Tag Archives: inspiration

Let’s not make Authors into Rock Stars

It’s been a rough few weeks in the world of children’s literature with conversations about sexual harassment in the industry. There are worthwhile things to read on the topic here and here.

One of the comments that caught my eye was the lament from a teacher—but these authors are rock stars to me and my students! I’m so disappointed!

It got me thinking. I’m going to take a deep breath and wade into difficult territory hoping that it will be received in the spirit I intend which is to support both students and teachers and librarians.

I do a lot of school visits. It’s one of the best parts of my life as an author. A school that is well prepared for my visit and eagerly anticipating a day in celebration of literature, goes a long way to making the work satisfying for me and profitable for students. Sometimes there are even lovely extra touches—a welcome sign hand made by students, a warm cup of tea, the principal who gave me her parking spot because it was snowing—all kind and much appreciated.

But sometimes a teacher or librarian goes a little over the top with the adulation of the person of the author. It has always made me uncomfortable and I’m pretty outgoing among my peers. There are many more introverted authors who find personal adulation extremely awkward, even painful. Nobody goes into children’s publishing to seek status. There’s just none to be had. The world of adult literature has no respect at all for us, and those outside of the world of literature are barely aware of our existence. For many the real draw in writing for kids is that it sidesteps the literary celebrity culture which can be so toxic in the adult writing world. So even though the adulation was kindly meant it often makes the author on the receiving end more anxious than flattered. As an added bonus, when an author’s human frailties—fairly or unfairly—become a subject of social media, you will not have the shock of their fall from grace because you never excluded them from the human community by putting them on a pedestal in the first place.

But here’s an even more important reason. Making an author a rock star does not serve your students well. The real benefit of an author visit is connection—genuine connection between students and authors. One of my most memorable school visits was to a middle school in Cicero, Illinois. It was a low income school in a neighborhood where gang violence is common. It was also right next to the neighborhood of my childhood. The teacher in her introduction said this: This author was born at Oakpark Hospital. (where most of the students were born) She lived on Ridgeland Avenue (which runs through the middle of the district) She used to play at the park with the fountain in the shape of a seal. (a place they all know). Oh, the look of joy on their faces, the wonderment! Yes, you can live here and also do this—be an author, graduate high school, attend college, choose a profession that speaks to your heart. And now let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of how that gets done.
That’s what school visits are for–connection. Putting an author on a pedestal, if anything, says to students here is something you can never be.

Most authors work hard to find common ground with the students they work with in schools. If librarians and teachers help us develop that connection then the information we have for students about the craft of story- making has a chance to take root and grow, making them the confident young readers and writers we all want them to be.

Thank you to all the hardworking teachers and librarians who work long and hard to bring authors into their schools. You are such a force for good. I am inspired every time I meet you!

American Indian Cultural Festival

A lot of the work of being an author is the dull and dry sitting at a desk (even when that desk is in a tree) and writing day after day. But every now and then an event comes along that you know you’ll remember forever. The American Indian Cultural Festival in The Dalles last week was just such a moment. It was a celebration of literature and poetry and music and dance. It involved a group of books that I admire and authors I feel honored to share the stage with: Elizabeth Woody, Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Craig Lesley, acclaimed author of contemporary western literature, and National Book Award winning writer Sherman Alexie.

I was lucky enough to spend time with an adult book club and share a poetry reading with some truly outstanding young poets. I got to hear the culture club from Lyle school in Washington give their very first performance in the Sahaptian language with traditional dancing. They were simply amazing. I’m so proud of all they’ve accomplished in a year. I meet with some avid writers in the North Oregon Juvenal Detention Facility, and best of all I got to dance with the Taholah drum group from the Quinault Reservation. My favorite part of the whole thing was the series of classrooms who came to hear me and the Taholah drum group speak. They had all kinds of great questions about the culture and art of the Quinault and Makah and the practice of tribal whaling. It was the sort of mind-opening conversation that cultural festivals are made for. I am very grateful to Julian Peterson and Marko Black and all the tribal dancers from Taholah who shared their songs and prayers and dances so generously, and who invited the students to dance and drum along so whole-heartedly. I know those are memories the students will always cherish.

