Children's authors and illustrators share memorable moments from recent book tours

If it was Monday and drizzling, it must have been Seattle. Or was it? Authors who are promoting their books out on the road may understandably have a difficult time keeping track of days, cities, bookstores and the weather. And after a tour winds down, recollections of the events are often a blur. But never entirely. Those who have roamed the country signing and talking up their new books inevitably return home with memories -- a child whose life has been touched by a book, an impossibly high stack of books that all sold during a signing, a bookseller who went the extra mile to ensure an enthusiastic reception -- that they will long treasure.

In hopes of mining some of these gems, PW talked to a handful of children's authors and illustrators who toured last fall, as well as some of the publicists and sales personnel who helped mastermind their routes. Though hardly a definitive roundup, here are some of the nuggets we uncovered.

Inclement weather was not a problem for David Small, who spent a week in Florida and a week in California, visiting bookstores and autographing copies of The Christmas Crocodile by Bonny Becker (S&S), for which he was the illustrator. "The weather was absolutely perfect the entire time," observed the Michigan-based artist, who mentioned another reason that his latest tour was particularly pleasant: "Simon &Schuster was gracious enough to send my wife, Sarah Stewart, along with me, and she was an incredible asset at each store we visited." Stewart is the author of three books illustrated by her husband, including last year's Caldecott Honor recipient, The Gardener (FSG).

Small's most memorable day on tour was one on which he, along with Stewart, visited two very different kinds of California bookstores. Their first engagement was a signing at a Barnes & Noble, where the person in charge was organizing a book signing for the first time. Small, who has had some disappointing experiences with chain-store visits in the past ("sometimes mechanical and indifferent," he termed them), noted that, in this case, the novice planner had "gone to great lengths to let people know we were coming. She had put my book on the list of staff-recommended titles, which automatically gave it a 30% discount, and had called every elementary school in the district to tell them about my visit and this special price. When we arrived three classes of children were assembled and virtually every child bought a hardcover book. The store sold more than 200 books that morning."

Diane and Leo Dillion
Diane and Leo Dillion signed books at Every Picture Tells a Story in Los Angeles. Guest reader Angela Bassett (r.) looked on.

From there, Small and Stewart visited Whale of a Tale in Irvine, a children's-only independent store, where the artist signed a similar quantity of books, many of which had been presold. "This is a very small store," Small said, "but one that has such a strong customer base and d s such a terrific job with community outreach that it was able to sell an enormous number of books that day.

Pleasant Surprises

Like Small, author J.K. Rowling had no need of an umbrella on her five-city, mid-October tour to promote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, a Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine book. A resident of Edinburgh and thus no stranger to overcast skies, this author was amazed that on her inaugural tour (and her first trip to the United States) she "never once saw a cloud, not even in Seattle." Rowling, too, commented that helping her tour "exceed even my high expectations" was the company of a family member: her five-year-old daughter, who became an instant fan of things American. "She has been drawing Stars and Stripes since we returned," said Rowling, who also brought along a teenager to act as nanny. "Her fondest memory of the States," Rowling quipped, "was running into Kevin Bacon in the Jacuzzi at a Chicago hotel."

In addition to the bookstore appearances, Rowling did several print and radio interviews, and she feels that this additional exposure served her very well. An interview with Rowling ran in the Seattle Times two days before she arrived in that city, and while the author was signing copies of Harry Potter in a bookstore in Seattle, a woman arrived, waving the newspaper clipping. When she asked if the store stocked the book, Rowling said, "She had no idea I was there, and was quite pleased when the bookseller responded that not only did they have the book, but its author was sitting just behind her and would sign it for her. That was one of the most wonderful moments during my trip."

Kris Moran, Scholastic's publicity manager, reported that this author's 10-day tour indisputably boosted book sales, but the effect was difficult to quantify (by mid-December, Harry Potter had 190,000 copies in print -- a hefty figure for a first novel). Moran, who accompanied the author on her travels here, observed that many fans of the book were clamoring for the second book in this seven-part series, already out in Britain, which Scholastic will publish next fall. "Kids are desperate to read it," she noted. "Some kids had bought the U.K. edition over the Internet or had contacted relatives in England they'd never met to ask them to send them a copy."

One child Rowling encountered on her tour especially impressed her with his perspicacity. "Of all the questions that children asked me," she said, "the most memorable was from a boy in San Francisco, who asked me why Harry's aunt and uncle don't send him to an orphanage if they hate him so much. This is a very important question and it has an answer, but I can't give it without ruining the plot of the fifth Harry Potter book. I have been waiting a long time for someone to ask me that question and I was stunned that I had to travel across the Atlantic to hear someone put his finger on it."

Two other Scholastic authors who toured in September and October were hardly newcomers to the road. Two-time Caldecott medalists Leo and Diane Dillon conducted media interviews and visited bookstores in eight cities to promote their 40th book together, To Everything There Is a Season. In this Blue Sky title, which has 75,000 copies in print, paintings representing 16 cultures illustrate verses from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Leo Dillon commented, "We heard the most beautiful responses to this book everywhere we have gone, unlike any we have ever heard before."

