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TD Book Week, a Retrospective

This is part of a report I just submitted to the TD Book Week organizers, wrapping up the tour. I thought it was enough fun to share.

TD Book Week is a program that gets authors to places that authors can't get to -- Toronto authors to Vancouver Island, Calgary Authors to Newfoundland, and things like that. It also boosts places that can't usually get authors at all, like the Northwest Territories or Labrador, or in my case, Southern Saskatchewan, centered on Moose Jaw. It's a week long and it's jammed packed: known affectionately among authors as the TD death march. I did fifteen school and library visits in one week, and put almost 2000 kilometres on a rental car.

I took my daughter, known online as Ninja Princess Scientist, with me on this tour. She is in sixth grade and we recently made the decision to home school her because she was being bullied at her local school. She had never seen the Canadian prairies – or anything outside Ontario – and it was fun to see them through her eyes. She kept things fresh and honest, and she ran the power point projector. My mom travelled with us too: a real entourage.

We flew into Regina on Sunday May 7th, and we drove to Moose Jaw, where we met the tour coordinator Arwen R. for dinner and last minute briefings. I must commend the tour coordinator Arwen for her hard work on this tour, which she managed in the face of the Saskatchewan library funding crisis. Everything she did was perfect – the schools she picked, the hotels, the maps and suggestions she provided. I enjoyed meeting her at last, and Ninja enjoyed the Moose Jaw dinner where you can get 120 kinds of sauce on your fried chicken.

On Monday, Moose Jaw was our first event; a reading in the modern and lovely auditorium attached to Moose Jaw’s stunning heritage library. They are proud of that library: three separate people told me it had the second-most marble of any building in the province. I read to about 90 kids from the nearby school. Moose Jaw surprised me, not only with the sophistication of its space, but with the kids: they were nearly all people of colour: a few First Nations kids but mostly black and brown kids who were (according to their teachers) first-and second-generation new Canadians. There were ESL kids and hijaabi girls – vibrant and brilliant. I am from the prairies, from Nebraska and Iowa and South Dakota, and I was expecting something much more like Kearney or Yankton, cities of similar size, but whiter than uncooked grits. It was a delight to be proven so wrong, and it certainly changed my perceptions of Saskatchewan’s small cities.

(Pictured: the second-most quantity of marble)

From Moose Jaw we had to floor it to get to Swift Current – noticing the potash mines and the yellow-headed blackbirds and the hey-did-you-know-there-was-a-huge-saltwater-lake-in-Saskatchewan lake – until we literally ran up the walk to the joint All Saints Catholic and Ecole Centennial School Elementary School building. Swift Current too surprised me: a huge and clearly rich new school in a newly built subdivision. Where I am from towns this size are in decline. Again it was a delight be wrong.

Swift Current was my biggest event of the trip. There were 250 kids in a gym – normally that’s a challenging setting, but the schools had the kids well prepped, which makes every difference. They knew who I was and were excited to see me, and we had a wonderful time together. The librarian, Kimberley Thomliston, was clearly the person who had the kids so fired up. I learned later that she has an alter ego as Mary Mary the Library Fairy: we appeared together in a video for the school website. It was tremendously silly but you should have seen the shine in the eyes of the kindergarteners.

(Pictured: actual fairy)

Tuesday was a day of little town and long roads. We were in Kyle, Beechy, and Lucky Lake – all K-12 schools in little towns. Kyle and Beechy were particularly small, with grades 5 – 12 easily fitting into a single classroom. No one I talked to could ever remember having a visiting author: only TD Book Week could have made it possible to go.

In Kyle the bicycles were dumped in a heap – unlocked – on a slope outside the school, and muddy cowboy boots and sneakers lined the vestibule. There I met my first young author, a grade 10 girl who positively glowed at the chance to meet a “real author,” as she put it – but she seemed real enough to me. She was electric and had so many questions that we were almost late to Beechy.

Beechy might have been my smallest school, farthest from anything. It was also the one where the kids heard about the political and peacekeeping ideas in my book and wanted to talk about North Korea and global warming and the social implications of online communities. It’s a big world. Never think kids from little towns don’t know that.

Then it was on to Lucky Lake – which I shall always remember fondly as the home of the most unlikely espresso shop in Saskatchewan. Future TD Book Week authors: it’s at the gas station, right across from the grain elevators.

