Children's Features

On the Road Again
Sally Lodge -- 12/13/99
Children's Authors and Illustrators Share Tales of Their Fall Book Tours

Capped by the holiday gift-buying season, fall is always a frantic time for children's publishers and the authors and illustrators they send on tour to promote new titles. After spending countless hours arranging bookstore signings and booking interviews, publicists lose sleep, plagued by nagging questions, including the inevitable, generic ones (Will our author make her closely scheduled connecting flight? Will the books arrive in the store before she d s?) and specific concerns (Will an earthquake hit California while our author is there? Will anyone show up at a Madison, Wis., bookstore signing during the fourth quarter of the Packers' home game against the Bears?).

As it turned out, publicists booking author tours this fall received affirmative answers to the last two questions. And booksellers went many extra miles to ease the minds of Scholastic's publicity and sales staff, who likely spent many hours asking themselves one very big question: Will any bookstore be able to accommodate the armies of Harry Potter devotees sure to line up (and indeed they did--for hours) to meet J.K. Rowling? Read on to learn more about these and other events, as PW takes an anecdotal look at some highlights of six recent tours.

J.K. Rowling

One child confided, "I never finished a book until I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." A parent told the author that this same novel was the first book that her dyslexic child had ever made it through. And a 13-year-old boy burst into tears when he reached the autographing table.

These are but three of J.K. Rowling's many memorable encounters with fans on her recent tour for her third saga, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The publisher reprinted the book twice before its September 8 pub date, at which point there were 900,000 copies in print. That figure has now climbed to 4.1 million copies, helping to push combined sales of all three hardcovers, plus the paperback edition of the inaugural book, to a spellbinding 17.4 million copies.

Having signed some 40,000 books at 31 stores during her three-week visit to the States, Rowling returned home to Edinburgh on Halloween eve. "Wherever we went, the response to Jo was like that for a rock star," reported Kris Moran, director of publicity for Scholastic, who escorted the author on her eight-city tour. "Kids and adults screamed, 'I love you!' and applauded wildly when she arrived at stores. On our way to her first signing, I asked her what was the largest crowd she'd ever had at a signing, and she guessed it had been around 700 people. 'You don't think there'll be more than that here, do you?' I said I did. And there were. We entered the store and there were people everywhere. Slowly, we made our way down an aisle with kids and grownups on either side of us, yelling and clapping. Jo was entirely overwhelmed. She sat down, looked up at me and said, shakily, 'Well, then. Let's get started.'"

Moran estimates that the average attendance at Rowling's signings was 1,000 people. In Santa Rosa, two bookstores--Copperfield's and Reader's Books--joined forces to host the author at a local high school, and 2,400 fans turned out. At each event, a number of adults and youngsters came in costume, dressed as Harry, Hermione, Dumbledore, Hedwig the owl and even the fat woman in a portrait that hangs in a Hogwarts hall. And they came bearing gifts for the author: flowers, food, broomsticks, a papier-mâché sculpture of Harry.

And though at each store there were long and winding lines to reach Rowling's autographing table, Moran said, booksellers took great pains to keep fans entertained, hiring the likes of face painters or magicians to work the crowds. Steve Geck, director of children's books for Barnes & Noble, attended Rowling's appearances at the chain's Westport, Conn., outlet (where the line reportedly began forming at 3 a.m. for a 1 p.m. signing) and at one of its Los Angeles stores. He noted that staff members "went through the line, passing out activity kits and tattoos, and would periodically spring Harry Potter trivia quizzes to keep the kids on their t s." More than 1,000 people attended each of these Barnes & Noble events, as well as Rowling's signing at a suburban Boston branch.

