Four authors of middle-grade series – Jacqueline West, C. Alexander London, Adam Gidwitz, and E.J. Altbacker – managed to avoided meeting the terrible (imaginary) fates with which they were threatened during the recent Endangered Authors! school tour, coordinated by Penguin Young Readers Group. The tour was created by the Story Pirates, an education-oriented children’s theater troupe, in collaboration with Penguin and the participating authors. Its game-show-inspired presentation gave kids the opportunity to save these "endangered" authors by correctly answering questions about their books. Extending from April 20 to April 26, the tour included stops in Texas, California, and New York.
This was Penguin’s first-ever middle-grade group tour and, by all reports, it was a resounding success – to the point that the publisher is considering a reprisal of the tour in the fall. “We’ve seen a lot of success with our group YA author tours, so we decided to try a group middle-grade tour, especially since we have some exciting series that are on their second or third books,” says Shanta Newlin, director of publicity for Penguin Young Readers Group. “We wanted to do something different and fun rather than a traditional panel.” For help, the publicity team turned to the Story Pirates, who had previously worked with the publisher on several well-received authorless book tours. “They collaborated with us and with the authors to create a theatrical experience based on the novels’ story lines, and to involve the audience in the show,” Newlin explains. “It turned out to be a great way to engage kids and immerse them in the world of these books.”
To make sure students at the schools visited were familiar with the novels, Penguin prepared chapter samplers from each of the authors’ series: West’s The Books of Elsewhere, London’s Accidental Adventures, Altbacker’s Shark Wars, and Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm (which will be followed by In a Glass Grimmly in September). One of the Story Pirates, actor Peter McNerney – aka Holden A. Grudge – joined the tour to play the part of emcee at the performances.
After warming up the house with the mock game show’s theme song, Grudge introduced and interviewed the authors and questioned the kids about the books. Alas, he didn’t fare so well at the end, notes Newlin. “Through a series of funny events, he ends up being the victim of all the horrible things that could have happened to the authors if the kids hadn’t provided the correct answers,” she says. “He was the glue that holds the presentation together – and the comic relief.”
Wowing Well-Prepared Crowds
Comedy and kids’ book smarts were plentiful at each venue, and the show’s format provided audiences with some welcome surprises. “When Holden A. Grudge came onstage and began singing the theme song, the kids didn’t know what was going on,” recalls Gidwitz. “They were expecting a fairly typical author visit, I think. When we finally walked on stage, they were so flabbergasted that they had to be reminded to clap. Soon, they were laughing, waving their hands frantically, and screaming. Literally screaming. Grudge’s wig came off halfway through each show, and at one school, a girl in the front row screamed like she had seen a ghost. It was hilarious. Another time Peter had a brief and unexpected romantic affair with his microphone. I couldn’t breathe – I was laughing so hard.”
London was likewise impressed with the audiences’ enthusiastic response to the performances, as well as the kids’ knowledge of the books. “The moment we authors stepped onstage, the room felt electric,” he recalls. “We were light years beyond a PowerPoint presentation, and every show was a little different, because the kids’ responses really drove the narrative. They were up for all sorts of silliness and relished the role they got to play saving us from terrible tortures at Grudge’s hands. And I was thrilled and humbled by how well they knew my books, from obscure details to big-picture themes.”
At Barton Hills elementary school in Austin, Tex., students eagerly prepared for the Endangered Authors! visit, reports librarian Jenny Day. Each third- to sixth-grade class was assigned a book to read, and Day held “a short study session” with the kids ahead of time. “Their competitive juices were flowing,” she says. “And on the day of the performance, the interactive aspects got everybody excited – even the ‘cool’ sixth graders in the back of the room. We all had a blast and I’d definitely give this method of presentation a thumbs-up.”
Valerie Lewis, owner of Hicklebee’s in San Jose, coordinated the authors’ school event in her city and was also taken by the tour’s format. “The enthusiasm of the students answering the questions generated excitement about the book, and the authors’ comments following the answer was the frosting,” she remarks. “It was one of the best, smartest, and entertaining school author events I have ever observed. The main characters in this unique game show were the books themselves. A measure of success for me, other than feeling the energy and excitement from students and teachers at the event, is the fact that book orders continue to come in.”
For the Authors, a Labor of Love – and Lots of Laughs
Looking back on their time on the road, the authors are equally enthusiastic about the experience. Gidwitz, who was impressed with the kids’ responses (“They knew my book better than I did”), notes that this was his first group tour, and the interaction with his fellow authors was a highlight. “My favorite thing about the tour was playing off one another – the jokes, the set pieces, the improvising,” he says. “We would lose it on stage and tears were flowing down my face some days.”
This was also West’s debut group tour and, she says, “I don’t think I could even count all the benefits of this format. One great thing about our particular combination of writers was that we could offer something for every kid, whether it was scary or funny stories, animals or folklore, art or history or science. Some kids connected with a particular book and others were excited about all of them at once. It was a book buffet.”
And she also points out both the educational and recreational benefits of the Endangered Authors! tour. “This gave us such a wonderful chance to learn from each other,” she says. “Writing can be an isolated business, and watching other authors relate to young readers was inspiring, affirming, and reinvigorating. By the end of the tour, we each had a list of techniques and tricks to steal from each other. And, in a purely selfish sense, touring with this group was so much fun. We played stickball with sweetgum seedpods, we performed a synchronized swinging routine on a school playground, and we danced backstage to our game show theme song. These things are much less fun – and a bit more embarrassing – to do alone.”
A prime benefit of the tour, London says, was the bright spotlight it threw on books and the joy of reading. “Getting through the show without falling off our chairs was a daily challenge,” he says. “But the hysterics, the competition, the wackiness, the music – the whole production – was always in service of the books and that, I think, was the best part of the tour. We surprised the readers with a spectacle, but hopefully we’ll keep them as readers with the strength of all of our books.”