(Pictured: espresso shop)

Wednesday morning was early and I was starting to get tired – there were long roads to travel before even reaching the first reading, in tiny Pense, and then another drive into Regina. Albert Community School in Regina was one of my most striking stops. It was visibly poor: they were collecting shoes to give away to their students. Their ancient laptop – the only computer in the library – would not run my PDF. It was also largely First Nations kids. I wish I had known going in: I have a book with a First Nations setting and I could have brought a couple of my more interesting research props to serve those kids better. I was really touched to get to spend part of my lunch break talking to some of the keener kids about First Nations heroes in fantasy and science fiction. I made Ninja write a paragraph on representation in fiction.

Across town, the Regina Public Library could not have been more different than Albert Community School – they have in common only that both were excellent. It is clearly one of those places where a single librarian makes all the difference: Debbie-Lynn Baston, with whom I fell in library love. It was mutual: she shared her event evaluation with me: “Erin was EXCELLENT. She was, in my opinion, the best author visit we have had (or at least that in which I’ve been involved). She was engaging, humorous, passionate and enthusiastic and seemed to really capture the audience’s attention. She was very prepared and receptive to questions, of which there were many. She had a great way of circling back to her main focus, which was to keep on trying even in the face of failure. It was a great message for the students to hear and was told in such a relatable way.”

Thursday was another day with a lot of driving. At least Ninja was getting a sense of Canada’s scale! In Monmartre I met my second young author, a senior who had already written two novels. I cannot express how important it seems for these young writers in remote places to meet other writers. One can actual see something shifting in their eyes. If TD Book Week did nothing but serve these two kids, the girl in Kyle and the boy in Monmartre, it would have been worth it.

After visiting the mini Eiffel Tower in Monmartre and the world’s largest red paper clip near where we got gas in Kipling, we got stuck at a closed highway in Moose Mountain. (It's ... hilly, to be generous, but devoid of moose.) This made us about 15 minutes late getting into Manor, and for the first time I couldn’t reach the library.

When I finally got there the kids were restive, so I threw out my presentation and did improv exercises with them: for instance, I made them walk across the room as if on a tight rope, and then use that to write sentences describing a character’s physicality when the character is frightened. I think some of them may have learned something. I learned that they are required to climb a rope down from the school balcony in gym class, which made me glad I was not from Manor.

Manor library turns out to be hard to reach because it is so tiny – a converted church in a town that doesn’t even boast a gas station. The regular librarian was out with an injury. (It turned out to be her cell phone I’d been trying to contact when stuck in traffic.) The library was opened for us by volunteer board member Thelma, who was about 95. My daughter and I spent an hour talking to Thelma about how Saskatchewan was changing. I thought Thelma was a highlight of the trip. Ninja did not agree, because I made her write a paragraph on agriculture.

Then at last it was on to our last stop: Estevan. I’d spilled something on Arwen’s map – everything was getting a bit punchy by this stage – and I made the mistake of letting my cell phone navigate into the city. It took us through an actual strip mine, and then down a washboard industrial backroad. I remember saying: “This is the ugliest city I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been to SMELTERS in CHINA.” But it was all the phone’s fault: once on the actual streets in neighbourhoods, Estevan is lovely.

(pictured: better than smelters in China)

Even so, Friday dawned early, and by this point I’d hit the famous TD Book Week wall. My phone said the nearest coffee was in Clifton, North Dakota. I was tempted, but instead dragged myself to Sacred Heart school – where I found the kids waiting outside to welcome me with banners that they’d made. Later in Spruce Ridge they had posters with countdowns to my visit. Again, prepared and enthusiastic teacher librarians make even huge gym-based presentations a pleasure to do. It was a bang up ending to the trip.

The only trouble was staying awake all the way back to Regina for the flight. Fortunately, the drive from Estevan to Regina is exactly covered by one sing-along of Hamilton. I made Ninja write a paragraph on federalism.

(Actually they I swear they call this “Yankee Ridge,” with an arrow pointing down toward the US border in a “we’re slightly worried” way.  Canada, honey, I don’t see no Yankees and that sure ain’t no ridge.)

(pictured: the American revolution.)

Thank you to the Canadian Children's Book Centre for choosing me to be part of this program -- I've applied for three years straight and it's a treat to get tapped. Thank you TD bank for all the things you do for children's literacy in Canada. And thank you Saskatchewan, which I can now spell! I of course depopulated post-apocalyptic Saskatchewan in The Scorpion Rules and The Swan Riders (barring a few salvage teams, and a bunch of Cree-speaking ecosystem repair engineers). I was fearing karmic revenge, but in fact, I'll be back!

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