Despite fans' impatience to meet the author, they were by and large impressively well-behaved, Geck observed, and they appeared to believe that the end result was well worth the wait. In his words, "Everyone--from really young kids who had had the books read to them and teenagers who came in groups--was so enthusiastic about meeting this larger-than-life person. She thanked each and every one of them for reading her books and for coming to meet her. If she met a boy wearing glasses, she'd remark that he looked a bit like Harry. She made everyone feel so good--people just floated away from the table."
Bill Nye
All went swimmingly on Bill Nye's eight-city tour promoting his third book, Big Blue Ocean. This was a September release from Hyperion, which in three months has shipped the bulk of its 25,000-copy first printing. The host of television's Bill Nye the Science Guy, Nye dived into his first-ever book tour this fall; over two weeks, he visited nine bookstores and FAO Schwarz's Manhattan shop, addressed two regional bookseller shows (PNBA and SCCBA) and performed science experiments on The Rosie O'Donnell Show. And given the book's environmental message about the importance of conserving our oceans, Nye's itinerary included some stops not usually found on authors' tour schedules: five of the country's most renowned aquariums.

Hyperion publicist Jason Wells describes Nye's aquarium appearances as "incredibly successful," both in terms of the size of the crowds and the number of books sold. For Nye's presentation at the Baltimore Aquarium, according to the aquarium's public relations coordinator, Dawn Jennings, "Every seat was taken in our amphitheater where we hold our dolphin shows, and this space holds close to 1,000 people." The aquarium sold more than 450 books at this event, which was filmed by a Baltimore television station. The other aquariums Nye visited are in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Camden, N.J.; and Monterey Bay and La Jolla, Calif. The author also traveled to Minneapolis to speak at the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's annual conference, where attendees bought 400 copies of Big Blue Ocean.

Both Wells and Jennings said they were impressed by the extraordinary enthusiasm with which youngsters greeted Nye. "To see Bill Nye the Science Guy do an experiment live rather than on a TV screen was a huge deal for kids," Wells said. "Every place he went, kids would say, 'I can't believe you're actually here!' We could have kept him on the road for six months and sold hundreds of books at every signing. The numbers he draws are incredible."

"Incredible" was the same word used by Judy Hamel, co-owner of the Children's Corner Bookshop, to describe the reception children gave Nye when he visited her Spokane store. "The kids were so excited to see him," she reported. "I even heard one girl whisper to another, 'Is he real?'" Since Hamel expected a larger turnout for Nye's appearance than her 2500-square-foot store can accommodate, she searched for an alternative setting. "Our store is located in a large complex that is currently under construction," she explained, "so we held this event in a large, empty space that is eventually going to be a restaurant. We rented 100 chairs, but knew that wouldn't be enough, so we asked a local carpet company for 100 carpet samples, which we handed out to kids to sit on." Still, there was standing room only at Nye's presentation and signing: more than 300 attended, making this among the largest groups Hamel's store has ever hosted.

Though Nye found sleeping in a different hotel every night "quite tiring," he noted that his book tour was gratifying for the kid-contact it provided. "I don't usually have individual contact with kids," he commented, "and when I was signing books I was able to talk to them individually for a few moments."

Nye's travels also brought several surprises. At virtually every stop on his tour, many young fans appeared dressed in the Science Guy's trademark, self-described "dorky" apparel: a white lab coat and bowtie. The author was also rattled by the earthquake that struck Los Angeles in mid-October, during which he sought refuge underneath the desk in his hotel room. And he was momentarily taken aback by some hecklers during his Baltimore Aquarium presentation. "I was performing an experiment and suddenly I heard these noises," he recalled. "I turned around and saw two dolphins poking their heads out of the water, making dolphin sounds. Then suddenly the rest of the dolphins poked their heads up, too, and joined in. They must have picked up on the sounds of my microphone. It was an exciting moment and a real crowd pleaser--but not something I planned."

James Gurney

"When an author lets a few years go by without a book coming out, he wonders if his fans are still alive out there. Sometimes the fans wonder the same thing," said James Gurney, reflecting on his recent 25-city tour that spanned five weeks in October and November. He signed books at 52 stores while on the road to promote Dinotopia: First Flight, the third volume set in "the land apart from time, where humans and dinosaurs c xist in harmony."

