Pulling off a successful book launch when the usual promotion channels are shut because of a global pandemic isn’t easy, but I did have a lot of time to brainstorm while sheltering in place. First, my illustrator, Kjersten Niskanen, and I kicked things off with a live virtual launch on Instagram to introduce our first picture book, Sir Grace and the Big Blizzard. Not only did we meet online that day but we had fun talking together and taking questions for an hour. Kjersten, being more tech savvy than I, kept me calm and set it all up.
I thought it went well, and we learned some things about each other in the process. She grew up on a wildlife reservation in Wisconsin and has a sneaky dog named Loki. I told her when I got my first copy of Sir Grace I felt euphoric, like Danny DeVito with his new pop-up book at the end of the movie Throw Momma from the Train.
Still, I longed for a physical launch—one in a real bookstore with coffee brewing and cookies baking, or even at a well-attended festival. Since most people only venture out these days to buy groceries or to go to drugstores (me included), I knew that an indoor launch was out of the question. Plus, all the local and not-so-local festivals had been canceled. What to do?
I decided to search for an outdoor venue that was free, or at least didn’t cost a fortune. None were to be found. I finally asked about the huge gazebo in the antique district of my hometown of Huntington, W.Va., where I had hosted the Word & Song Café for three summers. It’s a charming landmark with a pagoda-style roof and is also easily accessible (one entrance ramp and one exit ramp), and it has free parking out back. In addition, the site of the gazebo made curbside pickup easy. In other words, the perfect location!
After some more brainstorming I decided to wear gloves and presign my books, put them inside Ziploc bags, and stack them in two new boxes. I bought extra hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes to bring to the launch. My husband created handmade “Enter,” “Exit,” and “One-Way” signs, and I even bought 15 star-shaped helium balloons in shiny blue, silver, and purple from our local Dollar Tree to make things festive.
After the press releases had been sent out, I created a Facebook event and invited my friends to come. Every day or so, I posted photos on social media of the gazebo, our handmade signs, and me presigning my books with gloves on. I assured everyone that I was making it as safe as possible.
Two darling girls, who just happened to love Sir Grace as much as I, dressed up as knights, complete with a fire-breathing dragon on the front of their cool costumes, and they wore masks and face shields—perfect for fearless knights in shining armor! Masks were required, thanks to my state’s mandate. My husband handled the money, and we asked everyone to bring exact change or write checks, since we weren’t equipped to take credit cards. I handed out the books with a big smile behind my mask and hoped everyone heard my appreciative thank you.
On the day of the launch, heavy rain was predicted. Another obstacle! The good news is that within a few minutes the rain stopped, the temperature turned balmy, and there was a gentle breeze—all good omens. People started arriving individually or in groups of two or three. Though the turnout was good, no crowd control was necessary. After three hours, people ranging in age from five to 92 posed for photos and left with books sealed in Ziploc bags. Some even carried away colorful helium balloons.
Perfect? Far from it. Crazy? A little, but these are crazy times, and safety and innovation are necessary. In the end, the launch was a successful celebration of a dream fulfilled, and my new book was released into the world.
I’m no Jonas Salk, but I truly wish that he were alive today to help conquer this deadly virus like he did polio. In any case, I’m happy that, when it came to launching my book, I followed his wise words: “Hope lies in dreams, in imagination, and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.”
Laura Treacy Bentley is a poet, novelist, and picture book writer whose work has been published in the U.S. and Ireland.