Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Hilariously "Stooky" Event

Take five superstar authors, bring them together on a stage, add in 200-plus kids and adults and you've got the makings of an amazing event. If the authors include funnyman Jon Scieszka, the first-ever National Ambassador of Young People's Literature, "Origami Yoda" creator Tom Angleberger, comic authors Mac Barnett and Jory John, and "El Deafo" author/illustrator Cece Bell, you've got a seriously raucous event that just veers on getting out of hand -- in a very fun way.

That was the case recently at my library when those five authors took the stage in our Community Center auditorium and totally rocked the place. As the characters in Angleberger's "Origami Yoda" books would say, it was "stooky" -- i.e. seriously cool. The kids asked amazing questions; perhaps my favorite was the young fan who asked Jon Scieszka if he had "an embarrassing life," apparently keying off Jon's crazy stories in his autobiography for kids about growing up with six brothers. The air was electric with hilarity and excitement as the authors competed with each other to be fastest and funniest with a quip -- especially in the "lightning round" of the Q&A when the authors, to allow all the kids lined up to ask questions to have a turn, allowed themselves only three-word answers. Just incredible! But the main highlight of the evening was seeing so many kids so excited about books and reading.

Tom Angleberger started things off on a comic note when he tried to teach his fellow four authors how to use a "kendama" -- a challenging wooden ball catch game -- as they waited backstage for the event to begin. Here's Tom trying to teach Jory John:

It was certainly a happy group of authors who gathered themselves backstage before the program:

After Tom warmed up his fellow authors, he headed out to warm up the audience. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and blue cap, Tom walked up and down the aisles asking folks how they were doing, asking their names, and asking if they were happy to be there. Then Tom told the audience he would juggle three fat "Sharpies" and begged folks to clap as he juggled. As you might guess, juggling pens isn't easy, even for a veteran juggler like Tom. But the audience really got into the spirit of it, and it turned out to be a wonderful warm-up for the evening.

Tom then headed backstage so I could do the formal introductions. As I introduced each author, they emerged from behind the curtain at the back of the stage until all 5 were seated at a table onstage. Then the serious fun began. The five authors had decided to moderate themselves, using a timer and a horn that sounded a bit like an ailing cow. They limited themselves to three minutes each, a schedule  that wasn't easy for any of them to keep, which meant that the horn was sounded frequently, to the audience's delight.

Here's Cece at the mike, talking about El Deafo, her poignant and funny new graphic novel memoir for kids that details her struggles growing up with a severe hearing loss and trying to fit in with her peers.

Cece even brought the original Phonic Ear she used as a child to hear her teacher at school, and strapped it on to show the audience how it worked. Later, one child went up to the mike during Q&A time and told Cece that he, too, suffers from a severe hearing loss and told Cece "that to make you feel even better" that he, too, has a device to better hear his teachers.

Then the young fan asked Cece if she really ever made up a superhero named El Deafo in her head, and she responded "Yes!" Cece later was asked if she's better now at dealing with being different because of her hearing loss, and she said that she was, even turning to Tom -- her husband -- and asking him if he would agree. "Definitely," he said. Cece added that she was grateful to feel more confident about herself, but noted that it took many years for that to happen.

The presentations by the other authors were more raucous, not surprisingly, given their personalities. Mac & Jory, for example, have just teamed up on a new series, The Terrible Two, which stars two first-class pranksters. Noting that they've been friends for many years, Mac & Jory said they got the idea for a series about pranksters because they happen to be long-time pranksters themselves, and especially enjoy pranking each other. One prank involved Mac gift-wrapping Jory's car and also filling it with packing peanuts. Turned out that it was Jory's girlfriend's car; fortunately she's obviously a good sport because she and Jory are engaged to be married.

Mac & Jory then led the audience in "The Prankster's Oath" from The Terrible Two. Mac & Jory touched hands, then asked a young fan to touch one of their hands, and then have someone touch her etc. until the audience was joined as one. Of course, this caused a minor melee as fans pushed together but it was all in great fun.