As it turns out, Gurney had good reason to wonder about what his readers were thinking. In a Colorado bookstore, a woman confided that she had come to the signing because she had heard that the author was deceased. Wryly, Gurney said that he quickly quashed the rumor: "I reassured her that publishers don't usually send their dead authors on tour. But sometimes publishers fear that a grueling tour schedule might finish off an author or at least put his arm in a cast. No need to worry. This tour was invigorating rather than draining."

Apparently, his publisher and many booksellers are convinced as well. Kim Bouchard, publicity manager at HarperCollins Children's Books, reported that sales of Gurney's fantasy, released in early October with a 75,000-copy first printing, quadrupled during the first week of Gurney's tour and that the book is likely to return to press soon. If history is any indication, First Flight will soar: Gurney's two earlier Dinotopia tales have combined sales of more than two million copies.

Bouchard, who traveled with Gurney, was struck by the diversity of the crowds the author drew. "Every appearance had a real mix of people," she said. "There were college students in Florida who drove clear across the state to meet him because they love his art. We also met adult science-fiction fans and lots of middle-graders, many of whom frequent the Dinotopia Web site. But I was really shocked when the parents of a two-year-old girl told me that she insisted on having the Dinotopia books read to her every night at bedtime."

Gurney thrilled fans of all ages with his in-store presentations, which, if the facility had a projector, included a slide show of pictures from his studio and from the book. The artist also created some art on the spot, including drawings of dinosaurs that, when turned upside down, became an entirely different image. "Drawing as performance was something new for me," Gurney said. "The biggest hit was when I drew a picture of the Pokémon character called Pikachu. The children practically levitated off the floor."

Among the memories Gurney will savor from his latest tour was his visit to the Waterloo School in Madison, Wis., where a chorus of 200 students ranging from kindergarten to high school surprised him by singing "The Song of Dinotopia" (from an audio version of the book). "He was very touched," recalled Nick Glass, events coordinator for MindSparks/Pooh Corner, who arranged Gurney's visit to the school. Glass also hosted the author at his Madison store at a signing that attracted close to 100 customers. "People traveled for hours to meet him, and we sold tons of books," Glass said. "He was so generous with his time and so patient, creating drawings in every single book. His presence created a stir even afterward. People came back to the store, still talking about 'the Dinotopia guy.' "

Graeme Base

This fall, he traversed Australia, New Zealand and Canada and, for three straight weeks, crossed the United States, signing books in 14 cities. Though perhaps a bit weary after completing this mammoth tour to promote The Worst Band in the Universe, Graeme Base has no complaints. "I tell my publishers to work me hard and get me home again," declared the Australian native, who believes "a world tour is best dealt with in two months max or you begin to go nuts at the end. I don't want days off--that only makes me lose focus and makes it hard to get going again the next day. I like to hit the ground running--straight from the airport and right into it."

Abrams, Base's American publisher, happily obliged, sending him to 22 bookstores, from New York to Seattle. Publicist Ali Petschek remarked that the tour for this book, which was released in September with a 150,000-copy first printing, was noteworthy for the company in that it was the first major tour Abrams had staged since replacing a team of commissioned reps with its own in-house sales staff. "We made it a goal that the reps work with their accounts to ensure well-attended and creative events," Petschek said. Amy Rhodes, Abrams's director of sales and marketing, commented that most of the stores Base visited "brought in 100 or more copies of his new book and many also sold several hundred of his backlist titles at the signings. We've advanced 100,000 copies of Worst Band and my sense is that they are selling through well."

