So I'm sitting there in the cafe of the lovely Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, talking on my cell phone to Jim in between sessions of giving my talk to highschool students, when suddenly a really loud siren starts to go off. Jim says, "What's that? Is that an ambulance? Where are you?" Then a voice comes over the loudspeaker that tells us, "There is a weather emergency. Please proceed to the basement," and a security guard ambles by saying calmly, "Tornado warning. Everybody downstairs." And calmly, everybody in the enormous library strolls down the steps to the labyrinth of corridors that are the basement. Above, that is a picture of me with the lovely youth services librarian Gayle, waiting out the tornado.
Everyone was so placid about the whole thing that there was never a moment of being afraid. My first thought of course was, "I'm blogging about this." But poor Jim, when the descent to the basement cut off my cell signal, probably thought I'd been carried away like Dorothy. But no. I'm not sure if the tornado touched down at all; I didn't hear that it did any damage, and so I feel relatively safe in saying I was glad for the full Kansas experience! That said, I am not looking to begin a "forces of nature" collection on my travels. Regions of the US, do not feel obliged to treat me to earthquakes and hurricanes!
So, Kansas was fun! The librarians who arranged my trip, Gayle and Jean, were fabulous and made me feel right at home, and a local bookstore had managed to convince Penguin to ship them some books ahead of the rest of the world, and so I saw boxes of my book opened for the first time (eek!) and saw people buying them, and not just people, but teenagers! That was so cool. And the ones that didn't buy it for themselves were dibsing on the library copies. I really didn't expect kids to buy it; it was almost $20 with tax, and that's a lot, and I was prepared to have the stacks of my books fairly undiminished by the end of the day, but that didn't happen. YAY! It was really wonderful. But the book sales were really sort of incidental. It was my first chance to talk to teenagers, and I can't say I'm not at all afraid of them anymore -- they can be quite intimidating, I found, during the second talk of the day when we left the library to visit a local continuation school -- but they can be awfully cool, too. I talked to them about reading, about filling their minds with the world, and about forging their own unique squiggly line through life. And I talked about censorship and the illustrious history of book burning and book banning and even book mulching (brought to you by a Texan).
Check out this recent quote by a Texas mother of teenagers at a book-mulching rally: "Children should not learn about puberty until after they are married."
I peppered my talk with references to things like Chinese emperors burying scholars alive, and how the building of the Great Wall of China claimed an estimated 300 workers' lives per mile of wall (a million in all), and to the British trade in tattooed human heads from New Zealand in the early 1800s, and to the time I tried a sip of rice wine in which 9 species of dead snakes had been pickled, and about the War Department's "Monuments Men" who went around Europe after WWII ended, recovering stashes of art and manuscripts that had been looted by the Third Reich for a planned Fuhrer Museum. Just imagine that we were very close to living in a world in which the Mona Lisa would have hung in Hitler's museum instead of the Louvre. For me, it's little specific details like that that begin to make it possible to imagine alternate realities.
To my sessions at the library, the students who came were "volunteers," that is, readers who wanted to come, and the first moment I glimpsed them sitting in the auditorium when I walked in, they all had books open in their hands, whatever they happened to be reading that day -- I glimpsed New Moon among them -- and I loved seeing that. The continuation school we went to was different, and I'm really glad we went. They sat in the library and mostly didn't talk while I was talking, but there was a broad range of surly and challenging stares whenever I looked around, and many who had their chins on their chests and didn't look up at all, and when I asked for show of hands for various things, there was very little participation, but there were a few bright eyes out there, a few listeners, and though many of the kids showed zero interest in reading and even less than zero in winning a raffled copy of my book, the boy who did win it was really cool. He was a tall, maybe six-foot, really good looking African American kid, and he came right up to get me to sign it for him, and the first thing he said to me was, "That's a cool purse" !! It turned out he really likes to draw, and that his little sister loves to read, and I was really, really glad he won the copy of my book. On the way out of the school, I saw a teeny tiny fragile-but-tough-looking little girl holding just about the tiniest baby I've ever seen. Sigh.
At the end of the day I kept thinking how I should volunteer in some capacity at a school at home, do something on a regular basis that brings me in contact with kids and teens. Any recommendations of what? The library in Topeka is a really big, really nice library with lots of space and nooks and cool chairs and lots of computers and teenagers seem to hang out there -- not necessarily to read -- and I was very impressed by the programs the librarians put together to give them something to do, like manga drawing night, and game playing, and stuff like that, hoping that they'll pick up books along the way.
So, that was my first time traveling across country to do a book talk, a glimpse into a part of the country I've never seen, my first tornado warning, my first sight of whole boxes of my books (and by the way, Hastings Bookstore in Topeka is the only bookstore in the whole world that currently has my book!). It was a great experience. I look forward to more!