Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Mother Nature

Key West -- it's good to be back! Isn't that half the reason we go away -- so we can appreciate how good it feels to be home again?

This is how lucky we were --just missed some brutal spring storms in New Orleans. And those of you who know me know I'm phobic about thunderstorms. Like a frightened dog, I need to be in a small space and low to the floor. We didn't have a dog at our hotel in New Orleans but we did have Clarice, the hotel cat.

Clarice would come to our room via the open window in the early morning, make herself at home on our bed, and hang around until after breakfast - the most delicious buttermilk biscuits ever -- still warm from sitting on a hot stone in a covered basket -- with strawberry jam on the side. What a way to start the day! Loved staying at this small hotel in the middle of the French Quarter.

This is the window Clarice used at the The Soniat House

BeignetsWe were there to see old friends, Richard and Annie, and what a good visit we had. Annie gave us a tour of the city, focusing on the areas that were hardest hit by Katrina. After our tour we sat down at Cafe du Monde to try a New Orleans beignet. At first I was skeptical. After all, they're made of fried dough -- but as George pointed out, I love doughnuts (yes, but am always sorry after indulging) -- but these were something else -- light and incredibly delicious, topped with powdered sugar.

A highlight of my visit to New Orleans was getting to see a KIPP school up close. Jonathan Bertsch was my enthusiastic guide.

We dropped in to say hello to classes from Pre-K to 8th grade. The 5th graders had a lot of questions for me, including "Do you make a lot of money?" I always try to explain that writers are paid royalties, a percentage of the price of the book. They understood 10% but couldn't believe how many copies you'd have to sell to support yourself as a writer. (Sad but true!)

From New Orleans we drove to Hattiesburg and Southern Miss (for those who don't know, as I didn't until a few days ago, that's what the locals call the University of Southern Mississippi) for the Fay B. Kaigler Children's Book Festival. George and I were invited to stay at the President's house and now I understand what southern hospitality really means. Dr. Saunders and her staff couldn't have been more generous and welcoming. Plus I got to spend time with Pat Scales, uber librarian, and defender of intellectual freedom.

Also enjoyed being with Arthur Yorinks, who's as witty in person as he is in his books. Check out Hey, Al, and you'll see what I mean.

You want more luck when it comes to weather, how's this? On Thursday, the day of the medallion presentation (I joined an impressive list of former winners for lifelong contributions to the field of children's literature, some of whom inspired me when I was starting out, so was really thrilled and very appreciative) -- but back to stormy weather -- the radar showed two major storms, one on each side of Hattiesburg. Each time George checked, the storms were moving closer and closer. We heard that schools were dismissing students at noon, adults were scurrying for cover, and as we pulled up to the theater where I'd be speaking, the sky turned black. You think I was nervous about my speech? Not compared to what was happening with Mother Nature. I imagined stepping up to the mic just as the power went out. I'd be alone on stage in darkness, lightning flashing all around and...and....

But the presentation went as scheduled, I received my medallion from Southern Miss Provost Bob Lyman. I'd sent a smiling photo for the engraver but teeth weren't his specialty, so he artistically closed my mouth. When I had to come up with an idea for the reverse side of the medal I thought about my most autobiographical book, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, which takes place in Miami Beach, and how, these days, when I sit at my desk in Key West I look out at my tropical garden. So palm trees made sense.

I not only survived my talk, I even enjoyed myself. And when we left the building an hour later, the sky was blue. The storms had converged north of Hattiesburg. Can't tell you how relieved I was! Off we went to the book signing at the campus B&N. Signed for the next two hours.

After a party that night, we packed up, and the next morning at 7:30 left for the airport (a two hour drive to New Orleans) but with Pat Scales along for company it felt more like 15 minutes. Pat and I will be together again at ALA in Chicago in July. Children's book people are a friendly group. It's good to hang out with them -- makes you proud to be a part of their world.
xx Judy