Petschek noted that Base's tour was different from others in that "we made a point of having Graeme go to some cities he hadn't visited previously, rather than repeating the 'usuals' from past tours." This was a big plus for Base, who said, "One of the best parts of the tour was doing some of the more provincial centers that I had not been to before. The signings at these places are always the best." At one such locale, Stroudwater Books in Portsmouth, N.H., a huge crowd was on hand to greet Base, who happens to be store manager Teresa Corson's "very favorite author--of any adult or children's book." Base obviously has legions of other fans in the area, too, since Corson's invitation to local schools brought what she calls "an overwhelming response. We had to turn people away so as not to violate our fire code. We had 400 people at the signing, including at least 300 students. We sold about as many books as we had people there, and Graeme drew an illustration in every book he signed. He was one of the most personable authors I've ever met."

A wild time was had by all at another lively, decidedly noisy stop on Base's itinerary. At Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis, Colette Morgan organized a battle of the bands among middle-school musicians. "We didn't know if this would be a worst band or a best band contest, but the two groups that actually made it were really fabulous," she reported. "Graeme acted as both emcee and judge, and awarded the bands points on a list of criteria. He really rose to the occasion, though it was very hard for him to judge since both bands were so good." All contestants received free copies of Worst Band and the winning group--which at Base's fair hand won by just a single point--received three hours of free recording time at a local studio to cut a demo CD.

Morgan plans to fete the victors at a "release party" sometime next spring. "This was a rockin' kind of place when we staged this event," she said. "We sold quite a few copies of Base's new book, as well as respectable numbers of his backlist titles. Our philosophy is that, if we are hosting an author, we hope he or she has a sense of humor, since there's no telling what we'll plan to do with them. This was one of those ideas I woke up with in the middle of the night. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. But this was really a memorable experience."

It was for Base as well, though one other incident won't quickly fade from memory. As he told it, "The weirdest moment of this tour occurred when a woman at a signing in Denver told me that she had a tattoo of one of the illustrations I had done for The Discovery of Dragons. Without thinking, I asked her to show it to me, then realized I didn't have the faintest idea what part of her anatomy was about to be bared for all to see. It turned out to be her shoulder--disappointment all round." Well, at least he didn't declare it the worst tattoo in the universe.

David Macaulay

"You have to live here to know what this means," confided Nick Glass of MindSparks/Pooh Corner in Madison, Wis., referring to the risk he took scheduling a book signing in this football-centric town on a Sunday afternoon--and, as it turned out, a gloriously sunny one--on which the local helmeted her s, the Green Bay Packers, were hosting their age-old rivals, the Chicago Bears. But happily, the guest of honor, David Macaulay, had sufficient drawing power to attract a standing-room-only crowd of 80 fans, a number that is "astronomical, given the fact that our store is always empty at game time," declared Glass. "The turnout we had speaks to his appeal and to the personality he presents in his books and in person."

The author touched down in Madison and in six other cities on his tour to promote Building the Book Cathedral (1973), an examination of his creation of his first book, Cathedral. Houghton Mifflin advanced much of its 40,000-copy first printing of this October release, reported Stephanie McLaughlin, children's publicity associate. "We saw a spike in sales in October as stores ordered more for Macaulay's appearances and also saw an increase in his backlist sales."

One of the most striking features of this tour, McLaughlin explained, was the diverse makeup of the audiences that surrounded Macaulay. "On this tour, we intentionally chose different types of venues for his visits," she noted,"so he could reach a broader spectrum of his readers than he d s when he focuses only on children's stores." After spending a morning at a children's bookstore in the company of a fourth-grade class, Macaulay gave a slide lecture that evening to 400 adults at the Free Library of Philadelphia, where he was introduced by renowned city planner Edmund N. Bacon. At other stops on his eclectic tour, the author addressed a group at Chicago's Northwestern University and delivered the keynote address at the Metro Detroit Science and Math Teacher Association's conference in Canton, Mich.

At bookstore signings, eight-year-olds mingled with college students studying design and archeology and with a number of Macaulay's fellow alums and former students at Rhode Island School of Design. "It was amazing how many people of all ages were well informed about all of David's work," McLaughlin said. "They were obviously there not only to have a book signed, but to ask in-depth questions."

