Sunday, October 19, 2008

Pottsville Junior High

A tiny school in a tiny town in Arkansas, and yet it’s the only school in the nation that has won Scholastic’s national book fair contest twice. What’s their secret? I found out on my visit Friday.

Last spring I had agreed to do a school visit as the ‘grand prize’ in Scholastic’s contest, with the understanding that this might send me anywhere in the country. “Oh!” the Scholastic staff told me. “The last author went to Hawaii!” When I got the word that I would be going to Pottsville, Arkansas, I must admit I was a little dubious. Do they have beaches there? Palm trees? Snorkeling? However, Arkansas is close to Texas, so at least it was a short plane trip.

I arrived in Little Rock on Thursday night and went to dinner with the staff from Scholastic at PF Chang’s – you know, for a little local flavor. The next morning we were up bright and early for the hour drive to Pottsville. We were treated to a beautiful sunrise over the Arkansas River. The hills, the mist curling off the fields, even the swampy woods were very picturesque, and I had my morning latte in hand, so all was right with the world. Fortunately, our driver, Scholastic manager Jeff, had a map, because Pottsville is not listed on the mileage signs until you are almost to the town limits.

When we exited the highway, a police car (perhaps the only Pottsville police car) was waiting for us. This made me a bit nervous, because the last time I did a small town school visit I was driving myself, didn’t realize I was going through a school zone as I checked my map looking for the school, and got pulled over for speeding right in front of the host school. You can imagine the conversation in the front office:

“Where’s the author?”
“Oh, that’s him in front, getting arrested.”

Actually I just got a warning, but anyway . . .

Fortunately, the Pottsville police had not been forewarned of my reputation. The officer was just there to give us an honor escort to the school. That was a first. I felt I like should be waving and tossing candy as we headed through the town, although there would’ve been no one to wave back except a few horses.

We arrived at the school, which is a brand new beautiful building, and immediately the cameras started flashing. I think every step of my visit was documented – me eating a bagel, me washing my hands, etc. The librarian Donna was an amazing whirlwind of enthusiasm, which tipped me off right away as to how the school had won Scholastic’s contest twice. We met the administration, then had breakfast with the student crew that had designed last year’s winning fair. The kids were in 10th grade now, but they got special permission to come back to the junior school for the morning. I got to see pictures of their winning artwork – a big VW hippie bus with the slogan “Peace, Love, and Books.” Who knew Pottsville was such a hotbed of 60s counterculture activity? It was great meeting the kids and signing their award certificates. I also got to meet a lot of younger kids who were children of the faculty. Thanks to Caleb, Alexis, and the rest of you all for joining us!

The school had done an amazing job decorating for the event. The pre-AP art classes had created beautiful giant recreations of the Percy Jackson book covers, and portraits of the characters that were hanging up in the library. They made a welcome banner for me and the English classes had created their own Camp Half-Blood T-shirts, so when I did my presentations I was looking out at a sea of young demigods.

Both morning presentations went very well. The pre-algebra teacher had labeled her camp shirt “Mrs. Dodds,” and of course she asked (good-naturedly) why I had to vaporize the math teacher in The Lightning Thief. I told her the story of the real Mrs. Dodds, pre-algebra teacher at Saint Mary’s Hall, who is not in fact a monster but a friend of mine. I had originally used her name just for fun, although kids everywhere love the idea of vaporizing a math teacher. Don’t ask me why . . .

We had our own DJ between sessions, which was fine until he started playing YMCA, at which point I could only imagine Grover on stage, playing along on his reed pipes. A truly terrifying thought.

After the presentations, we had lunch with the staff, got a tour of the school, and had a reception for the teachers in the library. Then we headed back to Little Rock. The day validated my belief that small towns often do the best author visits, because it’s such a rare event and everyone gets so excited. I met the mayor, the county judge, the superintendent – My wife later asked me if I’d gotten the keys to the city, but I told her Pottsville is so small they don’t need keys. At any rate, I left with a wonderful impression of the town and its residents. Donna even gave me a bag of cookies to take on the plane home! Thanks to everyone in Pottsville who worked so hard to make the day a hit, and to make me feel so welcome. With energy and enthusiasm like that, I would not be surprised if Pottsville wins the contest a third time one of these days! Rachel from Scholastic has promised to send me a CD of pictures, so I will try to post those on the blog when I get them.

As for me, I’m home for the weekend then off the Washington D.C. next week for a series of school visits. In case you’re wondering: yes, I am traveling waaaaay too much. I’m not sure how I did that to myself, but not a lot of writing is getting done these days. Oh well, at least all the events have been great.

On my reading list these days: two wildly different books. I’m finishing up A Feast for Crows, the fourth volume in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series for adults. Fantastic stuff, but extremely long. I’m also reading Ballistics by Billy Collins, one of my favorite contemporary poets. I’m not usually a poetry kind of guy, but Billy Collins just speaks to me. He is very down-to-earth and has a great sense of humor. I also got to read an advance copy of Jonathan Stroud’s upcoming “Heroes of the Valley,” which presents a cool alternate Viking world and an adventure worthy of Thor and Loki. Check it out when it’s published!

Have a good week, everyone, and keep reading.