When a publicist from Random House called Dinah Paul, owner of the Old Town children’s bookstore A Likely Story, and asked her to find an elementary school to host author Paul Stewart and illustrator Chris Riddell during a stop on their tour to promote Freeglader, the latest in their series of books The Edge Chronicles, Paul was not sure who to call.
Several days later, she found the solution in the form of a long-time customer, when Tammy Mannarino came in with her sons to buy several books in Stewart and Riddell’s series.
Mannarino is Waynewood Elementary’s PTA library chairwoman. She spoke to school librarian Anne Muchoney, who eagerly agreed to the idea.
On March 10, pupils from the school’s fourth, fifth and sixth grades met for an assembly in the school gymnasium to hear Stewart and Riddell speak about their books. In preparation for the visit, Muchoney visited every classroom and read excerpts from The Edge Chronicles.
The students’ excitement about the visit was high, according to Mannarino. A field trip to the Kennedy Center had been scheduled for the morning of March 10, and many students expressed their fear that the trip might prevent them from meeting the authors.
“The kids feel like they won the lottery for these guys to come here today,” she said.
About 250 children were sitting patiently on the gymnasium floor when Riddell and Stewart arrived. Stewart did much of the speaking during the hour-long assembly, while Riddell, after showing the audience his special Japanese brush pen, drew on a large sheet of paper one of the fantastic monsters that populate the book.
“Am I on?” Stewart began, as he spoke into his microphone. “Can you hear that? Can you understand it?”
After the students enthusiastically asserted that yes, they could understand his British accent, Stewart told them how he and Riddell met by collaborating on a children’s book called “Rabbit and Hedgehog,” which he described as being about two animals walking through the forest and having long conversations.
He told them that when Riddell asked him whether he could do something “darker,” he said he could, so in the next book, “I had them run over by a truck.”
When the laughter subsided, Stewart continued, “but apparently that wasn’t what he was looking for.” Instead, they created the first book in the Edge Chronicles.
Stewart referred to Grimm’s Fairy Tales as a model for the series, because of the empowerment that it gives to children by allowing them to confront real consequences. “I wanted a kid who could be any of you. You will either survive or die in the Deep Woods, depending on who you are” and how you respond to danger and difficulty.
However, he said, he and Riddell did not want readers to fear that the events of the story could happen to them. He cited his own childhood experience with C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. During the day, he longed for the door to the series’ fantasy world to open up in his own wardrobe, but at night, he feared that this might actually happen. “The Edge is totally safe because there is no portal,” he said.
When the question-and-answer period of the assembly began, the arm of nearly every student shot into the air, and stayed up, waving.
When asked how he learned to draw, Riddell described being five years old and sitting in church. While his father, an Anglican clergyman, spoke about repentance and turning the other cheek, “I would be drawing big battles of knights with their heads being cut off,” he said.
When asked how many books would be in the Edge Chronicles series, Riddell described the massive tenth and final book they were planning. “That will be coming out in about ten years time,” he joked.
Stewart added, “You’ll still be reading.”
This reassurance went to the heart of the goal shared by everyone who helped organize the assembly: to stress the importance of reading and to raise the students’ excitement at the prospect of sitting down with a book.
ALTHOUGH THE STUDENTS were most preoccupied with the violent incidents that tend to occur in the course of The Edge Chronicles’ adventures, Stewart ended the assembly on a quieter note, with a reading from “Freeglader,” in which the hero befriends a skittish animal by employing techniques he learned from a library scroll. When an astonished witness asks him how he did it, he replies, “It was just something I read.”
Stewart allowed this final line to linger in the moment of silence that preceded the assembly’s final applause.
Many of the adults present praised Stewart and Riddell for their effectiveness in encouraging children’s interest in reading.
Students pre-ordered 60 copies of Edge Chronicle books from A Likely Story, and bought more than 20 more after the assembly, when they had an opportunity to have the books signed by their creators.
Stewart explained the importance of reading events for children. “Storytelling is an ancient art,” she said. “If reading dies, it would be a tragedy.” She said that surveys have show that 70 percent of Americans do not read for pleasure.
Library volunteer Sue Evans recommended reading the same books that your children are reading.
Marannino agreed, adding, “You are showing that you think it’s important to read the books that they like and recommend to you.”
“Some of my proudest moments,” she added, “were to visit the local library and see all four of my boys sitting down with a book.”
Jamie Meier, principal of Waynewood, said, “It’s wonderful to have the authors coming to share their experiences with the students. It can only help but encourage the kids to be reading.”
But the most important opinions came from the audience.
Stewart and Riddell’s assembly performance earned praise from one fourth-grade student. “They were funny. They made a lot of jokes.”
Another fourth-grader, was waiting in line with his mother. He wore a “visitor” sticker, although he was a student at the school, because he had been home sick all week. He had dragged himself from the sickbed because he could not bear to miss the opportunity to meet Stewart and Riddell.
“It’s an amazing, suspenseful book,” said one third-grader waiting in line to have her copy signed. “It keeps the reader’s attention. Some books just drag you.”