Friday, August 14, 2015

If You Build a Literature Festival in Rural America, They Will Come

IN MY STUDY -- Children's writers write so kids will read. Kids find our books with the help of librarians, parents, teachers and even other kids. As often as possible, we meet our kid readers at school visits and author events and library story times.
But what about kids who live in places so rural that they don’t have a library in their town or even in their school? They can buy books through school book clubs, or maybe their parents visit bookstores when they travel to the city. Or they can buy books online. Kind of like the old days. Think Sears or Montgomery Ward deliveries of new school clothes in the 1960s (ripping open the brown paper bag to discover… my new plaid, pleated skirt, with a giant gold safety pin!) or how about the Wells Fargo wagon delivering bathtubs (or was that just a song?). Anyway, kids in rural America can get their hands on books if they want to. But what about meeting authors?
That’s where Karen Drevo, the heroine of my story, steps forward (with hands over her face because she would insist that NONE of this is about her). Karen, a youth services librarian, and her sidekick Marci, assistant youth services librarian, have run the Norfolk Nebraska Literature Festival for 21 years, bringing kids from rural Nebraska to meet authors whose books are included on Nebraska’s Golden Sower Award list. This year, I was privileged to be one of those authors.
On our 2 ½ hour drive from the Omaha airport, I got to talk children’s books and writing with Karen (who had already driven 2 ½ hours to pick us up) and two of the three authors who were part of this year’s event. Riding shotgun was Pat Zietlow Miller, 2014 Golden Kite winner for her lovely picture book, SOPHIE’S SQUASH. Sitting next to me was Liesl Shurtliff, author of RUMP and its companion books JACK and RED, magically reworked fairy tales. We would meet up with Lisa Bullard, author of an adventure/quest/mystery tale called TURN LEFT AT THE COW. She was driving (past cows) from Minnesota. My book, PRISONER 88, filled the historical fiction category, a genre that is sometimes hard to sell to kids who think history is just a list of dead people.
First thing the next morning, we authors hosted individual writing workshops. Among my participants was a group of four kids from a class of approximately 14 (some discrepancies there about kids leaving and kids moving in). They had hit the road before 7 a.m. On a Saturday. In July. With their teacher. To talk to authors. (Some other kids came from as far as 2 ½ hours away!) One girl, a soon-to-be seventh grader named Taylor, a ginger with a smile as wide as Nebraska, told me that she loved to write everything, even presentations for school. She volunteered to read for each exercise we practiced. Her enthusiasm gave me the burst of energy I needed after the previous day’s two flights and long car trip.
By late afternoon, after all of our author presentations (wow, did I learn a lot about how to capture an audience’s attention), we signed books, took selfies (“us”ies?), hugged young kids and old kids, too. And then we packed all of our overflowing bags (yes, we all bought books) into the car and headed back to Omaha.
To me, a first-time published author at the age of 55, the whole experience was a dream come true. Based on the great questions I got after my talk, I think there are now some kids in Nebraska who will try more historical fiction.
Karen and Marci and all of the staff and volunteers from the Norfolk Public Library did a Herculean job herding authors and readers through a day filled with books. Or maybe it’s more appropriately American to say that they did a Paul Bunyonesque job. Marci’s latest round of chemo had left her unsure the night before whether she could attend. (She was there. All day.) Everyone sweated out a shipment of books that finally arrived the morning of the festival. Karen drove a total of ten hours in just over a day. Ask her about it and she’ll tell you it was no big deal.