One especially affecting comment, Diane noted, came from an elderly gentleman who was in the audience at Kepler's Bookstore in Menlo Park, Calif. In her words, "This man raised his hand and, speaking very quietly, told us that he wanted to thank us for this book, because many of his friends are dying and he didn't know how to talk to them about death. He said that our book helped him to do that, and to make sense out of death. This gave us goosebumps."

The highlight of their trip, the Dillons agreed, was an event staged at Every Picture Tells a Story in Los Angeles, attended by close to 400 people. Slides of the art were projected while actors Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance read the text of To Every Thing. A performance by the International Children's Choir was, in Diane's words, "the epitome of what this book is about. Each child wore the costume of his or her country and it was absolutely beautiful."

Over a period of 17 days, Stephen Biesty saw quite an extensive cross-section of his American audience. Traveling from his home in southwest England, the author of DK's Stephen Biesty's Incredible Body touched down in seven cities, attended three regional trade shows, signed books at 29 stores and entertained a dozen school groups (one of them, at Books, Bytes and Beyond in Glen Rock, N.J., was as large as 300 students).

Strategic Planning
STRATEGIC PLANNING: Lane Smith and Jon Scieszka join Viking Regina Hayes to map out their fall tour for Squids Will Be Squids.

Of all his stops, Biesty remarked, he most enjoyed his time in the classroom. "From a practical standpoint," he pointed out, "in schools you are guaranteed a captive audience and aren't as dependent on the passing trade as you are in a bookstore. The teachers had done a great job preparing the children for my visit. They seemed well aware of my work and asked fairly complicated questions. I find American children are not shy at all -- they are more relaxed and less reserved than English children."

Biesty traveled with a prop that certainly helped loosen up his young audiences. The artist designed and put together a collapsible hat with moving parts offering a cross-section look at the brain. "I obviously can't demonstrate this kind of illustration on the spot," he said, "and I wanted to come up with something visual to demonstrate my style of art. So I devised my brain hat, which only takes a minute or so to assemble. I put it on my head as I displayed a picture I drew of me removing my brain from my head with a winch."

Angus Killick, children's publicity manager for DK, praised many independent booksellers whose stores Biesty visited for their aggressive efforts to hook up the author with school groups and to presell books. "We'd arrive at many stores to find huge piles of books, both Incredible Body and backlist titles, that had been presold as a result of the booksellers' publicizing Stephen's visit to teachers and parents," Killick observed. With 45,000 copies in print, Biesty's latest book is likely to be another steady seller; his previous six titles have together sold more than two million copies worldwide.

Also accustomed to sales figures followed by multiple zer s is Marcus Pfister, whose 1992 picture book The Rainbow Fish has sold more than five million copies in 30 languages. In October, this author traveled from his native Switzerland and traversed 11 states in just 14 days, promoting his fall title from North-South Books, The Rainbow Fish and the Big Blue Whale, launched with a whale-sized 200,000-copy first printing.

In addition to school and store visits that routinely drew more than 100 people, Pfister's itinerary included appearances against some inventive backdrops. At Connecticut's Mystic Aquarium, he signed more than 300 books and gave a drawing demonstration in front of enormous tanks containing bottlenose dolphins. In Independence, Mo., he spoke to 100 children at the Children's Peace Pavilion and was then invited to crawl into a "cave," a permanent exhibit inspired by his Milo and the Magic Stone, one of just two books that this museum sells. And quite literally a high point on his tour was the 30-foot Rainbow Fish balloon, created for Detroit's Thanksgiving Day parade, which flew over Book Beat in Oak Park and drew hundreds of fans to the store for Pfister's signing, at which more than 300 books sold.

But perhaps Pfister's fondest memories are of the aspiring young artists he encountered on his travels: "It is wonderful meeting children face to face and helping them with ideas for their own drawings. This brings me and the children together and I hope it is something they will remember."

Meeting Young Fans

The candor and creativity of her young readers is something Massachusetts resident Holly Hobbie will long remember from her six-city tour last fall. Author of Little, Brown's Toot and Puddle, a 1997 release with sales of 105,000 copies, Hobbie (known to adults as the creator of the blue-bonneted character who has graced greeting cards for decades) was touting the release of Toot and Puddle: A Present for Toot; LB has shipped 55,000 copies of the sequel since its October pub date. On tour for the first time, Hobbie found that "the kids I met were definitely the best part of the whole experience. They were so honest about what they feel and so incredibly involved with my characters. They made me realize what a big responsibility I have now that I have created something that is totally imaginary yet has become very real to them."

In fact, Hobbie saw some of her fans actually bring her pig characters to life at a Doylestown, Pa., elementary school, where 75 first-graders performed a musical version of Toot and Puddle. "What really blew me away," said Hobbie, "were the huge murals the kids had painted, inspired by the images in my book."

