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Jeff Kinney’s six-foot pool skimmers and the evolution of pandemic-era children’s book author events

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid” author Jeff Kinney has had to get creative with his author events. (Abrams Books)
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Jeff Kinney needs a shovel: a six-foot shovel, to be exact.

The creator of the extraordinarily popular “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series has been one of the few children’s book authors to host in-person events throughout the pandemic, even if they weren’t his usual raucous affairs. Back in 2019, during what he calls “the old days,” Kinney took his interactive tour to theaters across the United States and to seven countries, selling out huge venues at every stop.

“The travel, the thousands of people,” Kinney recalled, “it just seems so naive now.”

But in early 2020, like all his colleagues in the children’s book universe, Kinney couldn’t go to the corner store, much less a packed theater. And for an author who admits that he needs the payoff of seeing his readers engaged and happy, the thought of not being around kids didn’t sit well.

“Touring gives me closure,” Kinney said last fall. “It’s a lonely business to write and illustrate, and I need that connection.”

Kinney is not the only author who feels that way.

“Oh, I need it,” author-illustrator Jay Cooper said. “Actual interaction with kids is a well of energy. You don’t always realize how empty your well is when you’re writing, but you can sure tell when kids fill it up again.”

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Lamar Giles, a young adult author and founding member of We Need Diverse Books, knows that feeling. Giles had packed more than 30 author visits into the first couple of months of 2020 and had a full schedule for the rest of the year, but during the first week of March, he found himself stranded in a Seattle hotel room after his series of school visits in the city was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“My first thought was, how am I going to get home?” he said. “But my second thought was, I am really going to miss seeing these kids.”

But grief gave way to reality: If authors wanted to interact with their readers, they were going to have to get creative.

“It’s difficult to engage on a screen, especially with really young children,” Newbery winner Meg Medina said. “As an author, the last thing I want is to ask teachers and parents, who are already stretched so thin, to take on more work to keep their kids engaged while I am talking into a computer.”

Phil Bildner “has to be a magician” to keep kids engaged when he does his virtual author visits, he said. But Bildner is also a booking agent, so he knows that these virtual events are an absolute necessity, no matter the steepness of the learning curve.

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“Authors have got to make a living,” he said. “Author visits honoraria are bread and butter to a lot of authors. Not having in-person visits has had a huge economic impact on the author and illustrator community.”

When the world first shut down for the pandemic, authors and publishers scrambled to put together virtual content to keep kids engaged in reading. With no access to libraries or bookstores, quality online content was essential for kids, especially as worries that reading levels would slide during the pandemic began to prove true. But it took a while for the model to work itself out.

“At first we authors were doing all our online events for free,” Medina recalled. “Foolishly we were thinking that the pandemic would only last a few months. Pretty quickly we realized that model was unsustainable.”

Anyone who has spent their days on Zoom knows that interacting with a screen for hours is exhausting; imagine being tasked with making that screen time exciting for children. The custom videos, the games, the question-and-answer sessions, the supplemental materials and activities, the expenditure of energy to keep a kid’s attention: It’s a massive undertaking. And one that authors couldn’t continue to give away for free.

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But even with a charge for online events (Bildner’s Author Village agency charges $15 to register for an online author event), more children than could fit in a large stadium are finding a way to interact with authors and illustrators.

But for Kinney, virtual events are just not enough. “I have to see kids,” he said. “I’m not embarrassed to say it’s a psychological need.” Hence the shovel.

The socially distanced author visit has become a mainstay of Kinney’s schedule, and they are very well-attended, even with his small entrance fee. Early in the pandemic, he would sit in a chair on the sidewalk and put his books into passing cars with a nine-foot grabber. By October, he had upped his game with the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Deep End” Drive-Thru Pool Party Tour. Families would stay in their cars and drive through an elaborate series of stages, tunnels and tents, complete with an underwater vignette, a tiki hut and a lifeguard dunk tank. Kinney ended the pool party by delivering signed copies of his book with a six-foot pool skimmer. All attendees were required to wear masks and stay in their cars.

Now Kinney is about to kick off an 11-city tour to promote “Rowley Jefferson’s Awesome Spooky Stories,” and the shovel is essential.

“I’m going to be dressed as a gravedigger and hand out books with a shovel,” he said. “It may not be the old days, but it’s going to be awesome.”

Juanita Giles is the founder and executive director of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival and is the kids’ lit columnist for NPR.

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