Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Children's Book Tour

This week saw the end of the first lengthy book tour that I've done for a children's book: in this case, Hell's Bells. While I did some kids' events for The Gates a year or two back, this was a much more comprehensive affair, taking in two and sometimes three kids' events most days. Generally they took place in school libraries, or in local libraries to which the schools brought the kids.

So what were they like? Well, it was the hardest work that I've ever done: the most rewarding when the events went well, but the most soul-destroying when they did not. On one level, it was like returning to my early days as an adult mystery author. Back then, nobody really knew who I was, or what I was trying to do. I mean, there are large numbers of people who still don't know who I am, and could care less about what I'm trying to do, but at least when I do an adult event most of the people in attendance will know something about me, and may even have read some of the books. With kids, though, I'm still at the level of just about being better than double maths, and I get about five minutes of grace from them before I have to start proving myself. True, there were some schools in which the kids had been primed, and a number of them had read at least one of the books, but there were lots of other schools where I was an unknown quantity not only to the the kids themselves but to their teachers and their school librarian. It's hard to stand up in front of an audience that has no conception of who you are, and try to convince them that you're worth their time not only while you're talking, but afterwards in the form of the book you've written.

Halfway through the tour, I found myself waking up each morning with a pain in my mouth and neck. I realized that I'd been clenching my teeth while I was sleeping, and my neck was taut. I've never really been nervous before doing events, mostly because I enjoy doing them, but I was nervous throughout these past two-and-a-half weeks. In part, it was because there was no way of knowing quite what to expect from the kids or their school. If I arrived and there were 200 (or sometimes more) children packed into the school hall, then I knew I was heading for disaster. You can't communicate with 200 plus kids for any length of time. It's impossible. There's also the likelihood that nobody will really have told them who you are, or why you're there. They won't have read the books, or even Googled your name. You're just a bloke standing at the front of the room, usually without a microphone, shouting at them in a strange accent.

Those days were horrible. I felt like a comedian dying on my feet during an act, facing a crowd that wasn't laughing, or even listening. No books would be sold and, for the most part, you'd be ignored by both kids and teachers. After doing two such events in a row in one day quite early in the tour, the rep just left me to wander disconsolately around the city in the hope that I might decompress a little. That was the start of the clenching and the taut neck.

I started to learn that a law of diminishing returns applied when it came to talking to the kids. 60-70 was probably the maximum, 30-40 ideal, although my final event was at a lovely high school in London more than 100 children. They were great - attentive and funny - but I did have to roam back and forth across the room quite a bit so I could maintain as much eye contact as possible. It was also clear that I was happier talking to younger kids. Older teenagers had no real interest in a book like Hell's Bells, but by the time I realized that I was halfway through an event with older teenagers, and it was rather too late to rescue myself. Subsequently, I tended to talk to the older kids about The Book of Lost Things, or even the crime novels, and kept the Hell's Bells-related stuff for those aged 13 and under.

Overall, though, the positive experiences far outweighed the negative ones. I've never had as much fun as I did talking to kids in places like Leicester and Peterborough, Norwich and Ilford, Broughton, Bury and Boston. They made me laugh, and their questions forced me to think on my toes faster than any that have been thrown at me by adults. At the end of those events, my adrenalin would be coursing, and I'd leave the school with a smile plastered on my face. Occasionally, a small person would call out 'Goodbye, John!' as we drove away, and I would be very happy indeed.

Then I'd immediately nod off as my energy levels plummeted.

Some great questions from kids:

1) Why do you talk so fast?
2) Are you rich?
3) What kind of car do you drive?
4) When you were a kid, did you want to be a private detective?
5) If you were a detective, what mystery would you solve?
6) You write about Hell? Have you ever been anywhere like Hell?
7) What was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you when you were young?

There will be more such events to come. The US tour for The Infernals begins in October, and there will be more books for young people to come. I love writing them, and I've loved chatting with kids about science and books and reading and life over these past few weeks. I'll take the odd event that doesn't work as the price to be paid for all of the ones that do. And to all of the kids who came along to events, and to the teachers and librarians who encouraged them to do so -

Thank you!

This week John read

Roseanna by Sjowall and Wahloo
Satori by Don Winslow

and listened to

Director's Cut by Kate Bush
Feel It Break by Austra


bookwitch said...

Welcome to the world of children! I suspect they liked you a lot better than double maths. Unlike some adults you are both amusing and (seem to) think well on your feet.
Now all we need are the answers to those questions. Please?
And a few more children's books would not be totally unwelcome, either.
; )

Mich said...

I remember the event you did in NYC at that children's book shop. I had never heard of any of the other authors there, but they seemed to be popular kids' authors (and I read A LOT of children's books, so that's saying something if I don't know who they are...).

But I do recall that once they started letting people rush the authors for the actual book signing, everyone seemed to make a beeline directly for your table.

(I brought you a very battered copy of Every Dead Thing, with the original Irish cover. 'Tis now one of my most prized possessions. :D)

Can't wait until October!! On the bad book event days, just remember that even if there aren't a great many fans in the room, there is a whole host of psychotic fans out there in the world who would attack you (in a loving way, of course) if we happened to run into you in the street.


Mich said...

Just finished Hell's Bells--BRILLIANT!!

You'd be impressed (or perhaps horrified) by the current state of the book, as it hasn't left my person since I started reading it. That was about a month ago. I purposely took a long time to read it, so I could savor every page. :D

TomH said...

Overlapping comments—wow.

The clenching is a sign of tension—but better than clenching and grinding—first to go is the enamel—then the cracking begins.

But Boswell more than makes up for the tension because he’s always a loyal friend and will be there when you need him.

The children—it always comes down to the children—and always consider them so dear and—guiltless in all ways.

For they really are the future—and can use guidance.

Stheflight sau said...

People rush the authors for the actual book signing.
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