Thank you to Jim Tindale the librarian at The Dalles School District who made this all happen in conjunction with the great booksellers at Oregon’s oldest bookstore Klindt’s who sold all the books and hosted many of the events. Tina Ontiveros is the manager at Klindt’s and Joaquin Perez is the owner. The fundraising for this event was truly a community affair with donations coming from area schools and libraries, educational foundations, local congregations, Oregon’s poet laureate program, the Wasco County Cultural Trust, the Ford Foundation, the Meyer Memorial Trust, and the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde. It’s inspiring to see so many community members come together in support of literacy and the cultural understanding of our local American Indian communities. Thank you!

Ringing in the New Year

What an interesting year to work in a book store! Annie Blooms is in a neighborhood with the largest Jewish community in Oregon and also a sizable immigrant African population. Here’s what I’ve found uplifting in a year full of ugly politics. Time and again, readers came in looking for a book that would help them make sense of their opponent’s point of view.

The conservative who just doesn’t understand what black people are so upset about, was willing to walk out of the shop with Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Willing to look into it. Eager, in fact, to understand better.

The talk of several local, and generally liberal, book clubs has been Hillbilly Elegy by S.A. Vance. “How can a bunch of white men feel so discriminated against,” say the bookclub ladies. “Where on earth can all these Trump supporters be coming from?” I don’t know either but these earnest bookclub members are searching for insight and talking about what they find.

Nearly everybody who comes into the shop talking about some crisis or other, the Standing Rock Sioux and the oil pipeline or the tide of refugees fleeing into Europe, has an opinion to start with. But here’s the cool part; they know they need to know more. They know that what is online masquerading as news is often not reliable. They already know what they think, but they want to know what the other guy thinks. They want to know the context, the history, the back story, the supporting science. And very often they want to know how to talk about these issues with their children. And yes, there are books for that! 

Although we need more than a few good books and people reading them to solve the mountain of issues we will need to address in the coming years, I do believe that books are a good beginning. A jumping-off place. An invitation to conversation. I’m grateful to have a shop full of good books to share, and a community open to new ideas.

My hope for the new year is that I will continue to listen and to and learn what I can, not to erase our differences or compromise on values I hold too dear to let go. But that I can see opponants more clearly and understand issues more fully, and rededicate myself to doing as much good in the world as possible–and maybe even a few good things that are impossible.

Irony

This past weekend I was at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Trade Show in Portland. (PNBA) While there I did a workshop on using social media as an author, bookseller or publisher. I had every intention of live tweeting the event and even began with a picture and tweet about Amber Keyser and her new novel The Way Back from Broken.

And then a funny thing happened. I went to some sessions that really expanded my thinking about the book world, including one with a very detailed explanation about exactly how books earn money and why some of them don’t. I sat in on a conversation about how the PNBA book award is chosen. I fell into one interesting conversation after another. I found booksellers and shared ideas for promoting my upcoming novel. I met publishers and talked about the kind of author who is the best fit for an event at Annie Blooms Bookstore. I found books that I wanted to immediately put in the hands of librarians from my school district.

And I completely forgot to tweet. Didn’t post a single thing on Facebook. I know. Missed opportunity.

Here’s what I didn’t miss. The joy of seeing a friend who is passionate about books absolutely in her element and making her dreams of becoming a publisher come true. Dozens of short conversations with publishers about the books they are passionate about. A long leisurely conversation over dinner with a new author friend, and a rather raucous late night conversation with a table full of booksellers. Not a single one of those experiences would have been enhanced by pausing to tweet, post, pin, or snap.

So thank you to the PNBA for an amazing weekend. I’m enriched. I’m exhausted. I’m going to spend every possible minute in the next week reading the amazing books and ARCs I brought home. And thank you to my northwest bookselling community for the mentoring and the inspiration.