ewein2412: (fiction writer not detective)
Because The Pearl Thief made its debut in the middle of exams last May, we’d postponed doing a school tour in the UK until September, and I’ve just returned from a sweeping visit of Northeast England and the Midlands – three days, three cities, six schools, and around about 1500 teen readers. Most of the travel was by train, which is one of the things that is so awesome about living in the UK. I walked to the station in Perth, changed trains in Edinburgh and Newcastle, and arrived in Sunderland four hours later. VERY CIVILIZED IF YOU ASK ME.

Lizz Skelly, Bloomsbury’s lovely Children’s Publicity Manager, met me at our hotel on the Sunderland seafront, where we arrived in the midst of a howling gale. But it was bright and cloudless over the North Sea the next morning – I had exactly fifteen minutes on the beach before we headed to our first school! I need to share this picture of ACTUAL DOG FOOTPRINTS in the sand – dogs clearly have so much more fun than humans.

But humans know how to have fun, too. At St. Anthony’s Girls’ Catholic Academy we met Mariana Mouzinho, a dynamo of a bookseller representing Blackwells and extremely knowledgeable about the area schools. (Our taxi driver told us that Sunderland is bigger than Newcastle, and Mariana is responsible for both in terms of school book sales, so that’s saying something.) At St. Anthony’s we were welcomed by the school librarian Marguerite Jackson – I do enjoy a chance to encourage a roomful of girls to write and fly!

Mariana’s amazing book set-up at St. Anthony’s, Sunderland

At Thorp Academy in Ryton, we had a school dinner (quite a good one!) with our host, the Learning Resource Centre Manager, Beth Khalil. Then I got to entertain and be entertained by a big group of very enthusiastic Year 7s and a few Year 8s. Here, one student asked me if I’d ever been pearl fishing myself. I haven’t, so I told Hilary McKay’s pearl fishing story instead:

Thank you, Hilary!

Thorp Academy Year 7s asking questions

Matthew, Year 8 at Thorp Academy, waited patiently for the queue to die down so he could get this picture with me. :D

Lizz and Mariana and I parted ways at the Newcastle rail station – Mariana on her way home, Lizz back to London and me on to Leeds. The taxi driver and I learned something from each other. I told him how I learned random facts from books, and used as an example the origin of the road name “Green Lane” – how it turned up in Dodie Smith’s The New Moon With the Old and turned out to be an old cross-country byway from village to village, now preserved only in the name – and the cabbie said that he thought it must be the origin of a sport he’d just found out about called “green-laning,” where you drive all-terrain vehicles off-road. (He was a great guy. He explained that he likes his reading short and sweet. No time for hooptedoodle.) (Actually, it was my use of the term “hooptedoodle” – which I believe was coined by John Steinbeck, for poetic filler in your text – that made the cabbie leap into the conversation.)

On Wednesday morning I was collected from my hotel by Debbie Moody, the Youth Librarian at the Leeds Central Library, who took me to the Roundhay School. There we were welcomed by Nazia Ansari and the librarian Emily Corley. They’d put together a fantastic display of my books and even presented me with a bunch of flowers for my efforts. The students I spoke to here were mostly Year 7s, a wonderfully attentive and lively group. Rory O’Connor of Orinoco Books gamely provided the book sales for the day’s visits.

Roundhay readers

If I remember one thing from this trip ten years from now, I hope it is the Roundhay student who was too shy to speak to me himself – I had to get him to whisper his comment to his friend who spoke aloud for him. I’d asked if the kids had any experience with Travellers or of living without a fixed home. This boy turned out to have travelled to the UK from Syria.

When I heard this, I said, “WHOA. So I guess you know something about difficulty and living on the road – you must be very – ”

I paused, struggling for an appropriate, inadequate word, and the kid from Syria supplied: “Unstoppable!”

And I said, “YEAH! UNSTOPPABLE! That is exactly the right word. Keep on going!”

What an amazing, wonderful thing it is that he is sitting in class, in school uniform, in Leeds. The absolute BEST of Britain. And I got to meet him.

Flowers from Roundhay

Debbie took me to lunch in a little café in Otley, West Yorkshire, before our next school, which was Prince Henry’s Grammar School in Otley. This was a group of Year 9 students. The school has the distinction of having the best A-Level results in the Leeds area. Smart kids!

