Mob scene at the Forest of Reading.
Last week, as part of the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading tour – think of a U.S.O. tour, but with children’s authors and only within Ontario – I travelled to Parry Sound and North Bay with a team of great writers (and one excellent OLA staff member, Meredith). The experience was both surreal and inspiring. Over three days in two towns, my fellow Silver Birch and Red Maple nominees and I spoke to over a thousand kids in hockey arenas about our books and reading and writing.
There were nine of us up in Ontario’s ‘near North’: Natalie Hyde (I Owe You One), Wesley King (The Vindico), Steve Pitt (Running to Extremes), Marsha Skrypuch (Making Bombs for Hitler), Bill Swan (Real Justice: Fourteen and Sentenced to Death), Brit and Kari Trogen (Margaret and the Moth Tree) and Janet Wilson (Shannen and the Dream for a School). The events, organized by the tireless and astounding team of the Near North Librarians, incorporated hundreds of kids from dozens of schools, as well as author workshops, games and community groups like the fire and police departments. At each stop, we authors were led into the arenas in a procession (to the Star Wars theme song) each with one student hoisting the banners of our book covers high, and another student, who would later introduce us to the assembled crowd, trailing behind.
In Parry Sound, the Forest of Reading Festival was held at the Bobby Orr Community Arena. (Apparently everything in Parry Sound is named after Bobby Orr.) About 500 kids came out to cheer us on, then break up into smaller groups to talk about our individual books. When not talking about books, the kids were playing a variety of games, like beanbag toss and lollipop pull. Most distressingly, the librarians had made puzzles out of the authors’ headshots, which the students then had to assemble. Clearly serial-killer-type behavior. (Just kidding, librarians. You were very nice.)
Following that, we did two days in North Bay, for over 700 and 800 students at the West Ferris Centennial Community Arena (the birthplace of ringette!). These events were massive! The best part was that, following the big introductory ceremony, our smaller breakout workshops were conducted in sweaty locker rooms. That said, some of the students met with me, while others get to meet a therapy dog. (There’s no competing with a border collie.) During my talks, I also realized that in addition to the birthplace of ringette, North Bay was also the birthplace of the Dionne quintuplets. Since a fictional quintuplet family (the LaFlammes) feature in The Dead Kid Detective Agency, I became fairly obsessed with visiting the Dionne Quintuplet Museum in North Bay. (Tragically, it doesn’t open until Victoria Day Weekend.) I even had an opportunity to talk to North Bay CTV News, who ran a segment with me and one of my biggest fans.
Walking on sacred ground.
One of the best parts of these tours – aside from discovering various tidbits of local history and spending time with my charming fellow authors – is meeting the fans who are reading the book. Is it wrong that I was so heartened to find all the weird and quiet kids liked The Dead Kid Detective Agency the most? But many of the schools had ‘top ten’ badges for kids who had read 10 of the various Forest of Reading nominees. So, so many kids had top ten badges! As a writer and someone who works in books publishing, it was heartening to witness.
This Wednesday and Thursday, the big Festival of Trees hits Toronto, with a monster event at Harbourfront Centre. Apparently, thousands of kids from the Greater Toronto Area attend. (I’m slightly terrified.) On Thursday, they’ll also announce the winners of the Silver Birch Express, Silver Birch Nonfiction and Silver Birch Fiction Awards. I’m certain I don’t have the slightest chance in the world, but it will be nice to be up there on the stage with people like Kevin Sylvester and Janet McNaughton. And more importantly, to know that the audience is filled with thousands of kids really excited about reading.