It’s all fun and games until someone does an interview

The huge Snakes & Ladders drop cloth

The huge Snakes & Ladders drop cloth

Stand on a snake, you get a tough question. Stand on a ladder, an easy one.

This may sound like some weird torture ritual from the Inquisition, but it was actually a simultaneous Interview and Snakes & Ladders game, at last night’s This is Not a Reading Series event at the Gladstone Hotel. Indeed, the whole evening was nothing but fun and games. Literally. Every table in the room was set up with bowls of chips, tacos, and dip, and bore at least two boxed games.

Our table had three: Monopoly, Pictionary, and Trivial Pursuit (the 80s version).

Shaun Smith autographs books

Shaun Smith autographs books

Author Shaun Smith, whose YA (i.e. Young Adult) novel Snakes & Ladders was featured at the event, experienced a bit of a homecoming. He was one of the two co-founders, five years ago, of This is Not a Reading Series itself (along with Mark Glassman of Pages Books & Magazines). He had left to do other things, but now returned to experience one of these evenings from the other side of the fence.

Nathan Whitlock, Books For Young People editor of Quill & Quire, interviewed Smith as the two moved around an actual Snakes & Ladders drop cloth that covered most of the stage, their moves determined by the roll of a gigantic air-filled die (note to the unfamiliar: the singular form of “dice”). It was a fun concept, though the randomness of where they moved meant that the interview was a bit random too. Ah well, that’s how the dice roll, I guess.

Checkers

Checkers

The two main characters in Smith’s book, set in 1971, are a young girl and her younger brother, spending the summer at the family cottage in Ontario’s Muskoka region. They get involved in trying to help save a duck’s eggs from being eaten by a snake, and in trying to save the beloved tree where the sister has her private retreat. Several plot streams run through the book: that of eco-activism, family difficulties, and a lot of dark things that might make some adults wonder if young readers can handle this story.

But Smith maintained that kids can deal with deeper stories than we often give them credit for, when the tales are told carefully.

The purpose of this not-reading series is “to get to the roots of the creative process,” as Mark Glassman often states. Smith revealed that he only discovered he was doing a kids’ book as the story evolved during the writing and this discovery necessitated his editor helping to remove a few racy elements. Another thing he learned, once the book was finished, was that YA writers have great camaraderie, and are usually eager to help each other.

Scrabble

Scrabble

Before the rather sporadic interview ended, Smith left the audience with one important tidbit. When asked, knowing what he knows about the publishing industry, why he wrote a book at all, his answer was simple: “Real writers stick with it.” Serious writing is a vocation, and he’s in it for the long haul.

It should be encouraging to his future prospects that the entire room burst into applause at this pledge.

Wacky Stacky

Wacky Stacky

And then the “book part” was over, and the games began! One small group immediately launched into a Scrabble match at one table, while another set up a checkers board nearby. While several people headed for the bar to get refreshments, another duo built a small tower on their table with rectangular wooden blocks, and then began the game of trying to pull blocks out of the middle of the tower without the whole thing collapsing.

Did this event make me want to read Shaun Smith’s book? Perhaps. As I said, the interview was a little disjointed, so we got our information in random little chunks. But the atmosphere in the room was cheerful and playful enough that I would definitely approach the book with a positive feeling.

To Whom it May Concern: King Lear Rules!

I admit, given the very cold temperatures outside, I wasn’t sure how big a crowd there would be at last night’s This is Not a Reading Series event by Pages Books, promoting Priscilla Uppal’s new book, To Whom it May Concern. To my great pleasure, and I’m sure the author’s as well, the Gladstone Hotel ballroom was packed. With people carrying heavy coats.

It was King Lear’s fault. I’m sure of it. He’d been conscripted to help promote the book – it was built on the underlying motif of his own story, after all – and everyone was dying to see how he’d push it.

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Exorcising our childhood

Who’d have thought I would enjoy an exorcism quite so much?

The idea was simple: people were just supposed to show up at the Gladstone Hotel ballroom, bringing little stories, poems, or diary entries they’d written years ago as children or young teenagers, and be prepared to read the things to a crowd of total strangers. Easy as pie, right?

I can sense you breaking into a cold sweat already, just thinking about it. Me too.

But as a large crowd sat and listened on Monday evening, 15-20 people did indeed get up on stage, one after the other, to read short pieces written during their ancient childhood. The evening, called “Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids,” was hosted by Dan Misener, a frequent contributor to the CBC Radio One program, “GO!” He got the ball rolling by reading a plan he’d made when he was 11, called something like, “My Life 20 Years From Now.”

He had everything laid out, including the design of his house on the moon, his prowess as an inventor, and the fact that he would have three children of very specific ages and genders — two biological children and one adopted. The adult Dan expressed relief that since he was not yet 31, there was still time to accomplish the plan.

Then he opened the floor to the other readings. Teenage haikus written to a favourite wrestler in the (at the time) World Wrestling Federation. A letter to Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey (never mailed, of course). Several poems. Predictable riddles, created by a ten-year old. Two mysteries in the style of Magnum, P.I., by a kid who fancied himself an embryonic international detective.

I’ve never laughed so hard at a public event in my entire life. One woman promised that her poem was “from teenagedom,” penned when she was in grade 10. And the moment she read the first line — “So what if I feel like dying, and the light has left my heart” — we howled till we choked. One likes to believe it’s a bit of a myth, all that talk about teenage angst, but darnit. The stereotype obviously came from somewhere.

Then there was the slightly older man reading a diary entry from 1977, when he had experienced his first acid trip. “I came to two major conclusions,” his 15-year old self recorded earnestly, “which I wrote on the bathroom wall…”

Make no mistake, though – we weren’t laughing at the readers, we were laughing with them. And they weren’t really laughing at themselves either, but at those weird, immature strangers who used to inhabit their bodies. You could almost see the declaration glowing from them as they read: “Isn’t this ridiculous, and by the way — this wasn’t me.

The exercise was certainly liberating for all the readers. As they read, they shed whatever discomfort or embarrassment might still have lingered from all those years ago. You could almost see them leaving the stage with a lighter step, knowing that they’d come a long, long way since they’d been that funny young person with all those weird ideas.

It was almost a religious experience. Christmas, perhaps. Maybe a visit from the Easter Bunny.

Or, as the young man two seats down from me had written in his grade one notebook – the ESTR BUNE.

I hear there’s going to be another reading night in the fall. I know I have some boxes of old stuff in the closet. I wonder…