Speaking to Year 9s at Prince Henry's Grammar School, Otley

Ruth Wyss, the librarian there, enjoyed the coincidence of spotting a Spitfire – the kind with four wheels, not two wings – after one of the students asked me what my favourite World War II aircraft was and I’d waxed lyrical about the iconic beauty of Spitfires.

The kind with four wheels - wouldn't mind flying one of these, either!

So then I caught the train to Birmingham, where I spent the night, and after fighting our way through the commuter traffic the next morning, met up with Phyllis Gaunt of the Solihull Group of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups. Phyllis was my guide and bookseller for the day, which we started by meeting Eileen Clitherow of the Lode Heath School. There, I spoke to two groups of Year 9 students in a couple of all-too-brief presentations, since there were too many students to bring together in a single session. Lode Heath also kindly provided us with sandwiches before we moved on, in a downpour as ferociously torrential as the one I’d started the week with in Sunderland.

Our final school of the trip was in Chelmsley Wood. Vera Gardner, the incredibly vibrant Learning Resources Manager at John Henry Newman Catholic College, welcomed us to her fantastic library and then I spoke to a group of about 300 Year 7s – among whom, for the first time, were half a dozen or so students who actually identified as Travellers. I was really delighted to hear that none of them felt any kind of social pressure because of this.

I got to meet a specially selected group of Year 9s afterward, and drink many cups of tea, and John Henry Newman even blogged about the event themselves.

With Year 9s at John Henry Newman in Chelmsley Wood

And then Phyllis dropped me at Birmingham Airport, the only leg of the whole trip not made by public ground transport, which I think is kind of cool.

We flew along the west coast the whole way from Merseyside and Manchester to the Clyde before turning east to Edinburgh, through a clear sky and a glorious glowing sunset, and I knew where I was the whole time, which I also think is kind of cool.

- Harriet (Welsch, not Vane)
(Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy)
ewein2412: (Default)
I am incredibly lucky to have Disney Hyperion as a publisher. Someone once described them as giving you the attention and care of a small publisher – backed up by the juggernaut that is Disney Publishing Worldwide. (I use this as an excuse for my love of Disney animated films and The Lion King stage play: “Disney owns me!”) One of the ways they continue to support me is that they’ve sent me on tour during the launch week for each of my last three books.

The Pearl Thief came out on Tuesday 2 May 2017, and for the rest of that week I did a whirlwind sweep across half the USA – starting in Washington, DC, taking in the suburbs of Boston and Chicago, and ending in Austin, Texas, on Friday 5 May 2017.

The wonderful bookstore Politics & Prose in Washington was the starting point for this tour. They have hosted me before, and this time indulged me in serving up birthday cake for my aunt Susan during a book signing. When I came in and introduced myself to the staff, the first thing they said to me was, “Your college roommate’s parents are coming!” I said, “You know The Pearl Thief is dedicated to my college roommate!” and they said, “We know! Her parents are so proud!” Fortunately Betsy and Ron Sanders arrived a little early so I was able to chat with them (Helen, who lives in London and wasn’t able to be there in person, had called them that morning to encourage them to go)!

And there was a mother/daughter team who’d just finished listening to Code Name Verity in the car that day. The girl was 13. Probably the greatest pleasure I get out of these visits is discovering people who share my books – and in meeting young people who love them. Encounters with 12 and 13-year-olds who’d read and enjoyed Code Name Verity turned out to be a hallmark of this trip.

Tuesday was a marathon, with a flight from Washington to Boston at 6 a.m., two school visits in the Wellesley area courtesy of Wellesley Books, and then a flight from Boston to Chicago at 6.10 p.m. But it was well worth the effort – talking to a group of middle school English and history students at Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton MA about women’s roles in World War II and the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück, and then addressing a large group of 7th and 8th graders at Wilson Middle School in Natick MA.

Nashoba Regional High School students

Some of the Wilson 7th graders had read and worked through Code Name Verity together and were anxious to ask questions about it – “Why did you use such a complex narrative structure?” and “Did you get confused trying to keep the plot and the timeline straight?” Plus a few more curious questions I hadn’t heard before! “How old is Anna Engel?” and “What was the significance of Theo and Kim Lyons?” (For the answer to that, read my short story “Something Worth Doing” in Firebirds Soaring!)

