With The Unwritten Girl due for publication May 15th, I’m starting to plan out the launch parties, and what I’m going to say at them. My mentor (one of them, anyway) has said that the worst thing you can do at a reading is simply read from your novel (with exceptions, of course; the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival thrives on writers simply reading from their novels). This is backed up by Kim Jernigan, editor of The New Quarterly, who said that, if she wanted to just get a snippit from a book, she’d read the book. When she goes to see an author speak, she wants something more; an eye on the creative process behind the story, perhaps, or a discussion on the ideas raised by the book.
So, I’ve decided to attend a few author readings and see how the professionals do things. My first visit happened yesterday morning, when my father and I drove to Richview Library in northwestern Toronto to hear Kenneth Oppel speak. My father tagged along on a promise of a morning out with his son and a trek to a real Jewish delicatessen that came highly recommended, but he wasn’t adverse to being among the audience of nearly two dozen parents and kids.
Kenneth Oppel is one of Canada’s most successful children’s authors. I’ve waxed on about his Governor General Award-winning Airborn and its sequel Skybreaker, but he’s also famous for his Silverwing saga and he is an experienced script-writer. He read from a section of Skybreaker during the Eden Mills Writers Festival and cut down his segment with an editor’s eye, producing a twenty-minute-long trailer for his book that teased the audience and left them wanting more.
At Richview, Kenneth spoke for about forty minutes before taking questions from the audience. He augmented his reading, summarizing the plot of Airborn and Skybreaker and giving us a brief history of flight in the alternative universe he created. He had an overhead projector and transparencies, and probably would have been just at home if he’d had a powerpoint presentation. It was actually very good, thanks to his energetic speaking style and his ability to connect with the audience. And, if I’m to take this one reading as gospel, the key to reading to schools and libraries (which is the bread and butter of authors who join the children’s author association CANSCAIP), is to hook onto your stories various subjects that are both interesting and somewhat educational. Give us the story behind the story of Skybreaker. Let us talk about humanity’s desire to fly and learn some of hte physics behind lighter-than-air ships.
I’ll soon be attending a reading by Marsha Skrypuch, whose work tends to fall in the historical fiction range. She has done remarkable work telling stories about the Armenian genocide, the internment of Ukrainian-Canadians and the ethical questions around deporting war criminals. Marsha knows how to take stories from our shared history and make them into good young adult books, and that makes her an easy candidate to bring in to read before an auditorium of school children because it’s easy to incorporate her work into the curriculum.
But what about The Unwritten Girl? I don’t have a detailed alternate universe full of interesting biology or lighter-than-air ships, and I don’t shine a light on little-known periods in Canadian history. What’s my hook?
Maybe my hooks are books.
The Unwritten Girl is a story about books, about the perils of not finishing what you started. The Land of Fiction is a compilation of a number of stories I read when I was younger (or had read to me) that had a lasting effect on me.
In the Spring 2006 issue of The New Quarterly, I interview Kenneth Oppel as part of a piece explaining to the magazine’s highly literate audience why I write and read children’s literature. I talk about my love for the clarity of the storytelling, the innocence, the wonder and the sense of transformation. I talk about the books that inspired me when I was really young. And that sounds like a good presentation to give when my audience consists mostly of adults.
For children, I can try to communicate to them how much books have meant to me since I was their age and why. Maybe I can tell them about the books I’m most looking forward to reading to Vivian. Perhaps I could tell them that even the thin chapter-book in their hands might be something they’ll remember well into their adult year. Even though I somewhat subversively highlight the perils of reading books, perhaps I can sell these children on the idea that reading books is not only fun, but important.
It’s a work in progress, but I have time to think about this. The launch parties aren’t until the end of May and school readings won’t happen until September or October, if they happen at all.
What do you think? If you were to attend one of my readings, what would you want to hear about?