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!).

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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?

Bystander — the Play!

“Tell me and I will forget.

Show me and I will remember.

Involve me and I will understand.”

Chinese Proverb

And on that note, look at this amazing, full-page newspaper ad . . .

Pretty cool, don’t you think?

The group that’s putting on the play, Concrete Temple Theatre, has even started their own website about it, called “The Bystander Project.”

Check it out by clicking insanely . . . here. The idea, from what I can gather, is for this adaptation to travel to other schools, other districts, where students will put on their own versions of the play. Which I think is absolutely brilliant, in terms of using drama to explore these issues in a safe but powerful way. What better way to learn empathy than to stand in the shoes of another character?

Don’t forget to SAVE THAT DATE: November 4, 2011. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Stay Home, Please. Don’t Celebrate Children’s Book Day at “Sunnyside” in Tarrytown, NY, 9/25

Just stay home. Please.

Find something else to do.

Each year I do this event, which features more than 60 amazing children’s book authors and illustrators, and it’s always such a disappointment. For starters, check out some of the people who’ll be there, and you’ll understand why I’m so bummed:

Tony Abbott, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Nick Bruel, Bryan Collier, Katie Davis, Bruce Degen, Jean Craighead George, Charise Mericle Harper, Susan Jeffers, Peter Lerangis, Gail Carson Levine, Carolyn MacCullough, Rafe Martin, Wendy Mass, Matthew McElligott, Helen Perelman, Wendell Minor, Gloria Pinkney, Lizzy Rockwell, Todd Strasser, Mark Teague, Jean Van Leeuwen, Eric Velasquez, Sarah Weeks, Ed Young, and more.

Why so down-in-the-dumps you ask? Because I never get to talk to any of them. I never get a chance to meet the new (to me!) people, like Will Moses (Mary and Her Little Lamb), Lena Roy (Edges), Daniel Kirk (Library Mouse), Peter Brown (You Will Be My Friend!) . . .

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. . . and Jerry Davis (Little Chicken’s Big Day). Who are these people? Might they become my new best pals? Um, not likely! Because they are sitting at tables forty feet away, surrounded by happy children, shopping grandparents, and strong-armed educators, hauling bags of books like Sherpa guides.

Best I can do is throw rocks at ‘em.

And, oh, hey, look over there, it’s Jean Craighead George. She’s only a freakin’ legend. I can’t throw rocks at Jean Craighead George. She’ll throw them back — and her arm is a bazooka.

Oh,  wait.  Here’s old friends like Mark Teague and Helen Perelman and Peter Lerangis. Can I talk to any of them? Can we hang out? Maybe shoot the breeze? Commiserate?

Nooooooo. I’m too busy signing books, meeting young readers, gabbing with families, prostrating myself before the cheerful & smiling hordes.

Writing is a solitary business, folks. And it’s frustrating for me to sit there at gorgeous Sunnyside . . .

. . . just feet away from my peerless peers, and never have a free minute to chat with them.

So my dream is for just one year, nobody comes. No book sales, no signings, no musicians, no storytellers, no-bah-dee. Just us authors, finally (finally!) enjoying a few moments when we can hang out and complain about the crappy jobs our publishers do with publicity and marketing. It’s how we bond. We bitch and moan about Kindles.

So this coming Sunday, clean the garage, watch football, wax the car. But if you insist on coming . . . click here for full details.

As always, blue skies are personally guaranteed. It never rains on my parade.

My Apologies to Dolly Parton

Last week, when announcing an upcoming Summer Reading Event, I made a couple of quizzical comments about Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

As usual with this blog, the reaction was immediate. Very quickly, nothing happened. I waited a while longer, and nothing happened all over again.

Obviously, it was time for a retraction. I’m sorry, Dolly. Sometimes my inner wiseguy gets the better of me. And yes, that sound you hear is my wife nodding in agreement.

After a comment from a friend-in-reading, I spent a few minutes researching the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. In short, it’s a wonderful charitable work, first launched in 1996, dedicated to bringing books and children together.

Read here for more information on Dolly’s great efforts on behalf of children’s literacy.

Lastly, a confession: I own a few Dolly Parton CDs. I admire when she gets serious about her bluegrass roots, and can easily recommend “Little Sparrow” and “The Grass Is Blue.” Underneath the manufactured pop image, there’s a genuine musician and, I’m sure, a good woman working to make the world a better place. Here’s Dolly singing “Mountain Angel.”

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All that said: See you Thursday, June 30th! Click for details.

Join Us for the Summer Reading Spectacular: Featuring 11 Children’s and Teen Authors, Completely Live, in Colonie, NY

This is a warning, folks. On June 30th at 7:00 PM a rugged band of children’s and YA authors will be gathering at the Barnes & Noble bookstore at Colonie Center in Colonie, NY.

