Imagine you’re an aspiring children’s book author. You finally decide to dip your feet in the water and take a class taught by a local author. You show up on night one, paper and pen and hopes in hand, ready to learn about structure and story arcs and other whatnots of craft — and in the room happens to be one of the most famous picture book authors in the country, and she shares some brilliant insights with you and your classmates. You’d be pretty psyched, wouldn’t you?
A few times a year, I teach a picture-book writing class through the Writer’s Barn in Shelburne, Vt. (The Writer’s Barn is a beautiful community resource dreamed up by Lin Stone and the other visionaries at Windridge Publishing.) Tuesday evening marked the first meeting of the fall session, and I had my two hours all planned and set. I love teaching, and I hope people enjoy my classes and find them helpful. But I’m going to have a tough time following that first class, because it featured Judy Schachner as a surprise guest, and wow, did she inspire!
Judy had been at the bookstore for a big afternoon event, and afterward, she had a free evening. Usually, we would go out to dinner. I adore spending time with Judy; she is hilarious and smart and quirky, and we can get ourselves into trouble, loose cannons that we both can be. When I mentioned my class, she said, “That sounds like fun!” I said, “You don’t want to come to my class. Do you?” She said, “Sure!” And I got what I’m afraid was an opportunistic gleam in my eye, and said, “Would you be willing to talk to my students?” And, humble person that she is, she tried to demur, but I had my hooks in her then and finalized the deal with four irresistible words: “There will be snacks.”
I got a huge kick out of setting Judy in a chair and waiting for a while before the big reveal. After introducing myself to the class, I mentioned the Skippyjon Jones event (one attendee had been to the event, so I had to swear her to secrecy ahead of time), and then said, “The author/illustrator of those books is going to be here tonight!” The collective excited gasp was priceless. And then I got to say, “In fact, she’s already here!” There was delighted applause, and I think a few people actually levitated with joy. I’m sure this embarrassed Judy atrociously, because, ham though she seems and wonderful performer though she is, she is actually quite humble and not at all an attention seeker.
We saved our Q&A with Judy for a little later in the class, and let me tell you, she exceeded even my own expectations. Judy was phenomenal. If you have seen her school and bookstore PowerPoint presentations, you know how funny she is, and how kooky. You could almost be forgiven for thinking that she just lucks into her prodigious writing and artistic gifts. But let me tell you, Judy Schachner has a laser-sharp understanding of what makes a picture book work, from structure to cadence to word choice to voice, and she shared brilliant tidbits of wisdom and experience with the 14 lucky people in that room. They were all blown away, and inspired, and furiously scribbled notes. She gave a master class in 45 minutes.
It was a wildly generous gesture, Judy’s offer to come speak to my students. How many authors of her stature would do that? And how many would do it so well, especially spontaneously?!
I am so grateful for that unmatchable kick-off to the course — except that the bar is set pretty darned high, and I have less than a week to figure out what to do for an encore. But hey, that’s a problem I am more than happy to live with. Thank you, Judy!