During Macaulay's visit to MindSparks, the exchange between author and fans continued for more than an hour, Glass recalled, and it touched not only upon cathedrals but ships, pyramids, castles and the way things work. "What was neat to see," he said, "was that although his readers were familiar with his new book, they were intrigued by his entire body of work and had very thoughtful questions about why and how he wrote his earlier books, too. I believe we sold as many of Macaulay's backlist as his latest book the day he visited."

One question, McLaughlin said, surfaced repeatedly as Macaulay made his promotional rounds. "On a number of occasions, fans asked David why his books, which obviously appeal to such a broad audience, are published by Houghton Mifflin's children's department rather than our adult department. And the answer is really quite simple: this is how he wants to be published."

Hilary Knight

Booksellers served up some treats that Eloise herself would have relished during Hilary Knight's recent five-city tour promoting Simon & Schuster's reissue of Eloise at Christmastime. Reader's Books in Sonoma, Calif., staged a tea party featuring cookies in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. In the more southern reaches of the state, the staff of Borders in Thousand Oaks served a birthday cake to celebrate the November birthdays of the perpetually six-year-old Eloise, the late author Kay Thompson and visiting artist Hilary Knight. And in Naperville, Ill., the owners of Anderson's Book Shop brought in two pug puppies--dead ringers for Weenie, Eloise's sidekick--to entertain those who showed up to meet Eloise's illustrator.

The new Eloise at Christmastime (first published in 1958), contains Knight's original pictures as well as several that he reworked for this edition. Released in October, this book has already returned to press and has, to quote Thompson's heroine, a rawther impressive in-print total of 210,000 copies. Stores that Knight visited from September through mid-November also had on hand a good supply of Thompson's other Eloise titles that he has illustrated, including the original Eloise, which had sales of 60,000 copies this year alone; Eloise: The Absolutely Essential Edition, which has sold 140,000 copies since its March publication; and Eloise in Paris, a May reissue with sales of 185,000 copies.

Jill Brooks, children's book buyer at Anderson's, reported that her store had "across-the-board, strong sales of all of the Eloise books" as a result of Knight's signing. "We had a good turnout, including one woman who had Mr. Knight sign at least 20 books. It looked as though she was doing her entire Christmas shopping in one day." The appearance by the pugs--a species the Anderson family has raised for many years--was a terrific hit with the youngsters, who, Brooks said, "just couldn't get enough of them. The kids spent a lot of time reaching into the dogs' cages for licks and slobbers."

Knight recalled the incident with good humor, noting that "the children certainly went wild when the dogs came in. They couldn't have cared less about me," but admitted that he "probably enjoyed the puppies even more than the kids. A pug is irresistible, especially a baby." Though Kay Thompson shied away from publicity during her lifetime, Knight finds contact with Eloise fans very rewarding. "I love to talk to the kids," he said. "I realized during this last tour that these are not just books for girls. I was pleased to see so many boys at the stores. These books really cover everybody, because of the very strong character that Kay created and because I included in the drawings the spirit of this little girl. And I think that the lackof a parent and the strong bond between Nanny and Eloise touches everybody."

Eloise fans certainly span generations, as Tracy van Straaten, associate director of publicity for S&S Children's Publishing, saw on her travels with Knight. "Everywhere we went, we met three generations of families. And we heard the same refrain over and over again: 'My mother gave this book to me, and now I am happy to be giving it to my child.'" Similarly, Knight said that observing Eloise as a family tradition "is an extraordinary thing, since it makes me realize the incredible impact this book has had on so many people's lives. I'm now hearing grandmothers, mothers and children all claiming that 'I'm Eloise.'"

And a sizable number of fans who greeted Knight on his latest tour were--literally--Eloise. "In just about every city, we encountered girls who were named 'Eloise' after the original Eloise," van Straaten said. "It got so that we were disappointed if no Eloise showed up. More than one mother of an Eloise said to us, 'I should have thought twice about choosing the name, since it has turned out to be prophetic!'"

Ooooooooooooooooooo-wouldn't Eloise absolutely love that?