That’s right, it’s time for the Summer Reading Kickoff Bookfair Spectacular . . . celebrating (wait for it) the Dolly Parton Imagination Library! Because when it comes to Dolly, the first two things anyone thinks of are reading and, erm, I forget the second thing.

So, hey, let’s put the focus on reading this summer. Bring your young readers to pick up their free Barnes & Noble Summer Reading Journal to earn a FREE BOOK and the chance to WIN A NOOK COLOR. Authors will be standing by — sitting, hopefully, on cushy chairs, under a tasteful arrangement of palm fronds — happy to autograph books. Any books.

Check out this list of authors I think will be there . . .

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Julia DeVillers * Aimee Ferris * Rose Kent * Jackie Morse Kessler

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Sarah Darer Littman * Eric Luper * James Preller * Jennifer Roy

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Neva Ren Suma * Shari Maurer * Kristen Darbyshire

Honestly, this is an awesome gathering of new voices, talented people. And, um, me, dragging along hoary old Jigsaw Jones, first published 13 years ago and still in second grade. I don’t know many real YA authors — they scare me a little — what? no fuzzy ducks? at all? – and yet I’ll be joining their ranks soon, come Spring 2012, when we crush the world with Before You Go, my first book that includes the word “beer.” Anyway, please join us at Barnes & Noble. Should be a real good time together.

The event kicks off the annual national Summer Reading Program which rewards children, grades K-6, who read any eight books, record them in their free Summer Reading Journal, and bring the completed Journal to any Barnes & Noble store until September 6, 2011 for a FREE BOOK. The evening program is sponsored by the Junior League of Albany, with a portion of sales benefiting the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. Why Dolly Parton? Don’t ask; I just work here.

Details: Thursday, June 30, 7:00 PM –> who knows! Where: Colonie Centre, Albany, NY. 518-438-1728.

Click here for driving directions.

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Come to The Eric Carle Museum, Saturday, June 4: Guest Artists, Demonstrations, Panel Discussions, Wild Fun

Exciting events are happening this Saturday at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, MA, featuring presentations by Tomie dePaola, Diane deGroat,  John Gurney, Astrid Sheckels, and more.

Let’s hear our friend Greg Ruth, illustrator of A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, tell it. This is quoted from Greg’s recent email:

This coming Saturday, June 4 I will be participating in the Children’s Book Festival at the Eric Carle Museum down in yon Amherst, MA. Come on by and join me and other most excellent children’s book artists such as Roc Goudreau, Linda Graves, John Steven Gurney, Bob Marstall, Astrid Sheckles, David White, Diane DeGroat, Ruth Sanderson and Tomie DePaola as we all hold demostrations, panel discussions and engage in a great bit of fun.

I’ll be featuring process work for A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade all day and participating in a panel discussion on the craft of kid’s lit at 2:30pm, and will have books and a limited selection of sketches from the book on hand super cheap to take home. If you’re in the area or able to migrate, please do stop on by and say hello!

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Now double-quick, check out this magical little piece of process:
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Now gape, agog, at this calendar of events:

10:15 – 10:30 am
Meet the Very Hungry Caterpillar (Great Hall)

10:15 – 10:45 am
Meet the Artist – David White (Art Studio)

10:15 – 10:45 am
Film: Master Class with Tomie dePaola (Auditorium)

10:30 – 10:50 am
Special Storytime with Museum Staff

11:15 am – 12:00 pm
Presentation by Tomie dePaola (Auditorium) followed by a book signing

11:45 – 12:00 pm
Meet the Very Hungry Caterpillar (Great Hall)

12:00 – 12:30 pm
Meet the Artist – Diane deGroat (Reading Library)

12:30 – 1:15 pm
Performance by José Gonzales and Banda Criolla (Auditorium)

12:45 – 1:15 pm
Meet the Artist – John Steven Gurney (Reading Library)

1:15 – 1:45 pm
Meet the Artist – Astrid Sheckels (Art Studio)

1:45 – 2:15 pm
Meet the Artist – Bob Marstall (Reading Library)

1:45 – 2:15 pm
Film: Picture Writer (Auditorium)

2:15 – 2:30 pm
Meet The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Great Hall)

2:30 – 3:30 pm
Panel Discussion with Linda Graves, Greg Ruth, and Ruth Sanderson; Moderated by Susannah Richards (Auditorium)

3:00 – 3:20 pm
Special Storytime with Museum Staff (Reading Library)

4:00 – 4:30 pm Film (Auditorium)

Ongoing throughout the day:

  • Art Show and Sale
  • Book signings
  • Artist demonstrations
  • Studio and Gallery Activities
  • Face Painting
  • Book Making
  • Food Court with Local Burger and Flayvors Ice Cream – cash only
I WILL TRY TO BE THERE! ANYBODY ELSE DRIVING OUT THAT WAY?