Recently, we had a jam-packed offsite event weekend planned: a Friday evening launch party for two of our favorite Vermont authors whose books were releasing on the same date, and afternoon events on both Saturday and Sunday for a visiting author from out of town. While one of them went with barely a hitch and the other had major hiccups, both were joyful celebrations that built community.
The Friday launch party was a dream. Young adult author Chris Tebbetts and picture book author/illustrator Liza Woodruff (whom we also claim as an excellent Flying Pig staff member) were throwing the party at an art studio a few miles away.
It was a private launch, since space was limited to 150 or so, and besides, it’s nearly impossible to successfully create a public event combining books aimed at 4-to-6-year-olds and 14-to-17-year olds.
Chris, a seasoned ghostwriter for adults and a frequent co-author for middle grade (writing Middle School series books with James Patterson, the Survivor series with Jeff Probst, and the YA novel M or F? with Lisa Papademetriou). was celebrating his debut solo YA novel, a terrific Sliding Doors-esque split-possibility scenario where a teen who knocks himself out huffing a Whip-It in the alley behind work faces the consequences of his actions.
Liza, the picture book illustrator for Kim Norman’s popular series, Ten on the Sled, If It’s Snowy and You Know It, Clap Your Paws, and She’ll Be Coming Up the Mountain, as well as her own adorable Emerson Barks and innumerable educational titles, was celebrating her sly, warm-hearted new book about a little kitten who pesters for a thrilling, danger-filled adventure story only to find he doesn’t want quite as much “scary” as he thought.
The studio was filled to the rafters with Liza and Chris’s friends, family, and colleagues, all delighted to be there despite the 90+-degree day. Sure, Liza’s tiger kitten cupcakes threatened to melt, and there was a drooping-licorice-whiskers incident, but partygoers dove into them with gusto.
Chris had ordered shortbread cookies with his book jacket in icing, which were similarly devoured, and a friend of his made paper flowers out of copies of the cover and popped them in a whipped-cream-canister vase. So clever!!
The signing lines were long and happy,
and I was a happy bookseller.
The whole event was a delight — so many people showed up to share their love for Chris and Liza and their work. Those two authors had done enormous amounts of planning to create a beautiful evening, and the art studio venue—which holds classes for pre-K through adults and has a delicious cafe, all in a busy part of town with few community spaces—is the perfect example of how to create meaningful gathering places in unexpected areas.
The next day, I was expecting to sell books for an out-of-town author at another fantastic offsite venue, the Clemmons Family Farm. The Clemmons family have been in Vermont for generations. They were one of the first African-American families to settle in the area, and their legacy of achievement and generosity is legendary. Jack and Lydia Clemmons, now 96, were a young doctor and nurse who decided to move here in the early ’60s, despite incredulity and concern from family and friends, and create a small farm in addition to pursuing their medical work.
What they’ve built is tremendous, and their six buildings have become an African American Heritage and Multicultural Center that hosts many events every year. This year’s theme is To Sing of Common Things: Making A Way Out of No Way, and the event itself was a testament to the theme.
The visiting author they’d invited, Shomari Wills (Black Fortunes:The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Survived Slavery and Became Millionaires) had to cancel at the last minute, and it wasn’t until I’d already unloaded many boxes of books that I discovered he wouldn’t be there. The Saturday event would still be happening, but the Sunday event was called off altogether.
This was a hitch, to be sure, and I marveled at the grace with which Lydia Clemmons (the daughter of 96-year-old Lydia) was handling the shift in plans.
Lydia had just learned the news the day before, and her quick thinking brought in a power-hitter of a substitute guest: the award-winning poet Major Jackson. Major was traveling in another part of the state, but immediately said yes to Lydia’s request.
He joined the event’s moderator, Wanda Heading-Grant, a University of Vermont professor and award-winning Diversity and Inclusion leader.
Wanda had also been thrown a curveball with the change of speakers; suddenly, most of the questions she had prepared for the author had to be thrown out, and a new conversation created. She handled it like the pro that she is; sitting in the audience, you would never know this wasn’t the originally scheduled event.
Lydia started off the event by introducing her parents to the audience. Jack and Lydia Sr. were seated front and center, facing the crowd, in a plush love seat throne of honor. On either side were the visiting speakers. Lydia welcomed everyone, gave a little intro about the Clemmons Family Farm’s cultural programs for the year, and explained the slight change of plans.
What followed was so special and wonderful that I was filled with gratitude. What could have been simply a disaster, from an event standpoint, had become a most beautiful community blessing.
Major Jackson spoke a bit about African American success in this country, and the way in which Americans tend to define success, which is often at odds with other kinds of success. He spoke beautifully about valuing our elders, about the importance of young people finding mentors to help them navigate the difficult waters of growing up and surviving, especially as Black Americans in this nation. He read pieces (not his own) from the upcoming Scribner collection that he guest edited, The Best American Poetry 2019, and talked about how national themes of concern presented themselves —directly or obliquely—again and again in the thousands of poetry submissions he pored over to create the collection, from the #MeToo movement to Black Lives Matter to pay equity to isolation and connection.
Wanda Heading-Grant asked fabulous questions connecting Major’s readings to the theme of the Clemmons Family Farm’s discussion series, To Sing of Common Things: Making A Way Out of No Way, which led to Major talking about how each generation of Black Americans had a particular challenge to face, and again how the younger people can draw on their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences in order to help them “make a way out of no way” themselves.
The main presentation was followed by one of the best Q&A discussions I’ve heard in a long time — thoughtful questions and replies that were both moving and inspiring. Afterward, Lydia Clemmons invited everyone into the room where they were serving fresh fruit, samosas, and ginger juice, and where my book table was set up. The conversation was lively and fun, and the room a refreshingly cool counterpoint to the sweltering heat outside. It was a happy party.
Despite the fact that everyone wanted Major Jackson’s books (the two he read from are forthcoming this fall, and we hadn’t had time to bring in multiple copies of his others), we still sold nine copies of Black Fortunes (a great read and an important slice of history), which I count as a notable success given the unexpected circumstances.
As I packed up the boxes and headed out, I was overwhelmed with gratitude that the event had turned out exactly as it did. While I would have loved to hear Mr. Wills talk about the incredible entrepreneurs and business people in Black Fortunes, I can’t imagine a conversation more moving or inspiring than the afternoon we enjoyed.
Both of the events that weekend created and celebrated community in the most fantastic ways—just two of the ways books bring people together, again and again.