These kids had done a great project on suggestions for working through problems in learning and reading comprehension, relying heavily on discussion and encouragement from others. I know, from previous experience, that Code Name Verity is a difficult book, but I have also learned that one passionate reader can often change the entire group’s experience of the text. It was inspiring and gratifying to hear and see this very young audience working hard at understanding and appreciating a complex read, and I told them so. They said, “Thank you! Thank you! It is so great to be appreciated as intelligent readers!” (Man, I LOVE middle school readers. I really do.)

YaY! This upbeat little cartoon summarizes the 7th grade CNV book group's reading efforts.

The following day I visited two schools in the Chicago area: Harter Middle School in Sugar Grove IL, and Quest Academy in Palatine IL. The Harter School was having a Career Fair for the 7th grade and I was presenting as the Author (I am not sure who all the other presenters were, but I know that the Naperville Sheriff was there because there was a SWAT vehicle labelled “Sheriff” parked out front, as well as a travel agent and someone dressed in scrubs!)

At Quest Academy I did a presentation to a Language Arts and Social Studies class of 7th graders, but I also got to experience a cross-section of the rest of the school – the 4th grade was so excited about the idea of meeting an author that they were allowed to come and bombard me with questions during lunch (“Where do you get your ideas?” My standard answer to this is always ”Star Wars,” which cracks them up). And I got to see the pre-schoolers present their engineering play! My guides for the day were a gracious pair of 7th grade readers, Shambhavi and Allison, who together made a pretty amazing presentation to their class about my life and my books.

With Quest Academy guides Allison and Shambhavi

In the evening I gave a talk at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville IL, who provided the books for the area school visits. This was fun because it ended up being very informal and intimate, as we all sat around a table together and discussed various literary matters (mostly relating to Code Name Verity). I was delighted to meet In Real Life a person I had done some online role-playing with ten years earlier! Drew Shilhanek, the Language Arts and Social Studies teacher who’d invited me to Quest Academy but who hadn’t been able to be there that day, came along to this event; there was also a school librarian who shared with me that she’d used CNV as a means to convince the history teacher that young adult fiction had a valid place in the classroom. There were a pair of 13-year-old CNV fans here, too, a brother and a sister, whose presence – as always – made the whole event worthwhile.

I know it is kind of considered the kiss of death to have your book “taught” in class, but I have heard nothing but GOOD things from educators and students alike who are able to use fiction as a jumping-off point for learning both history and current events. And I think it is wonderful, wonderful that young adult literature is seen as such a valuable resource – and also that classroom readings, encouraged by open-minded educators, give kids a chance to engage with a book on their own terms. (Consider this tedious discussion of last August. Yeah, right, whatever. 7th grade readers are the front line in this battle, and it looks to me like YA is WINNING.)

Friday’s events all took place at The Book People in Austin TX – starting off with a wine & cheese book club meeting where the book being discussed was (you guessed it) Code Name Verity. The group leader Meghan and her team had set up discussion stations labelled with different aspects of the book to get people going, but everyone kept congregating around me to hear the Official Line on “Is Maddie & Julie’s relationship romantic or not?” and “Who switched their identity papers?” (both questions I don’t have an official line on, because I love the debate and engagement it engenders to keep them open-ended). Eventually we gave up on the stations and just sat around in one big group until it was time for the public event in the main bookstore. There was another teen reader, Xander, at the book club meeting, and we’d met before on my Black Dove, White Raven tour in 2015!

The main bookstore visit took the form of a virtual tour of Scotland via PowerPoint. Questions were asked (including : “What do the Scots think of Brexit?”) and books were signed, but the best part of the evening for me was when my high school friend Kristyn Leftridge turned up with my annual order of Girl Scout cookies! We then sat in the Book People café until closing time – catching up on everything, until we had to leave and continue our conversation on the balcony of my hotel room until half past midnight.

E Wein & Kristyn, another YaY.

And the next morning I was on my way back to Scotland!

I’m now recovered from my jet-lag and looking forward to the launch for Bloomsbury’s UK edition of The Pearl Thief, which will be happening in the Perth Museum on Thursday 18 May 2017. You can register for this event here. My college roommate Helen is going to be there too. <3


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September 2017



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