Happy Afterglow: Alison McGhee and Dav Pilkey

Elizabeth Bluemle - October 23, 2015

IMG_0071Around the store, we affectionately referred to the other week as Hell Week. Not only did we have two major author events plus four school events to coordinate, but each member of our small team of staff had significant out-of-store obligations and fires to put out, all converging in this same five-day period. When there are only six of us to begin with, and all of us are part-time at the bookstore, it’s a plate-spinning circus act of organization and communication. We knew going in that last week would be a challenge. What we didn’t know was that we would come out of it with four new true friends.

It’s not every week that we get to host both a Pulitzer Prize nominee AND an internationally bestselling author in our little town of 5,000. Alison McGhee and Dav Pilkey came to Shelburne, and inspired hundreds of Vermont children, teachers, parents, and booksellers.IMG_4988
These two authors couldn’t be more different in outward ways. McGhee writes quietly lyrical, lovely books that flow like rivers. Pilkey writes loudly hilarious books that thwack the funny bone like a karate chop. And yet, they are alike in both being luminous, generous, kind, compassionate people and wonderful writers.
Despite a bad cold that she somehow pushed aside, Alison charmed Burlington children at a school very well prepared for her visit. Art inspired by Firefly Hollow festooned the auditorium and library, along with quotes from her books, drawings of her characters, and recreations of some of her scenes. The children had read most of her picture books and many classes had read the new novel. The school’s librarian and several children presented Alison with a special bag of gifts, each representing either Vermont or something fun/tasty from Alison’s books. It’s always a joy to visit schools that get the kids involved in a visiting author’s stories! It seemed as if half the school had already read Firefly Hollow, and could quote lines from it!
After the large assembly, Alison met with a smaller group of third-grade students for a writing workshop. One of the things she taught them was how to use dialogue to reveal character. After setting up a scene where a bully tells a girl on the school bus to be quiet, she invited the students to come up with language he would use that would demonstrate his bully nature. The first volunteer proposed, “Hey, stop talking.” The group decided that was a pretty polite way for a bully to talk, and threw out more suggestions. Most were variations on, “Be quiet!” until one kid piped up from the back, “Shut your piehole, Grandma!” It’s rare to be that surprised during an author visit, and I think I’ll laugh about that line for the rest of my life.

Alison’s brilliance and sense of humor shone throughout the day. She is a great spirit and writes so beautifully across genres, it’s practically unnerving. Both children and adults are drawn to her articulate, irreverent, smart self. It was a lovely day.
After a second school visit and some hot tea, Alison was ready to head back home. Oh! But first, one more anecdote – at Alison’s bookstore event on the evening before her school visits, a 10-year-old writer (who has a manuscript in progress that is already 85 pages long) was Alison’s most vocal and irrepressible enthusiast. She was full of great questions about writing, and had read and loved the Bink and Gollie series and Firefly Hollow. When Alison answered a question by referencing one of her books in the Julia Gillian series, the young fan couldn’t help interrupting, “O. M. G.!! I’m reading exactly that book at home right now! What kind of coincidence is that?!” She couldn’t get over it. Meeting Alison was clearly the highlight of her writing life. You can’t ask for more than that.
Now, you may not believe me when I tell you that the creator of characters like Captain Underpants, Professor Poopypants, and the rascally Harold Hutchins and George Beard is a kind of Zen master, but it’s true. Somehow, Dav Pilkey manages to be both a rock star children’s book author who inspires audiences of hundreds of kids into fits of uproarious laughter, and still be the most kind, generous, sincere, humble, and outwardly calm — though also fun — man on the planet.
I’m not sure how anyone manages hordes of fans, screaming with laughter, with this much grace, but he does. Dav and his wife, Sayuri Pilkey, and his editor, Anamika Bhatnagar, all worked with us seamlessly to create three dynamite presentations at schools and in our store’s offsite location at Shelburne Town Hall. The kids were beyond excited to meet Dav. What was really fun was to see them stream into the auditorium, passing right by Dav without realizing who he was, and then later have conniption fits of astonished joy that they had been inches away from their hero. IMG_0027
Dav isn’t the kind of author who craves idealizing, though. Down-to-earth, friendly, and without fanfare, he greeted all of the children as they exited the assemblies, and helped pass out the hundreds of amazing red Reading Gives You Superpowers capes that Scholastic had shipped out for the events.
This was one of those days that needed to be choreographed down to the last minute, and when Dav wasn’t presenting, he was signing pre-sold books, preparing the many giveaways that are part of his presentations, and, of course, drawing pictures on 3XL briefs. This is what that looks like:
Anamika and Sayuri were so helpful I wish they could be here for all of our big author events. Really, the time, care, and thoughtfulness they gave to the day was peerless.
By the time 4:00 rolled around, we couldn’t believe Dav was able to pour the same amount of energy into the third crowd as he was the first. But he did. We heard from so many customers how appreciative they were that we had this event, how Captain Underpants was the first book their children had willingly picked up to read independently, how Dav Pilkey’s open, matter-of-fact, funny, and honest discussion of his own ADHD and dyslexia as a kid gave their children the most amazing boost of self-worth and hope. What a gift!
And – this is why this post has taken me so long to write – I can hardly express the appreciation we have for the Pilkeys’ incredible generosity to local schools and our bookstore. Without wanting to tread on privacy, let me just say that three schools now have the opportunity to add many, many books to their classroom and school libraries, books that the Pilkeys were very clear (1) are meant to be books the children love and are excited by, and have a voice in choosing, and (2) are not required to include any of Dav’s books. (That was very important to Dav for the schools to understand, though if the kids have any say, of course they are going to want those books, and it’s their choice, after all!) In addition to the school gifts, the Pilkeys also donated another giant chunk of Flying Pig gift cards, books, drawings (and a pair of briefs!) to the bookstore event-goers. We have never been touched by such generosity, which will have reverberations in the store and community for months and years to come.


I think we wore Dav out, but what a joyful day!

When my nephews were very little, their parents helped them work out a system whereby, if they had just gotten a gift they weren’t quite ready to share, they would say, “Too special! Too special!” and everyone would know to wait a bit before trying to play with that toy. For two weeks, I have been trying to write about that wonderful Hell Week with Alison and Dav, and every time I sat down, I would think, “Too special! Too special!” and set the post aside. Finally, enough time has passed that I needed to write this, just to revisit the sheer beauty of those days.
You authors bring so much more to our communities than you’ll ever know. Thank you so much, Alison and Dav, Sayuri and Anamika, and to Atheneum and Scholastic for making those visits possible!