Jackie Morris has kindly sent us her impressions from visiting schools in the USA and attending the ALA Midterm meeting in Seattle. Jackie Morris’s latest book is EAST OF THE SUN, WEST OF THE MOON published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
The weather that greeted us on our arrival in Seattle could not have been more British. Dark, cold, wet. A nine hour flight. The next day I would have five sessions in schools and I was wondering about jet-lag. This was to be followed by the American Library Associations Mid Winter Meeting.
I had been to the ALA once before, in Philadelphia, so knew what to expect … hundreds of stands from publishers pushing their latest list, software manufacturers, distribution services, library and office furniture etc. So many books, and so many librarians, and so much noise!
As for the schools, well, I had presentations ready, so if the technology didn’t let me down all would be ok. Altogether I visited three schools, all three with wonderful libraries and each one staffed by a skilled librarian (not so long ago it would have seemed ridiculous to say that, but not these days.)
The first school had a space that many UK schools would envy. There was a suite of computers in the centre, all Apple Macs. The walls were filled with shelves of books. The second school was a young school, about 3 years old, and the librarian said that they had been given 9,000 new books when they opened. A small school with only about 300 children, so some of the books were still sitting on the shelves waiting to be read.
Here the event had been organised by the local public library - to encourage more families in to the library. I told the children about how we had few books at home when I was young (maybe only a handful, certainly not a shelf full) so my weekly treat was to go to the library and take out up tosix books. What I also told them was that I would struggle to read them and return them mostly having looked at the pictures. I was late learning to read. Now, fortunately, I have the trick of it.
Of all the libraries I have been in, the one in Fall City must rate as one of my favorites. The city is named after the falls, which on the day that we visited, were shrouded in mist. The library was filled with colour, books and animals(tortoises, finches, small hamsters and a stuffed owl.) Children came and went, returning and borrowing books. The librarian knew their names and they knew their library numbers by heart. Best of all, and oh how magical, was Max … painted on the walls up high… all around the central space in the library, Max in his wolf suit and all his wild things who loved him best of all. What better space could there be for me to talk about my work than in a small temple to children, books and Wild Things. So, while the children sat I told them stories about where I live, about walking with cats and writing on hillsides, about painting and about listening for dragons.
I was lucky I think. I was taken in to schools that still had well stocked and well staffed libraries at their hearts. But in the staff room I heard stories about funding cuts, and about secondary and senior schools closing their libraries. But then I suppose these are the schools that authors won’t be taken to. Now, I know when authors are taken on book tours the idea is supposed to be that it is all about promoting the latest title and driving sales, but as someone who comes from a background where books were a luxury andlibraries were a haven I understand that selling books isn’t always the point. What is perhaps more important is inspiring children and families to read together and to love books.
A few days into my visit I was doing an event with Robin Hobb at the University Bookstore in Seattle. The audience was good for a rainy Monday in late January, mostly adults but a few children too. It was quite late. When it came time for questions a lady put up her hand. “I’m sorry, “ she said, “ I don’t know the protocol for these events, never been to one before, but my children are really tired and need to go home to bed, so would you be able to sign their books for them now? Is that OK?” This was one of the highlights of my trip. The children had heard me speak at their school and had brought their mum along to hear more stories. I signed their books while Robin Hobb continued to answer questions and we whispered together and they went off to tuck their books under their pillows. That is what trips like this are all about.
Seattle was so many things:
It was tall buildings, high mountains, cloud and sunshine. It was markets and fish stalls with singing fish mongers with a sense of humour. It was yellow cabs and malls and coffee shops and sidewalks, parking lots and neon signs and space towers and monorails. It was trolley busses and fire hydrants and fine food and the best Bloody Mary. It was overhead wires where traffic lights swayed in the wind, stop signs, go signs, panhandlers and hopeless homeless people in doorways. It seems to be a city with a big heart that holds out its arms to welcome strangers. 5 days. Hard work. The time of my life.
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