Archive for Happenings

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.

The 1st Annual Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival: October 5th . . . That’s Soon!

Come to the Bell Middle School in Chappaqua, NY and celebrate reading with some of the area’s most fabulous authors (and I’m crashing the party!).

This particular festival has risen from the ashes of the great, departed Sunnyside Book Festival in Tarrytown, which I dearly loved.

Here’s to new beginnings. If you are around, please stop by and say hello.

As always, great weather is personally guaranteed.

Adventures in Audio: The Best “Audiobook in the Car” Story I’ve Ever Heard

I was at a dinner earlier this week at The Stockade Inn in Schenectady, NY, in celebration of the Children’s Literature Connection. It was an intimate, modest, friendly event with under 100 attendees, featuring keynote addresses by Karen Beil and Jennifer Armstrong.

I love this photo of Karen in the classroom.

I mean, there it is, there it is right there.

Anyway, I got to chatting with a librarian about this and that, and we hit upon the subject of books on tape. Or CDs, rather. She had a long commute to her job and passed that time by listening to books. We talked about that moment when you are in the car, listening to the book . . . while sitting in your driveway, unwilling to turn off the engine. You don’t want to get out.

Anyway, the story: At one point, she decided to try the Charles Dickens classic, A Tale of Two Cities.

Listening to it on her way to work, she found the story confusing, nonsensical, poorly structured, maddening. The book had strange flashbacks, then jumped forward in time, characters were angry, then they were happy, then they were mad again. It was crazy, a hot mess of a book. She told me, “I hated it, HATED IT. I was saying to myself, ‘This is a classic? I hate this stupid book. It makes no sense!'”

Later on, at home, she pulled out the book and began flipping through the pages, trying to find her spot. She went forward, then back, then flipped forward a few more pages. Something was wrong. There were gaps, things left out, while other scenes seemed out of order.

Then she realized the problem: “I had accidentally set the CD player on RANDOM!” she told me with a great laugh. “I listened to the entire first disk that way, bouncing from track to track, and I hated it!”

I’d like to report that she has since rectified the problem, and gone on to appreciate this work of classic literature. But, alas, she is too scarred. “I still hate it,” she confided. “I will always hate it.”

I think even Charles might understand.

The Dublin Literacy Conference — featuring Donalyn Miller, Sharon Draper, Ruth Ayres, and Hot Tubs

I had a great time at the Dublin Literacy Conference back in February. I saw a couple of old friends, Karen and Bill from the Literate Lives blog, and finally met two women I’ve known almost exclusively through their terrific blog, A Year in Reading, Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn.

You can’t talk to either Franki or Mary Lee for long before you are promising to read a book or two that they absolutely loved. These are the ones that sounded most interesting to me . . .

Wonder, by R. J. Palacio

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate.

I also heard a morning keynote speech from Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer. She was terrific and inspiring, and an expert on building a classroom community of voracious readers. Boys, girls, whoever walks into the room. Many teachers told me that Donalyn’s professional book was excellent — fast, accessible, illuminating, and motivating.

So that was cool, meeting her. Riding in a car with Donalyn in the back seat. We didn’t get much of a chance to talk, pulled in different directions, always seated at different tables, but it was a pleasure to become aware of her, sit in the auditorium and hear Donalyn’s thoughts, humor, and classroom-earned wisdom. The pedagogical stuff was solid, but she really won me over when she talked about specific students in her classroom, these small laser-like observations, like the boy who informed her that he did not read any books the previous year, except this: “I think I might have read Hatchet.” He wasn’t sure. At those points in her talk, I recognized that Donalyn knew these kids, stone-cold knew 6th-graders, and that she loved them. I was sold.

At lunch, Sharon Draper was the keynote speaker. Sharon is a force of nature, strong and lively and confident and outspoken, a woman to be reckoned with. My daughter has already read Out of Mind, so I brought home a copy of this book for my 7th grade son, and he’s reading it now.

Oh yeah, she also had the line of the weekend, quoting from (I think) an African proverb, but addressing all the changes in education these days, today’s sad and misguided emphasis on testing:

“If you want an elephant to grow, you feed it, you don’t measure it!

My most unexpected pleasure came from a young woman I met. We got to talking, she was there to make a presentation, and I slowly realized that this was, holy wow, Ruth Ayres from the fabulous Two Writing Teachers blog.

Me: “I love your blog. You do such a great job. I think I’ve even commented a few times.”

Ruth: “I know!”

I guess I didn’t figure she’d know me, or care, but she did. Anyway, anyway. Ruth and Staci (the other writing teacher) do a “Slice of Life” Challenge through their blog. This is their fifth year, so it’s a slick presentation, there’s even a button thingy you can download or whatever, way beyond the capabilities of this bargain basement blog. Essentially, they invite teachers (and readers in general) to put their money where their mouths are. If you are going to teach writing, then write. And share it. And enjoy it.

By the way, Donalyn was on a parallel mission, calling on teachers . . . to read. It’s obvious, but there you go. A lot of teachers, for valid reasons, feel too busy to read. But even so: Read. No excuses.

To me, I’ve always maintained that teaching = enthusiasm transferred. You want them to catch the reading fever? It helps if you’ve already got the bug.

Next week I’ll share one slice of life from my visit, because I had a great encounter in a hot tub.

No, it’s not what you’re thinking.

Reminder: The Concrete Temple Theatre performs BYSTANDER this Friday, 11/4, in Hudson, NY

Just a reminder for those of you in the area . . .

Special thanks to the Hudson City School District Arts & Humanities Fund and the¬†Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation for making this debut performance possible. I’m honored, surprised, and eager to see it — and wondering where this endeavor might take us before we’re through. Maybe to a school near you?