The Rubber Peanut-Butter Sandwich Circuit
Many years ago I was a teacher of learning-disabled children. Then I had a book for young people published and now I don’t know exactly what I am except that it is halfway between a circus performer and a sage.
Once I got over my disappointment that the publication of my first book (Your Time, My Time, 1984) didn’t produce immediate and deafening cheers from anyone except my family, I began to realize exactly what being a children’s writer means.
It means talking. A lot of talking. I call those days and weeks of doing school readings the “rubber peanut-butter sandwich circuit”. Grown-up authors get to go to banquets, even if they are served “rubber chicken”, but far too often children’s authors are lucky if they manage to bolt down a sandwich as they drive between schools. No one ever warned me that so much of my new life as a writer would be spent not writing, but driving and talking. And have I talked!
There was the memorable occasion, one of my first school appearances, when a very small child came to me, put a tentative hand on my arm and said, “I’ve never met a writer person before.” I glowed and autographed the book she thrust at me. It was a Nancy Drew, but after only a moment’s hesitation, I signed my name anyway.
But that ego-gratifying episode was quickly followed by a visit to a school where my introduction went something like this: “This is Ann Walsh. You’ve probably never heard of her, but she’s written two books. The first one is very slow for the first few chapters, but she learned from that mistake and her next book starts right in the middle of the action. I haven’t had time to read all of it yet, but…”
I learned a lot during those early days of driving and talking. I learned that travelling authors need a survival kit which includes something to eat and a personal coffee mug. (Have you ever taken a hard look at some of the mugs reserved for guests in school staff rooms?) I also learned that travelling authors are well advised to wear comfortable shoes and to make sure all their clothes are loose-fitting and washable.
I won’t even try to list the things which have been spilled on me, or that I have spilled on myself, during school visits. I remember once blurting out, “Oops, I’ve wet myself,” when the lid of my drinking bottle fell off as I lifted it to my lips.
This was an unfortunate choice of words. When order was restored and I had been supplied with a fistful of paper towels, I continued, soggily, with my presentation.
I also learned that during every presentation, no matter where I am, some child asks at least one of three things: “How old are you? How much money do you make? Where do you get your ideas?” I now answer those questions before beginning any question session. “Sixty-eight, not very much, and anywhere I can,” in case anyone wants to know.
I have tried to answer challenging questions from older students (“Don’t you think the symbolism in your novel is overstated?”) and I have answered equally hard questions in a kindergarten room (“How did you draw all those pictures in all those books?”).
Often I am surprised by what the kids want to know. The most bizarre question I’ve ever been asked was, “Are those your real teeth?” A bit curtly I answered, “Yes,” and made directly for a mirror as soon as the session ended. No bits of leftover lunch adhered; my teeth looked fine. I have no idea what prompted that particular question. Perhaps it was something I said, but what? However, after that I added a toothbrush to my author survival kit.
I think I have driven over most of BC and recently even travelled as far as Saskatoon. When the Canada Council still sponsored National Book Week, I could be assured of a solid week of driving, usually heading north. I suspected that I would know when I was famous because the Canada Council would send me south.
Not that I’m complaining. I saw my first glacier, so close I could nearly touch it, on my way to Stewart, and detoured a few miles to spend some time with the ancient totems of Kitwancool. I’ve eaten barbecued salmon, the barbecue set up in a snowbank, and many other wonderful meals supplied by the staffs of the schools I’ve been to. Come to think of it, no one has ever offered me a peanut-butter sandwich.
I’ve spoken in schools where there have been “Welcome Ann Walsh” signs in the library and tattered copies of my books, obviously well read, for me to autograph. I’ve also performed in schools where they had forgotten I was coming that day, and the children who were hastily evicted from the gymnasium grumbled audibly, and left behind pungent reminders of their presence.
I’ve spoken to an entire school and been amazed at how quiet the children were, how well they listened. But when I was finished someone politely told me that it had been very difficult to hear me over the roar of the heating system. Those students had manners!
I have also spoken to a large group of chattering children who would not settle down, no matter what I, or their teachers, said or did. Those students had come to hear me directly from a travelling circus performance, and clowns are much more exciting than sages.
I have done readings in libraries where the children seemed to outnumber the books and only luck prevented me from stepping on students in the front row, centimetres away from my sensibly clad feed. I’ve also done readings (in bookstores) where no one showed up. Of the two, I’ll take the overcrowded school library any day.
Once I was faced with a large group in what used to be called an “open area” classroom. The room now held two separate classes, divided by a retractable centre wall. But that day the sliding wall jammed, leaving only a small area at the front which was common to both rooms. I peered around that centre divider as I read, bobbing back and forth from one side to the other, facing an audience which was split in half and became restless when I disappeared from view as I tried to split myself in half as well. Children’s writers are very adaptable, but we are not amoebas. I did the best I could while still staying in one piece.
I’ve met children who have made me laugh, and children who have made me cry. I’ve managed to get lost in one of BC’s smallest hamlets (the instructions were to turn right at the Shell gas station, but unbeknownst to the helpful librarian, overnight the Shell Station had become an Esso). I was miles away from the town before I turned around and drove back, finally realizing that the only institution on that deserted stretch of highway would have to be a wilderness survival school.
I’ve done a double-doughnut on an icy road during the winter’s first snowfall, arriving at the school shaking and thanking the Muse for keeping me safe. I’ve driven through snow, hail, mud, rain, and sleet. I always get there, but sometimes, forgive me, I’m a bit late.
Over the years I’ve learned to ask for specific directions to schools: “Turn left, go two blocks, turn right.” Bless them, most school librarians find time in their busy days to make sure directionally-challenged writers have clear instructions.
During one National Book Festival Week I was scheduled to travel to Cassiar and Telegraph Creek, further north than I’d ever been. For the first time in their lives, my mother and my husband agreed on something—that I shouldn’t go. It was too far, too cold, and both the roads and weather were unpredictable and dangerous. When my children added their concerns, insisting that they were still too young to be left motherless, I sent my regrets. Now that Cassiar is no more, I wish I had faced down my familial opposition and made the trip. After all, I am a children’s writer. I am fearless—most of the time.
The following year, the Canada Council sent me to Enderby and Armstrong. The daffodils were in bloom there, although they had yet to poke through the snow cover in my Cariboo garden, so I wondered if this trip counted as “south” and “fame”. I was also relieved to discover that these communities were not afflicted with that mysterious disease which sometimes occurs in northern communities during spring run-off—”beaver fever”. That particular memento of my tour of the Hazelton area was not nearly as amusing as its name suggests. That was when I learned that authors should always carry their own water, in drinking bottles with dependable lids. When I returned home, I suggested to the Canada Council that I was entitled to danger pay for the trip, but they, too, were not amused.
The funding for the Canada Council’s book week has vanished but I, and other children’s authors, still drive across the country. We drive and we talk. For many of us these school readings provide the bulk of our income—we put our mouths where we hope our money will be. We have no salaries, no pensions, no benefits. Often our yearly income is so low that we don’t even have to pay income tax.
The rubber peanut-butter sandwich circuit does not make us rich. But it does pay us well in the currency authors value above all—new friends and experiences and the wide eyes of listening children.
To learn more about Ann Walsh and her books, please visit her webite: http://annwalsh.ca