Saturday, May 22, 2010

Toronto, May 2010 - the full story

Now I've had the chance to sit back and reflect...

I enjoyed a truly wonderful trip to Toronto in May to visit schools and libraries, and to participate in the Silver Birch Express portion of OLA Festival of Trees event, in which my first children's book MEETING MISS 405 was a nominee.

Too little time/energy to blog on the road. But here are the highlights.

The Bond Place Hotel, just around the corner from Dundas Square (the wanna-be Times Square that is quite wonderful in its garishness and lively street life) was the perfect place to be based. Despite facility renovations and an overcrowded breakfast room, the hotel had everything I needed (including a TV, with 24 channels of nothing worth watching - I get excited when I see a TV as I don't have one at home - and close enough to everything downtown a person could possibly want.

I’d originally planned to stay at a student budget hotel, but opted for a conventional accommodations so I could take advantage of door-to-door Airport Express service - I was packing around stacks of books, bookmarks and presentation materials - and in-room wi-fi.

And so on my first night I ventured out for a late dinner at Johnny Rocket’s hamburger joint in Dundas Square – authentic surroundings, loud music, ketchup served in a smiley face on my plate (the food itself hardly bears discussing).

Next day was relatively leisurely, with a visit to Forest Hill Library on Eglinton. Which meant I got to ride the subway, then walk miles along this main thoroughfare, exploring the various neighbourhoods – working class apartment buildings for a few blocks, then lovely homes on treed for a few more, funky stores – for a couple of hours before I made my presentations to about four classes of students from Oriole Drive School.

Not everyone had read my book, but the students, teachers and accompanying parents were attentive and responsive, and I got to air out my told creation story and the information I would present in one form or another for the next few days.

Next morning I ventured down to Union Square station at an ungodly hour for the bus ride out to Milton, where I was scheduled to spend the day at E.W. Foster Public School. I’d hoped for the GO train (Loved trains all my life, and rarely get to travel on anything other than Skytrain in Vancouver, which isn’t the same thing.) But the GO takes on the identity of a train only on incoming journeys into TO in the mornings and outgoing at the end of the day. As I was travelling against the traffic, I enjoyed a relaxing bus ride through the outskirts of TO and into the country.

Had a fine time at the school - and a very busy day. A keynote to almost the entire school started with a few moments of ‘supercontcentratedness’ a la Miss Stella (MEETING MISS 405), a brief discussion of the origin of story as a way to share information and explore the world, then the telling of the creation story Why The Tides Ebb and Flow (Joan Bowden’s version, now out of print.) Then the questions. And what great questions they were about MM405, writing in general, etc. etc.

Loved the questions, and as always, there was not enough time to answer them all.

Then lunch of pizza and cake with selected students who hosted more of the day's presenters (an Olympic hockey player, RCMP Officer, a WW11 veteran, and Silver Birch Nonfiction nominee Larry Verstraete).

Later I presented two workshops to groups of about 20 children on the ‘5Ws and How’ of storytelling, and demonstrated how to make insta-book Story Starters from one sheet of paper. The closest to magic I'll ever come. Most of children were highly engaged by the folding, cutting and the Voila! moment when the paper unfolded into a book. And each came up with the skeleton of a story to pass on to someone else, in the way stories are passed on from teller to listener to teller, and change as they go.

My presentations were part of a full day of literacy activities at the school, a day that was rounded off by A Great Amazing Book Race. Did I want to stay? (Staff could deliver me back to the bus station anytime I wanted.) Of course I stayed!

The kids dashed from station to station, at each one a specific Silver Birch-nominated book was displayed, along with a question and activity which each team had to respond to, get their checklist signed, then move on to the next station. I had no idea what game this was based on, but it was a wonderfully engaging interactive session for everyone, including me! Just wished I'd had the forethought to have my camera on me, as no one else was taking pics, this was the first time the school had offered this activity, and it did create lots of enthusiastic responses from the students.

The next day started with a similar bus ride, this time traveling slightly in a more easterly direction (or maybe it was westerly, I’d have to check my map) to Brisbane Public School in Erin (pic).
My host was the welcoming and warm Carrie Coote who had brought along a basket of refreshments in case our energies flagged, and delivered me to the school where she is both well-known and appreciated as a volunteer and occasional supply teacher and Silver Birch planner extraordinaire.

We took over the library for much of the day, and I presented to two large groups of children, mixing and matching from my presentation bag. Again a highlight was the dialogue that developed after the more formal part of the session, the questions, the answers, the jokes and kidding... how could I have forgotten how much energy I get from being surrounded by crowds of kids. I started the day with a raging headache, it was still there when I got back on the bus. But in between... I was just too busy and enchanted by the day’s company to notice.

And so to Thursday. The Festival of Trees festivities at Harbour Front.

Telling Why the Tides Ebb and Flow to a standing room only audience

How to describe the energy, excitement and enthusiasm of crowds of children racing back and forth between tents for presentations and autographs sessions with Taiko drummers setting the driving pace of the day from a central stage.

I presented my 'history of storytelling' to about 100 children, teachers and adults, and was then swamped with requests for autographs, until I could finally pull away and head for my official autograph station. Here the line-up was endless, the air was cool and damp, but the mood was by turns impatient and festive, celebratory and anxious.

Would each child get her or his book autographed before the session ended? They did.
Would I write what they wanted me to inscribe on their book? Not always. My hand would not have held out.
Would I sign even if they'd not read my book or voted for me? Of course.
(I loved the little confessional moments when children confided they had loved Cary Fagan's book better than mine.... Why hadn't I included drawings and notes in mine like in 'Dear Toni'?... They might read my next book....)

After an hour and a quarter, during which time no child would lend me his or her socks but many proffered popcorn, sips of hot chocolate, and I was hugged and grinned at for many cameras, I snuck off to the green room to grab a snack and wait for the awards ceremony.

Rachel held the sign with my name. Sydney practiced the speech with which she'd introduce me as the nominees lined up in the darkness of backstage waiting to be introduced. Then the twelve nominees were led on stage.

And there, before us, stretched a sea of faces, and Lake Ontario beyond. Children waved and cheered, they displayed banners, held high their favourite nominated books.

My presenter Sydney and sign holder Rachel
Every writer was greeted by a wave of applause, each young presenter showed amazing poise and skill (some balancing on tip toes to reach the mic) as they introduced their designated author.

We shivered and shook in a row. Excitement. Cold and damp. Rock star treatment. We all bathed in its glow.

The Honourable Mentions were announced to thundering applause. Then The Winner ... Dear Toni by Cyndi Sand-Eveland. Jubilant applause from the audience, and all the other contenders. Exclamations and Congratulations. Hugs for our sign bearers and presenters.

And the winner is... (Note fan in back holding up a copy of Dear Toni)

And we were released, back to the crowds of children, parents and children still milling around the grounds, sharing the last of the day's snacks, retrieving lost rainwear, then trooping to buses lined up along the sidewalk.

The Festival of Trees for 2010 was over. And next morning, so was my first visit to Toronto.
But with any luck, I may have the chance to do it all over again. And even if not, those memories will stay with me for a very long time.

My heartfelt thanks to all the wonderful students, teachers, parents and Festival volunteers and staff who made me feel so welcome during my visit to Ontario.

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