No Easy Way to Say It by Katherine Applegate
An awful lot of authors are introverts by nature. If you like solitude and imaginary friends, it’s the perfect vocation. Nonetheless, every couple of years or so, depending on one’s prolificity, the specter of Book Tour — that magical time when introverts transform into faux-extroverts — returns. The only thing worse than going on Book Tour, someone once said (probably a weary writer in a Courtyard by Marriott lounge), is not going on Book Tour.
Please don’t get me wrong: being an author, especially an author who writes for young people, is an honor and a joy. But when your default setting, faced with a media interview, is the introvert’s version of Stop, Drop, and Roll (that would be Blush, Stammer, and Sweat), book-talks often sound more like book-babbles.
The truth is, over the years, I’ve actually learned not to dread, and sometimes even to enjoy, the publicity end of bookmaking, thanks in large part to school visits. Teachers and librarians see kids fall in love with books all the time, but we authors aren’t as lucky. The rock star treatment you can get from a gymnasium full of fourth-graders is a hard-to-beat ego boost, and it makes a nine-hour delay spent at an O’Hare Chili’s Too worth every minute.
Still and all, I communicate best on paper. Book Tour means I have to find a way to talk about my book, when what I really want to say is: Guys, I already wrote it all down. You don’t want to talk to me. I’m so much better on paper!
Of course, some authors revel in the chance to hit the road, and a few are actually made for BT. (I’m looking at you, Daniel Handler — aka Lemony Snicket — whom I once had the misfortune to follow at a lit event. I mean, the dude had a bucket of dry ice with him, from which he dramatically extracted his latest novel. Dry. Ice. At least he’d left his accordian at home.)
And I have to admit that props — at least some AV — can help. A wise introvert-author told me long ago that Powerpoints had kept her sane on BT.
Taking that advice to heart, I prepared for my first tour, for my middle-grade novel called HOME OF THE BRAVE, with a great Powerpoint, and even an intriguing exercise. The novel is about a Sudanese refugee who lands in Minnesota and must confront a new language, new customs. . . even new weather. How to communicate to an auditorium full of hundreds of kids what that might feel like?
Well, the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) had, on its website, an interesting exercise for classrooms. Basically, you set the stage for kids: A warring faction is heading to your town. You have one minute to grab whatever you need and flee. Then you ask: WHAT WILL YOU BRING? A timer clicks for sixty seconds while kids frantically discuss what they’ll most need. The answers are fascinating: a pet, a water bottle, a gun, a book, a favorite stuffed animal, a photograph. It’s a wonderfully effective way to connect kids with an unfamiliar topic.
For my novel THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, based on the story of a real-life gorilla caged in a mall for decades, my presentation includes lots of photos and video clips of the actual Ivan, along with a video primer on gorilla behavior. (Kids love seeing a baby gorilla twirl on a rope swing or attempt a decent chest-beating.)
And now, here I am again on the eve of Book Tour, with CRENSHAW. It’s about a young boy, Jackson, who’s facing tough family circumstances. He’s been homeless before, and he and his sister are often hungry, despite their parents’ attempts to keep things together. Suddenly, Jackson’s former imaginary friend, a large — very large — cat named Crenshaw, reappears. For Jackson, a no-nonsense, science-loving kid, that’s the last straw. His life’s already on the verge of falling apart, and now, his unwanted imaginary friend has made an appearance. Enough’s enough.
CRENSHAW’s a small book about a big issue, and there’s a lot of humor and whimsy— at least I hope so—mixed in with the tough topics. In my presentation to kids, the imaginary friend part is easy and fun. We design the perfect IF: fun, willing to take the blame, mischievous, discreet, silly, kind, smart. We talk about how imaginary friends can help us deal with the world, and wonder if we really ever have to outgrow them.
But then there’s the topic of hunger and homelessness. According to NoKidHungry.org, nearly one out of five U.S. kids — that’s over 16 million children — are struggling with food insecurity. 62% of teachers see kids coming to school hungry each day. Sobering, heartbreaking statistics, but how do you reach kids with dry numbers?
I don’t know of a quick exercise, like the one from the UNHCR, that helps give kids insight into hunger. There’s the SNAP Challenge for adults (even Gwyneth Paltrow gave that one a whirl), where you attempt to live on a food stamp budget for a week — around $31.50, or $1.50 a meal. But how do you get elementary school kids to understand what that feels like? Pass out candy bars to half of them and let the others see how unfair life can be?
The sad truth is that as I talk about CRENSHAW to school groups over the next few months, 20% of those kids will know all too well what it’s like to be hungry. They’ll be the ones who have a hard time concentrating. The ones who find just making it through the day a challenge. The ones who are often embarrassed to admit how tough life has become.
So I’ll do what I can, in my 45 minutes with a microphone. I’ll try to talk about how hard it must be to worry about where your next meal is coming from. I’ll quote some statistics, show some photos. We’ll talk about the CRENSHAW food drive at independent bookstores, and about volunteering with local agencies that focus on hunger and homelessness.
Still, I know that at the end of the day, for a story like Jackson’s, there are no props, no easy exercises. I’ll do my best. I’ll probably babble more than I should. I’ll no doubt blush and stammer.
Then I’ll do what any author — introvert or not — does in the end: I’ll hope people read Jackson’s story, because that’s the best way, the only way, I know how to say what’s in my heart.
Katherine Applegate is the author of many books for young children, including ANIMORPHS, ROSCOE RILEY RULES, HOME OF THE BRAVE, and THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, which won the 2013 Newbery Award. Her newest novel is CRENSHAW (Feiwel & Friends.)