When my first picture book for children was published, I was invited to do readings at schools and bookstores. As the author of five books for adults, I was familiar with the sometimes dispiriting realities of such events. If people actually show, at least a few will have no idea who you are but are simply drawn to the toothpicked cheese cubes and free wine. Others will be friends I have planted in the audience, ready to jump in and pose a question if yawning silences occur during the Q&A: “Your writing just seems to flow from you like breathing! How on Earth do you do it?”
But when I went to the first reading for my book “I’m Afraid Your Teddy Is in Trouble Today” at an elementary school, I felt like I had entered a secret neurotic-author fantasyland.
Instead of a sheepish clerk speculating that the “rain definitely kept people away,” my name was plastered everywhere on posters the kids had made. They had brought in their teddy bears to show me and made their own tribute books. After the reading, an eager mob of kids enveloped me in a group hug, ignoring the teacher’s entreaties to please “keep yourself to yourself.”
My experience is hardly unique. Children’s book authors describe school visits where students have made up board games or songs or elaborate plays inspired by the books. They are interviewed by the principal over the intercom or by kids from the school paper. Contests are held for the coveted prize of lunch with the author in the cafeteria; handwritten thank-you notes arrive by the hundreds.
Audience plants aren’t necessary, because there are no yawning silences. There is chaos, punctuated by moments of medium-intensity hubbub. I know now to ask which method teachers use to quiet riled-up kids. Some clap in a rhythmic way; others hold up one finger or sing a custom song (“Take a seat, take a seat, take a load off your feet”). One innovative teacher told kids to put a pretend marshmallow in their mouths. (“Friends? Friends! What did I just say? Pop in a marshmallow.”)
School assemblies are a special joy. Most kids are just excited to get out of math class, so it’s a guaranteed friendly audience. But smaller groups have their charms, too. In one preschool classroom, a boy inched closer to me as I read, finally resting his hand on my knee for the remainder of my presentation, which was comforting.
Now I can hardly wait for the Q&A. I’ve never been asked the same question twice. At one school in New Jersey, a 5-year-old boy raised his hand. “You, in the Spider-Man T-shirt,” I said. “Have you ever been bitten by a shark?” he asked.
I thought for a minute. “Not yet,” I told him.
Another girl raised her hand. “Have you ever been bitten by a lion?”
“So far, no,” I said.
“Friends, no more biting questions, please,” implored the teacher. “Let’s try to think of some other questions for our author about her book.”
The inquiries came fast, none whatsoever about my book. “Why do you have a Band-Aid on your finger?” “Well, why were you cutting a frozen bagel?” “Do you know my dad? His name is Brian.” At a Brooklyn preschool, a pigtailed girl asked me if I had ever “rided on a rainbow.” I had not, which made me wonder if I was really living my best life. Another preschooler simply wanted to know, “Who are you?” We can all suffer from impostor syndrome, but that one really sent me into an existential nosedive.
At a school assembly in northern New Jersey, a boy waved his hand frantically. “You with the Minecraft shirt,” I said. “Have you ever been to the Chuck E. Cheese’s in Pennsylvania?” I told him I hadn’t. He assured me that I would love it and recommended the awesome wings. I may never write a book for adults again.
When I do readings for kids at bookstores, it’s a less controlled environment. No teacher is helpfully shouting “crisscross applesauce.” But unlike events for grown-ups, there is a guaranteed decent turnout, because parents and babysitters are always desperate for free entertainment. My Teddy book is for ages 3 to 6, but at one Brooklyn reading, two sets of parents with infants were the only ones that showed.
It was the sole reading that conjured up some of my more demoralizing experiences with adults. Well, this is a bust, I thought. “Maybe we should wait for a few more minutes,” I said brightly, trying not to stare at the door.
After 10 long minutes, I gave up. “So shall I. . .” I said hesitantly. The parents nodded, infants on laps. As I read, one baby went in and out of a doze, while the other wonderingly inspected his toes. But the parents laughed at all the sight gags — not polite laughs manufactured for needy writers, but genuine guffaws, particularly at the climactic scene in which Teddy’s stuffed-elephant pal wears underwear on his head.
As I finished up, one baby grabbed “Dragons Love Tacos” from a shelf and began gnawing on it. “I think she’d like you to read this one, too,” a dad with sleeve tattoos told me, handing it over. “Would you mind . . . ?”
I opened the book while tamping down my jealousy of Adam Rubin’s titanic sales figures. As I gamely read on, the parents laughing helplessly at the dragon’s antics, it occurred to me that they were genuinely enjoying themselves. Not only were they eager to cede the role of baby entertainer, but they were punchy from sleep deprivation and easy to please. In the cheerful, colorful children’s section of the bookstore, under the placid gaze of various stuffed animals, I read on. Outside it began to rain softly; through an open window, we could hear it gently pattering on the leaves. I read a third book and then a fourth, all of us content to stay just where we were.
Jancee Dunn is the author of five books for adults, including the memoir “But Enough About Me,” and the children’s book “I’m Afraid Your Teddy Is in Trouble Today.”