Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Not an Ordinary Day

On an ordinary day I'm usually alone for hours with imaginary people, tapping away at the computer.  This is fine, but it definitely gets a little lonely, and sometimes you wonder:  is anyone out there actually reading these stories?

Then, there are the Not Ordinary Days, when I visit schools and libraries and meet breathing-talking-laughing readers, and it's AMAZING.

Yesterday was one of those.

It started off at Devaney, Doak and Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine. This is where I found the wonderful Kenny Brechner, who put this day together.  Kenny had read my new book, Out of Nowhere, and thought it would be a good fit for high school readers.
Devaney, Doak and Garrett Booksellers

Kenny's also pretty savvy about the realities of school library budgets, and is keenly aware that rural schools can't afford to purchase scores of hardcover books for readers or fork out big fees to visiting authors.  So, he found a sponsor, Franklin Savings Bank, to pay for the books, and when I agreed to donate my time, we were off.  Kenny was my fearless driver for the day, and took me everywhere I needed to be, on time!

We began at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington, where they put together a whole day of activities surrounding diversity and immigration issues.  Mt. Blue is currently under construction, so it was a bit dicey finding the entrance, but once we made our way in we were amazed at the beautiful space created for the students.  The cafeteria, usually not a high point for any public school, is more like an airy college student center, with lofty ceilings and bright, natural light pouring in.

We were led to this room I can only describe as an amphitheater.  It was filled with kids who had read, or were reading, Out of Nowhere, and I had a full hour with them, reading from the book and answering questions.  In the audience were four young women, now in college, who had graduated from Lewiston High School (Lewiston was the inspiration for much that transpires in Out of Nowhere) two years ago, and it was a real privilege to hear from them and get their insights into their community.

From left: Allie Butler, Lindsay Profunno, Veronica Beaudoin
and Sydnie Racine, all LHS grads.
Following my book talk, there was a panel discussion that included the Lewiston High grads, a rep from the Maine Civil Liberties Union, a rep from Maine Civil Rights Workshops, and folks from Hope Acts, a group in Portland providing support to newly arrived immigrants and refugees.  Several of the panelists were asylum seekers from Burundi who have recently come to Maine.  I think for most of the students, it was the first time they'd met anyone who have had the type of life experiences these men have had.
Mt. Blue panel discussion.
There was a lot more going on after that ... including some Somali cooking demonstrations, which I was very sorry to miss ... but Kenny and I were off to our next appointment at Mt. Abram High School, in Strong, Maine.

You can't make that up:  Strong, Maine.  It's really the name of a town.  Love it.

Mt. Abram High School, with only 254 students, encompasses a huge, rural district that borders Canada in places.  Some students live so far from the school, that during the week they live with host families, and only return home to their parents on weekends.  Some students travel close to 50 miles, one way, on the bus to school each morning.  When Kenny and I arrived, we were greeted by librarian Lori Littlefield, who told me I was the first author who had ever visited Mt. Abram.  
Me with Lori Littlefield
When you visit a school where the kids have already read your book, the discussion literally vaults to a whole new level.  You can really "get into it," and they can tell you what they liked and didn't like, what they thought of particular characters, and ask probing questions about choices you made as an author.  Why did you tell the story from that point of view?  What was the inspiration for that character?

It's not very often that a school district can afford to put multiple copies of a hardcover book into the hands of every kid who wants to read it ... but every student in that room had read Out of Nowhere.  They came prepared with terrific questions, and I can't say enough about how much I enjoyed them.  And how deeply I appreciate all the effort that went into making those books available to those kids.

I also coaxed some great info out of them.  One of my favorite questions to ask kids is about slang, and see if they can teach me some new "kid speak" I haven't heard before.  My favorite from yesterday was "mint."  As in "mint condition."  For example, you might say to a friend, "How're you doing?"  And he'll reply, "I'm mint."  Or just, "Mint."  Which translates to:  "I'm doing great.  Top of the world.  Couldn't be better."

If you'd asked me how I was feeling as Kenny and I wrapped up our day of school visits yesterday, I'd have to say:  "Mint."
At Mt. Abram High in Strong, Maine

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