Things got a bit more serious when a young reader asked why Mac decided to use a "pointless subject" for the focus of his book, President Taft Is Stuck In the Bath. Mac replied that he always was interested in the idea of a president stuck in a bathtub. But that wasn't good enough for the young questioner who persisted in asking, but why President Taft, who didn't seem to do much of anything? Mac then gave a brilliant answer, saying that he loved the way that a president like Taft was so human, the way that Taft's body was limiting to what he may have wanted to achieve. Mac said he could readily identify with such a humanized president, especially as his own body -- like Taft's -- doesn't always allow him to do what he wants to do. It was an answer that was totally candid, and totally on target -- brilliant.

When it was his turn, Tom did a bit of drawing during his three-minute segment, and then asked the audience why they thought he writes books about the weirdest kid in the school. His answer: "Because I WAS the weirdest kid in the school!" Later, Tom answered numerous questions from fans about the Origami Yoda books, including the just-published Emperor Pickletine Rides the Bus. That book is the sixth and final book in the series, Tom said, eliciting groans from young fans in the audience. Tom and Cece now are working on a new series together and are excited about that.

Jon Scieszka, of course, is an old hand at writing funny books like the Caldecott Honor classic The Stinky Cheese Man, The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by A.Wolf, the Time Warp Trio books, and many more. In fact, it was Jon who realized that kids were craving more funny books, and so Jon created such pioneering websites as Guys Read and Guys Listen. Jon has just published the first in a new series about a young scientist named Frank Einstein (the first book is titled Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor). Later, one young fan asked Scieszka if the antimatter stuff in his book is real "because your book doesn't really explain that." Another young reader asked if Frank Einstein book would help her brother with his I.B. (International Baccalaureate) physics. Scieszka, clearly punting, said: "Of course!" But he also noted that, in answer to another questioner, he had worked closely with scientists in putting together the series.

One of the best Scieszka moments came when a young fan asked Jon to sign the Guys Read  story written by Kate DiCamillo, the current National Ambassador of Young People's Literature. This fan had gotten Kate to sign the story when she spoke at the library in August, and Jon clearly got a kick out what Kate had written:

The surprise of the night was the fact that Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen came to the event directly from the airport and just hung out in the back of the auditorium until the authors onstage invited him to come up and join the book-signing line. Amazing!

Jon Klassen is second guy wearing a cap.

 So Jon Klassen sat next to Mac Barnett, who wrote "Extra Yarn," the book whose illustrations -- by Klassen -- won a 2013 Caldecott Honor. More importantly, Klassen and Barnett have teamed up again on a new picture book, Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, and Klassen is scheduled to come back to my library on Sunday November 23 at 1 p.m. to talk about it. Barnett, unfortunately, can't return; we tried, and he tried, but his schedule just doesn't allow it. Still, one young fan asked a great question of Barnett (before we all knew that Klassen was in the audience). The questioner asked what happens to all the dirt dug up by Sam and Dave. Mac's answer: 'This book is not based on strict science, so don't worry about the dirt!"

At the end of the presentation, the signing line was long but the authors took time to talk with each fan. It was clearly Tom Angleberger's night; a feature earlier in the week in the Washington Post had fanned the flames, but Tom's Origami Yoda books are very popular with kids, for good reason. But the fans were patient, and some of them are really passionate, as witnessed by this photo of the "Swagger Muffins" with Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett. The "Swagger Muffins" are fans of Scieszka's "Guys Read" effort, of which Barnett is a contributor.

All in all, it was a totally memorable event. As Alison Morris of First Book noted in a tweet: "Wish the whole world was at this .... event because it is HILARIOUS!. "  And it was! A good time was definitely had by all, including the organizers, as this "Final Bow" photo clearly shows:

End Notes: Thanks to Abrams Kids, esp. Susan Van Metre and Nicole Russo, for suggesting the event. Thanks a LOT to Kerri Poore, children's events co-ordinator at Politics & Prose Bookstore, for asking us to host the event. And mega-thanks to the authors, who all are so enthusiastic about both their work and meeting their young fans. They are truly touching the future.

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