When I began this journey of writing for children, oh so many years ago, I had no idea that one of the business aspects of the field included travel and speaking. I had an image of me at my desk, with my cats and my children playing together within eyesight of my typewriter (yes, I used an electric Olympic typewriter back then).
I never dreamed that my work as a writer would take me to every single state in the Union (except for West Virginia and Maine), not to mention a handful of foreign countries, nor could I have imagined that I would stand in front of thousands of school children and talk about “my life as a writer.”
I estimate that I have now shared the multiple drafts of Watermelon Day at least a gazillion times over the past twenty years, maybe more. In addition, I have a very dark and fuzzy seven-second video of a cat who jumps backwards that I show the kids right at the end.
Tell me, which do you think the kids remember? The drafts or the cat? That’s a no-brainer if there ever was one.
Why the back-flipping cat? The easy answer is that it’s just fun. But that’s also the best answer. What I want my young audience to know is that writing needn’t be the laborious task that we are so often told it has to be. In fact, I tell them, any task that is worthy, despite the inevitable frustrations, also includes moments of pure joy. After showing them the 25 drafts that it took to get Watermelon Day to a point where a publisher would buy it, with its message of persistence, doggedness, all those –nesses that are part of the process of creating a story, I want to leave them with a feeling of exuberance. What is more exuberant than a cat who throws himself backwards over his own head and lives to meow about it? Well, finishing a story for one.
I could grumble for hours about school visits, and in fact I often do. There is much to complain about. But there is also much to enjoy, and one of them is watching the stupid cat.
Of course, I could watch the cat all by myself. I don’t really need to pack my suitcase, get on yet another airplane and cross a time zone or two to do that. I could watch it without staying at a hotel that looks like every other hotel in the universe and serves the same hardboiled eggs at the continental breakfast. It would be easy enough to just open my computer and hit “play.”
But what would be lost? I’ll tell you what. The sound of surprise from a hundred second-graders when the cat hurls himself through space and time, and the peals of laughter that encircle every single one of us—writer, teachers, librarian, parents, second-graders—on the very split second that he lands. Because for a brief moment, we’re all surprised, we’re all in the room together, all wrapped in the spontaneous joy of joy.
I do school visits for a number of reasons. There’s the obvious income part of it. I can’t deny that. There’s also the obvious promotion of my books. As well, there’s the obvious opportunity to be in a place I’ve never been before. (Someday, I’m going to find myself in West Virginia and Maine. I just know I will). Also, because writing is a rather solitary act, getting out of the house and talking to others of my same species is obviously a healthy thing to do. My tendency is to cocoon myself in my little nook of an office and stay there. Human interaction is good for the brain.
But more and more, I’ve begun to see that one of the reasons for taking a turn as a visiting author is to remind my readers to make room for surprise in our lives. It turns out that I need that reminder too. And none of us can get there by ourselves. We need each other and our shared stories. We need back-flipping cats.
We need the joy of joy.