A Children’s Book Fever Dream: Compounding Awesome Upon Awesome
There are some days when you are so utterly floored by delight that all you can do is throw up your hands and say to the universe, “I’m out!” That was yesterday. I’m out, folks. I hit the top. It’s all downhill from here. And I’m so young! It’s sad when you peak at 34.
The source of this joy/woe is Allie Bruce at the Bank Street School for Children’s library. As you may know, if you attended my Children’s Literary Salon on Alternative Children’s Librarians, Allie is Bank Street’s children’s librarian and a more talented young ‘un you could not hope to find. She asked me if I could come in one day to speak to some of her sixth graders about book jackets. And since that is a topic I could talk about all day and night, I readily agreed.
Oh. And while I was there, Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler and Jon Klassen would stop by to do their very first dual presentation of their new book The Dark.
But wait. There’s more.
Neil Gaiman would also be stopping by. And Mr. Handler’s wife Lisa Brown. And Jon Scieszka might come along. As well as Kerlan Collection guru Lisa Von Drasek (newly appointed as a National Book Award committee judge).
So . . . there was that.
That morning I headed on over with my handy dandy FlashDrive, forgetting to bring my camera. Luckily everything in my purse is a camera these days. My phone is a camera. My iPod is a camera. My lipstick, extra shoes, and hairbrush may all well have cameras in them, for all I know.
My presentation seemed to go all right. Allie was nice about it anyway, and though I was mildly unnerved when Lisa Von Drasek appeared, taking a picture with an iPad (it is hard to stay calm in the face of a large flat surface aimed at your head) I didn’t panic once. For the record, the kids assured me that none of them liked the old cover of Okay for Now and did prefer the new paperback jacket. They also agreed with me that the British cover of Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos is heads and tails more interesting than the American one. Duh.
When I was done I got to flit about. In my flitting I saw that the Bank Street library’s children’s librarian’s office contains an ancient Jon Scieszka mask of yore. The kind of mask that reminds you of Eraserhead more than anything else. The mask is Lisa Von Drasek’s by right, and she had a fascinating story about when it was made and its original purpose. Apparently when it first came out it was handed to a roomful of librarians. Jon knew nothing about it and he walked in to see his own visage staring back at him from hundreds of faces. “It was like Being John Malkovich“, he said. Allie assured me that the kids who see it are fascinated. Sometimes they commune with it on a near spiritual level.
Jon Klassen and Daniel Handler were slated to start signing a bunch of copies of their book but until they did we figured we’d hang out in The Quiet Room (which proved to be a bit of a misnomer). I don’t own a clutch. Not really. So in lieu of one I tend to carry around a book. Thus it was that the galley of Merrie Haskell’s Handbook for Dragon Slayers got lugged, poor thing, hither and thither, as I stuffed an interesting assortment of business cards, flyers, and Starbucks napkins into its pages. Apparently I was worried that I’d have nothing to do and would need some entertainment. Oh, the wrongness of little me.
Jon, Daniel, the remarkable Lisa Brown, her thoroughly enjoyable offspring (who had written one helluva graphic novel illustrated by his mom), Victoria Stapleton in shoes I should have caught on film, and a whole host of other folks flooded in. Before long it was lunch. Picture, if you will, what it is like to eat lunch across from Scieszka and Handler with Lisa Brown at your side and Lisa Von Drasek heading the table. I am not particularly good at socializing when overwhelmed. I tend to get giggly. And loud. And I make strange little jokes that feed off of references that make sense only in my own head. So while I was not particularly interesting at this gathering, the rest of the folks were superb. In the future I’m taking my little audio recorder with me to capture this kind of situation on tape for the benefit of future generations. See if I don’t.
So then Neil Gaiman comes in. That was nice. He’s a bit beardy right now. Much with the stubble, which has a pleasant graying sheen to it. Shocker: He wore black. I’m not shy around famous folks, but Gaiman is a tricky one. He’s a very kind famous person. If you introduce yourself to him he’ll look you dead square in the eye, shake your hand, and seem interested in whatever babble proceeds to emanate from your mouth. But famous people on his level are a bit difficult to converse with casually, and because they are at a distinct disadvantage to you (you know who they are, but they meet hundreds of people every day and can’t remember you as well) you can’t rely on them remembering any past conversations you might have had. So I just skipped the whole meet Gaiman part of the day and chatted with Jon Klassen instead. And Jon is a true doll. The kind of guy you’d try to weasel yourself into sitting next to at a dinner party. I’m trying to pin down exactly what his personality reminds me of, but it’s hard. In any case, I lamented with him that he’d used such great material on his Boston Horn Book Globe Award speech now that he had to write a Caldecott one (he’s almost done with it, Roger, don’t worry!).
