what he cares about, that boy will be open to other things the teacher asks of him.”

Yes, some of this strikes a chord in me. I’m an ex-kid myself. But I’ve already encountered glimpses of this — and open hostility — for my new SCARY TALES series. I was at a book festival in Chappaqua when a daughter and her father (after he put down the phone) had a long argument at my table. She wanted one of my SCARY TALES books. She said, “I really, really want to read this book.” He did not think it was worth her while. She countered, he hunkered down. This went on for five minutes while I sat there like a rubber dummy, agog and aghast.

This doesn’t just happen with girls.

In another situation, I was asked not to mention my new series to anyone at an elementary school where I had been invited to speak. I could come, I was told, they loved my books — just don’t talk about, you know, the books that should not exist.

I declined to meet the contraints of the dis-invitation. I concluded a long letter to the librarian with this:

Oh well. In the end we both know that many elementary school children love scary stories — many librarians I’ve talked to can’t keep them on the shelves — but in this case that’s not what you, or nameless others, want them to read. Or to even be made aware the books exist. We also know about the power of a motivated reader. And how readers grow and develop over time. How one good book leads to another. But this is what boys have always been told, that what they like isn’t worthy, what they enjoy is somehow “wrong.” We deny their maleness. And the “we” is usually well-meaning women. Rather than building bridges to literacy, some people put up obstacles. And thus: there is a national crisis in boys reading scores. And until attitudes change, that crisis will continue.