T.A. Barron, whose The Fires of Merlin was released in September by Philomel, also saw his work take on new dimensions in the hands of young readers. On his 15-city tour to promote the fourth tale in his Arthurian epic, Barron entered Jeremy's Books and Toys in suburban Houston to find more than 100 kids in period dress. "They put on a one-act play from my latest book with real integrity and caught the true voice of the characters," he remarked. "It touched me deeply to see that these characters had walked off the pages and come to life for others as well as for me." Similarly rewarding was the author's visit to an Ohio public library whose lobby had been turned into a replica of Fincayra, the setting for his Merlin tales, complete with huge papier-mâché objects.

But perhaps the most valuable jewels that Barron brought back to his Boulder home were the heartfelt words and actions of his readers: the girl in Washington, D.C., who, even with a cast on her leg, stood up in front of all her classmates and sang a ballad thanking him for taking her to imaginary worlds; the girl who flew to Texas from her Florida home when Barron appeared at her former school, where he had met her on a prior visit; and of the Boston boy who said that he isn't able to forget about Barron's books once he finishes them and continues to think about the stories. "These are the things that I'll keep with me as I go into hibernation and write my next book," Barron said.

On this point, the other authors and illustrators who recently returned from touring would likely agree: the rewards of making personal contact with the children who read their books, and the booksellers who sell them, far outweighed the inevitable exhaustion at the end of a hectic day on the road.

Tidbits from Other Tours

Girls Know Best 2
BEYOND WORDS sent young contributors to Girls Know Best 2 on the road.

We could write a many noteworthy details poured in about fall author tours. Lacking the luxury of such space, here are some brief recaps.

HarperCollins' children's publicity department had a busy season, booking multi-city tours for no fewer than 10 authors, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, David Diaz, Thacher Hurd, Ji-li Jiang, Sarah Weeks, Stuart Murphy, Tor Seidler, Chris Lynch and Adam Rapp. As celebrities in other fields, the first two authors drew expectedly large crowds at bookstore signings, where long lines formed. But generating enormous in-house enthusiasm was the joint tour planned for the last-mentioned pair, the respective authors of Gypsy Davey and The Buffalo Tree, both YA novels. This "experimental" four-city tour sent the dashing duo into college bookstores to chat with students -- when they could find them: publicist Cory Grimminck recalled one humbling signing, when Lynch and Rapp were plunked down "next to the clearance rack in a nearly-empty college store. Luckily they are laid-back authors with a sense of humor, so we were able to have a hearty laugh," she said.

Beyond Words sent 32 boys between the ages of seven and 16 to bookstores in their hometowns, located from Florida to British Columbia. Contributors to Boys Know It All: Wise Thoughts and Wacky Ideas from Guys Like You!, these kids signed books and conducted many print, radio and TV interviews. This house also coordinated signings and publicity interviews for 47 girls from across the country who contributed to another fall title, Girls Know Best 2.

Simon &Schuster's roster of touring authors included Richard Paul Evans, who was promoting a new children's title (The Christmas Candle) as well as his fall adult book from S&S, The Locket. Launching Candle with a 200,000-copy first printing, the publisher had understandably high expectations for this holiday title: Evans's The Christmas Box trilogy has a bountiful 6.5 million copies in print.

A special guest at a Charleston, S.C., bookstore made this signing memorable for Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, who were promoting Let My People Go: Bible Stories Told by a Freeman of Color from Atheneum. Attending the event was a 97-year-old blacksmith who had created many of Charleston's ornate iron fences and whose background mirrored that of the main character in the book, a blacksmith who was a freed slave. "This man is a community treasure and the meeting between him and the McKissacks was truly a touching moment for the three of them and everyone present," noted associate publicist Rebecca Grose. Also on fall tours for S&S were David A. Carter, Douglas Wood, Neale S. Godfrey, Betty Miles, Robert San Souci and Brian Pinkney, and J. Patrick Lewis and Lisa Desimini.

Penguin Putnam's list of authors on the road included Peggy Rathmann, Patricia Polacco, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, Tomie dePaola and Jan Brett. Sales rep Alex Genis reported that the splashiest event on Brett's (The Night Before Christmas) itinerary was her signing at Lee Booksellers in Lincoln, Neb. -- filmed by a local TV crew -- attended by a crowd of 500. When time ran out before Brett had a chance to sign all of the customers' purchases, the store's staff advised them to leave their names and the illustrator would send them signed bookplates. To the amazement of all, there were more than 1800 requests for these.

DePaola's (Big Anthony: His Story) big moment in the limelight came in Appleton, Wis., where the author rode on a float in the Thanksgiving parade, standing alongside a reproduction of Strega Nona's house, accompanied by actors dressed as this character and Big Anthony. This exposure was clearly good for business: the author signed close to 500 books at a bookstore signing immediately following the parade, on which no rain fell.