Then it was time for the presentation! We proceeded to the Bank Street auditorium, which was apparently built on the side of a mountain. It’s one of those auditoriums where you get the distinct feeling that if you tripped and fell down the stairs they’d have to pluck your various limbs out of the four corners of the room post-landing. We sat up top, the kiddos sitting beneath us, closer to the stage. And what lively kiddos they were too! I suspect they were fresh off of lunch and had had their fill of pudding pops or whatever it is kids eat today (Note to Self: Check and see if pudding pops still exist . . . ditto Hydrox cookies). They were bouncy. Very bouncy. Tres bouncy. Handler played some background music for them which, interestingly, did not seem to affect them one way or another. And so the fun began.
Now Daniel and Jon had never presented together. Their PowerPoint presentation had not even been finished as of the night before. And here they were, with Gaiman, ready to wow a room on a brand new book for the very first time.
Ladies and gentlemen, let us discuss the nature of comedic chemistry. Think of all the great pairings of the past. Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Now think of the great comedic children’s book pairings out there. Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. Mac Barnett and Adam Rex. Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld (they get extra points for playing ping pong while they present). But on this day we witnessed something new. Something unique. We witnessed, ladies and gentlemen, the greatest comic picture book pairing the world has ever seen. I mean this honestly.
For you see, Mr. Handler had noticed something about Mr. Klassen. He is a world class straight man. A good straight man is exceedingly difficult to find. You need someone who enjoys the spotlight but hasn’t the kind of ego that demands that they grab it away from their partner. They need to be willing to be made a fool of, but the wit and cunning to turn it all around on their partner by the end. In short, you need a Jon Klassen.
The entire schtick hinged on the idea that Mr. Handler (who proclaimed repeatedly that he was not Lemony Snicket to the pained cries of the delighted audience members) had zero respect for Mr. Klassen’s work on their book together. In the course of their talk he disparaged Mr. Klassen’s clothes and talent. Klassen, for his part, played along beautifully. They alternated seemingly random slides of varying importance. It was fairly clear that the slides were a combination of Handler’s old standbys (he’s in an old photograph phase right now that’s doing very well by him) with Klassen’s (in which he shows various important pieces of art from his youth, including a shot of Frog & Toad, and repeats how frightened he was of them when he was a child).
When Mr. Snicket starts to read the book with Mr. Klassen illustrating alongside him, the tension escalates. Handler denies Mr. Klassen the shiny red apple he’d really like to eat. He blindfolds him and makes him draw sans eyes. He brings on Gaiman and claims he’s now going to read the book in his best Neil Gaiman imitation (Klassen makes fun of the “imitation” continually). And then, when everything is reaching a crescendo . . . Klassen turns everything on its head and Handler runs off screaming. I won’t give away why. Bank Street recorded the whole thing and I’ll post it here when I can.
The kids, for the record, ate this thing up like it was a (perhaps nonexistent) pudding pop. They laughed. They screamed. Mostly they screamed. I’m not entirely certain if Handler and Klassen (and Gaiman for that matter) were ready for the level of identification the kids made with poor Mr. Klassen. Handler told his blindfolded illustrator that both of them would blindfold themselves and then read and draw without their eyes. This was, of course, a lie and the kids could not help but scream to Mr. Klassen that Mr. Handler was welching on his half of the deal. There was an interesting level of desperation to their cries. Handler’s an old hand in dealing with child panic and outrage, but Klassen dealt with it beautifully as well. It was very satisfying to watch. You should have heard les enfants terrible when Handler started eating Jon’s apple.
When the video is up and running I will let you know. It’ll make your day. Meantime, a big thank you to the folks at Little, Brown for bringing these heavyweights together and to Bank Street for hosting them. And thanks, of course, to Allie Jane Bruce for inviting me and allowing me to report on what, without a doubt, was the highlight of the year. Methinks I’ll go off and relive it a couple times just for kicks.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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