Friday, April 23, 2010

Children's author T.A. Barron greets the masses

Yesterday evening I drove 30 minutes to the nearby town of Harvard to hear Colorado-based author T.A. Barron talk about his books for children, more than 20 in all, ranging from picture books to middle grade and young adult novels. My motivation to go to the talk was manifold. I interviewed Tom, as he is called in person, and wrote a profile for the Boston Globe that was published earlier this week; during the interview I said I’d try to attend the talk, and I wanted to make good on my word. He is also a long-time acquaintance of my family whom I saw frequently during a particular period of my childhood and have seen very seldom in my adult life. As someone who loves to connect present with past, I was curious to spend a little time in his company.

Besides all that, I thought the library had made a poor scheduling choice by having him visit during public school vacation week. In the affluent town of Harvard, I figured many of his young fans would be out of town with their families this week, and I thought I could do my part to boost attendance.

Doing my part to boost attendance began with me standing in the corridor outside the function room for ten minutes on standby before the talk began because I hadn’t called ahead to pre-register. Watching the many children and adults who had been more foresighted than I flood into the function room and choose seats, I realized I needn’t have worried about poor turnout. At 7:02, the library director gave those of us in line in the corridor permission to enter the room, where there were still a couple of rows of empty seats toward the back. Despite the fact that I don’t honestly know many kids who are big fans of T.A. Barron’s books – my 11-year-old told me he has one friend who really likes the Merlin series for which this author is best-known, but this is sort of damning with faint praise, since my son and his friends all like to read and have lots of favorite books – there were over one hundred people seated at the library’s meeting room when Tom took the lectern.

It was a good talk, but more than anything he said, I was thinking about the audience. It appeared to me that there were almost equal numbers of children and adults; even if kids hadn’t flocked here in droves, they populated the rows of chairs generously, and they all held at least one of Tom’s books, and in many cases several books, in their hands as they sat with their eyes glued to the speaker.

Noting their engagement, it made me think about what a great opportunity it is for kids to get to hear an author talk in person about writing. These kids are familiar with so many celebrities – my own two kids are as well; they watch American Idol and see an occasional movie and follow various professional sports teams – but none of those celebrities will ever stand twenty feet away from them in a library conference room talking about their childhood the way Tom did.

Moreover, I’m increasingly suspicious that some of the books popular with younger readers such as my 7-year-old don’t even have real authors behind them but are cranked out by conglomerates of some kind. If I’m wrong, I apologize for slandering the authors, but I’m all but certain there’s no real author named Daisy Meadows sitting at a desk pecking out the Rainbow Fairies series that Holly and her friends like so much, nor any author behind the surprisingly crude Geronimo Stilton books that both kids have at times enjoyed. When Tim was about seven and started reading Matt Christopher’s novels about kids who play sports, I expressed surprise to our local children’s librarian that Matt Christopher, popular during my childhood, was still writing. “Nancy,” she said with an ironic tone, “do you really think these books are all written by the same person?”

Aha. So maybe some of the more cookie-cutter series for children really don’t have any single author who could stand at a podium talking about themes and developing characters. But the Merlin books do, and last night there were several dozen kids from Harvard or other nearby towns transfixed by what he had to say. It reminded me that children do still love books, despite all the other options they seem to have. And it reminded me that what authors write really does matter to people. T.A. Barron has thousands of readers; even if my kids and their friends haven’t taken much to his books, children around the world have, as proven by his appearance on the New York Times bestseller lists of children’s authors.

I don’t have a book and I don’t attract thousands of readers, other than perhaps for the occasional Boston Globe feature, but earlier this week I received an email that reminded me that even the things I write sometimes matter. Many months ago, I wrote in this blog about how sad I was when my doctor died suddenly; then I wrote a sympathy note to his widow and mentioned the blog entry. That was in November; now, five months later, I received a note back from her asking if she could include the blog entry in a special exhibit that the hospital was putting on display in her husband’s memory.

Of course I said yes. I was honored by the request, and by the fact that what I wrote mattered enough to her that she wanted other people to see it. Yes, there are a lot of forms of entertainment and media that compete with books, but the written word still matters, whether you’re a kid engrossed in the latest installment of the Merlin saga or a widow sadly reading a note of condolence.

Thus, we writers all keep writing, hoping to find an audience, hoping to find someone who cares and takes meaning from what we’ve written. Some of the kids I saw in tonight’s audience will eventually write their own articles, blogs or books – if they haven’t already – and those works will matter to still more people. Our influence spreads. Our best writing goes viral, to use the vernacular; countless people read it. And it’s why we all keep on writing.

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