I LOVE being an author, but I’ll ALWAYS have a teacher’s heart, so traveling to Vegas to do a presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English was a long anticipated event. Any time I’m around teachers, I feel like I’m home, and this group proved to be my “tribe” in so many ways.
First, I’d only met my presentation group online, so getting to know them in person was AMAZING! I actually met our fearless leader, Kelle Moye, an amazing “ideas” person, organizer, and dedicated reading teacher of very lucky middle schoolers, in the elevator, then had breakfast next morning with the rest of my articulate and uber-competent group: Gordon Hultberg, Lynne Eichel, Kellee Moye, Jennifer Fountain, and Katherine Sokolowski.
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Our presentation, Igniting the Love of Reading in Your Struggling Readers, was held in a basement room at the end of a maze of stairs and hallways so complicated, we were sure NO ONE would find us. But when the doors opened and teachers started pouring in, we found ourselves with a full house – complete with extra chairs brought in and people sitting on the floor along every wall.
It was such a great feeling to see so many eager faces and open minds - educators who wanted to know MORE about the creative ways these master teachers are enticing kids to love reading.
Another highlight of the week was the Nerdy Book Club party, where I got to talk with so many teachers and authors, including Kellee’s blog partner - the effervescent Jen Vincent, the three Nerdy Book Club founders: Donalyn Miller - author of The Book Whisperer (every teacher needs this!), Colby Sharp - star of the so-much-fun video “I Love Books,” and Cindy Minnich - talented computer guru for the group, and with my Twitter buddy, "John360," who made a special trip back to the exhibit hall right before it closed so I could sign his book (sweet). It was a night of great food, company, and fun – made even better with my Alabama author buddy Irene Latham there. I also loved chatting with authors Jenni Holm and Lindsey Leavitt, and great impromptu entertainment was provided by Jonathan Auxier, author of Peter Nimble, yo-yo master, and engaging storyteller.
NCTE was another reminder that I’m so fortunate to be a part of the wonderful Penguin team. It was also my first chance to meet the amazing staffers who support THIS IS NOT A DRILL with their tireless energy and infectious enthusiasm. The amazing Scottie Bowditch, Penguin School & Library Marketing Director, remembers everyone and knows everything about Penguin books, wonderful Laura Antonacci planned our fabulous Penguin dinner party and arranged my schedule for two booth signings, awesome Kathryn Bhirud helped me at my presentation with publicity material, adorable Bridget Ryan was a powerful Midge-force for book sales in our booth, and the ever-efficient Mary Raymond helped me figure out where I was supposed to be. Our dinner at Fixe at the Bellagio was delicious and memorable – and what amazing company! We also celebrated author Ruta Sepetys' birthday (below with Scottie.)
Kellee and Katherine and I chatted with super-smart Ruta and authors Paul Griffin and Joan Bauer (love her books!) and charming editor Kendra Levin. Paul is quite possibly the nicest guy in the business and most definitely the best listener. Authors seated at the other table were Jon Scieszka, Marie Lu, Kristin Cashore, Beth Revis, Kathleen Krull, and T.A. Barron, so I got to meet a lot of my colleagues for the first time – so exciting!
Joan Kaywell was the very first person I met in Vegas (on the airport shuttle) and she and I kept crossing paths until it almost became funny. What a great conference buddy to have; she's a former president of ALAN and was this year's recipient of the prestigious Ted Hipple award for her many contributions to young adult literature. She is a dynomo, for sure.
One of the biggest thrills for me at the conference was sitting in on a Round Table discussion led by the amazing Liz Hester Schults featuring Matt de la Pena and his work. Such a rewarding experience to see my former students become terrific teachers! So proud of Liz! The circle of life!
I also loved finally meeting the very talented Todd Strasser, author of Give a Boy a Gun, who was kind enough to write a blurb for the cover of This is Not a Drill. Todd has written over 100 children's/YA books! He was so generous in his praise for my book, and I'm very grateful.
I did manage to escape the convention hall and go out on the strip for a bit on a beautiful afternoon.
I saw Elvis standing next to Elmo on the sidewalk, which seemed about right for Vegas - and where else would you find a Jelly Bean Statue of Liberty?
I had a great view of the strip and got to watch Vegas come alive as the sky darkened each night.
My fun roommate Wendy Stephens (fabulous librarian and another former student – I’m so lucky) treated me to my first Cirque de Soliel, which was jaw-dropping. We found a great restaurant, Mon Ami Gabi, where we sat outside and watched the Bellagio fountains – most relaxing meal of the week.
On my last night, I went down to the casino to play a few hands of blackjack because I knew my brother-in-law Tommy would give me hell if I spent a week in Vegas without gambling at all. I took $100 and left with $150 . . . three hours later. Met really nice people and had fun, even though I’m not much of a gambler. I used my “big” winnings to get a neck and shoulder massage on my airport layover – money well spent.
We’re living in a time in our country’s history when teacher morale is plummeting. Superintendents without education backgrounds are replacing experienced classroom veterans with Teach for America workers, unions are constantly under attack, cost-of-living raises are not even discussed, and the workload grows heavier as classroom sizes increase and staff is cut to save money. But you’d never know it from the teachers I met at NCTE/ALAN. Their enthusiasm for books and their love for kids cannot be dampened by the burdens heaped on them by a tough economy. Many of them paid their own expenses and all of them left their families right before Thanksgiving to learn, to listen, to share, to grow. My spirits were lifted by their energy and commitment and my heart was warmed by their friendship.