Sunday, December 13, 2009

Singing At The Barnes & Noble

It’s been nearly a decade since my book, A Parent’s Guide To Seattle, was published marking the informal end to my 15-year career as a “hack” writer and editor, which involved scraping together paydays by being willing to take on any and every paid “writing” project that came my way. A lot of it was corporate investor, public relations and marketing stuff, like annual reports, press materials, and brochure copy. But I also dabbled in journalism, ghost writing, book editing, and translations (I used to speak German well-enough to do this). I was a mercenary with a pen.

People have wondered how I could have ever voluntarily stepped out of the glamorous world of professional writing. I answer by saying that writing for money has to be one of the most soul-crushing jobs there is. For instance, I was once hired to write 80 biographies for all the doctors affiliated with a Detroit-area hospital. It was grindingly dull sitting there day after day, alone in front of a computer, with nothing for company but a stack of questionnaires filled out in doctor handwriting. It broke my brain coming up with 80 different ways to say that someone is a board certified M.D. It did, however, pay $70 per hour, which I believe is much, much, much more than freelance writers are making for hack work these days, and a testament to how difficult it was to find someone willing to take it on in a world where the going rate was closer to $50.

Writing the book was itself a lonely, mind-numbing chore. It was a work-for-hire project brought to me by a now-defunct publisher. I didn’t mind writing about our experiences visiting child-friendly attractions, parks, museums, shops, and restaurants, but for every minute I put into writing prose, I spent five tracking down opening hours, addresses, contact information, fees, restrictions, age recommendations, handicap access, and all the other minutia that makes a book like this useful, then fitting it all into the publishers pre-determined format. On top of that there were the hours of phone calls necessary to verify that the information I’d gleaned from websites and brochures was still accurate.

I’m proud of the book, don’t get me wrong, but I did not enjoy writing it. What I enjoyed far more was promoting it. Whatever problems the publisher might have had, one of its strengths was its publicist. She scheduled me into book signing events at dozens of bookstores around the state including most of the Barnes & Nobles in western Washington. Since I hadn’t even come close to achieving the celebrity author status of someone like my friend and "milking cow" maker Garth Stein (The Art of Racing In the Rain) who arrives in bookstores to find audiences of eager readers waiting to hang on his every word, my signings were more prosaic events involving me sitting behind a table, backed by a large poster of the book’s cover, a stack of new books in front of me, and nothing but “charm” to draw attention to myself. I sold more than one book simply because I distracted someone’s kids with one of my many windup toys while mom shopped.

This is a long introduction to explain why I was having flashbacks yesterday when I arrived at the downtown Barnes & Noble (aboard Seattle’s new light rail link) to undertake a “story circle” to benefit our cooperative preschools. Just like in the old days my contact person was the store’s community relations manager, Jessie, a smart, friendly young woman who explained that they rarely did children’s events given their downtown location. Before she’d even finished her second sentence, however, I saw Emi, a student from last year’s Pre-3 class, racing down the aisle in my direction. I was still on my knees from that hug when I spied Charlie from our current 3-5 class heading toward me. I’ll bet Garth doesn’t get hugs from his fans (although judging by their looks of adoration, I suspect most of them wouldn’t mind).

One of the first things I learned from Jessie was that there had been some sort of breakdown in communications and neither of the books I’d expected to read (I’m Bad and Storm Boy) were in stock. In fact, they had nothing from either of the authors on their shelves. I don’t know why this didn’t surprise me, but it was one of the reasons I’d arrived 30 minutes early. All along I’d sort of expected that the bookstore would rather me focus on current titles anyway, which I did. With the spot-on advice of Jessie, and the help of Charlie and Emi, who tended to favor books with pictures of Transformers or Tinkerbell on the cover, we put together a stack of likely books, including a bunch of Mo Willems books with which I was not familiar like Pigeon Wants A Puppy, Don’t Let Pigeon Stay Up Late, and Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed.

By the time we were ready to get going, in spite of all the hugs I’d received, there were still only a handful of kids milling around, pulling books off the shelves to add to my stack. If I learned anything from my sparsely attended book signings it’s that it’s always best to just plow ahead with the full force of your personality and hope for the best. I’d planned to start by reading a book, singing a few songs, then reading another book, but as I surveyed the reality of the scene I knew we needed something to pull the group together so we started with a song.

Orca whale
Orca whale
Little sea scallops
And an orca whale . . .

As we sang, an amazing thing happened. Formerly unseen little heads began to pop out from behind the racks and shelves of the children’s book department.

Orca whale
Orca whale
Little sea scallops
And an orca whale . . .

Slowly, curious children began making their way toward us, coming from all directions.

Sea otters
Sea otters
Little sea scallops
And an orca whale.

We sang the song three times through and by the time we’d finished I think we’d lured every kid in the store to our little story circle, which amounted to a fairly healthy audience. We read and sang for nearly 30 minutes, took a break and finished with another 10 minutes for the late arrivers. What fun!

The stories were great read-alouds and my eyes have been opened to Willems’ works, which I will be adding to my regular repertoire, but it was the singing that was the key. If only I’d known then what I know now, I might have retired on my royalties. And not that he needs my advice, but Garth might want to insist that the movie version of The Art of Racing in the Rain be a musical. I’m just saying . . .

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SpeakLoud said...

So here's one of my new faves.
The Boy who cried Fabulous.

Floor Pie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Floor Pie said...

Tom, I used to have "writing" jobs like that, too. (I remember putting together bios for a software company's top salespeople.) Your post actually makes me a little nostalgic for those days. Maybe I'm mostly nostalgic for the money, but I used to get a little rush out of confirming a store's hours or tracking down a photo of the new product.

Thanks again for your participation (and flexibility!) yesterday. Great performance. I was proud to tell people you're my daughter's teacher.

Co-op friends, those vouchers are still good through 12/16 at ANY Barnes & Noble store if you haven't used yours yet! Part of your sale will go toward the PAC scholarship fund.

Jenny said...

We love Mo's books both in my first grade class and at home with my girls (6 and 2). At school are the books the kids write end up with the pigeon popping in somewhere. My own girls read the Elephant and Piggie books as theater, each one taking a part. It's a little complicated because I have to whisper the words to the 2 year old to repeat. But it's fun!

Mo has several videos on the Library of Congress website from the National Book Festival and they are a blast to watch!

Maya Catching Butterflies said...

URGH!! I'm so sad to have missed this. My girls would have been front row center for your stories and songs. I hope you get a chance to do it again.

Deborah Stewart said...

You started with a song? Well done - I have been telling my teachers for years that the best way to grab the children's attention is to start with a song!

Oh - and way to be so flexible when faced with such odds at Barnes and Nobles. Sign of a great preschool teacher:)

Unknown said...

I just love that you turn everything into such an adventure. You make me want to be a child again. Not even kidding : )! I miss reading picture books to Kaishon. We still read at least 1 book with pictures 3 nights a week at bedtime. I don't think he needs it any longer. I know that I do!