A Bookish Adventure

I started this blog to document an extended trip to the US and UK in 2012, introducing children to my Alice-Miranda series. It's hard to believe that it's just on four years since we launched the first Alice-Miranda title - and now there are nine books out in Australia with another five still to come. When I first came up with the idea of this precocious seven and a quarter year old, I had no clue that she would take me on such an amazing journey, not only in Australia but also across the world. I visited 37 schools while we were away in 2012 and gave over 80 talks - it was fantastic. In 2013 I've been on lots of new adventures in the UK - visiting schools from London to Southampton, Lancashire, Scotland, Newcastle and back to London again. After that I headed off to meet readers in Singapore. In Australia I've been to Melbourne, Perth, Albany, Alice Springs and Brisbane. There's a new series too - about a gorgeous little girl called Clementine Rose. She and Alice-Miranda don't know each other yet, but they will soon.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Assumption School, Morristown, NJ

I was really excited to be catching the train out to Morristown New Jersey on Friday where we were catching up with Monica O’Meara and her gorgeous children.  Two of the girls, Molly and Erin went to Abbotsleigh until a year and a half back when they moved, initially to Ireland but then the plan changed and they came to New Jersey via Ohio.  When I told Monica that I was coming to the US she sprang into action and was very keen to organize for me to visit the children’s school. 

We caught a taxi to Penn Station to get the train out of the city.  I have to say that the taxi driver was the most insistent we’ve encountered on the trip so far.  He asked us where we were going on the train and when we said to Morristown he tried to convince us that it would cost about the same if he drove us.  Fortunately we had already caught the train out there on the weekend and knew it was $52 return.  So we asked him, ‘how much?’ and he eventually said that it would be ‘about $120’.  So much for that!
There are various lines that fan out from Penn Station.  It’s huge and a little confusing particularly as they don’t say which platform you have to catch the train from until about ten minutes before departure.  I was anxious about getting the right train and being on time but as always the voice of reason – my husband Ian, told me to stop worrying and it would be fine.  Which of course it was.
The train trip out to Morristown is very pretty.  You pass through places called Madison and Summit – where we had visited the lovely Kent Place on Monday.  The trees are coming into leaf and the houses are picture postcard.  There is also a magnificent Catholic Seminary which I think is now a University just before you reach Morristown. 

Monica was there to greet us with two hot coffees – the woman is a saint!  And it was good coffee too.  That’s two places in Morristown that make good coffee; it’s definitely a front runner in the ‘where would you move to in the US?’ stakes.
We drove through the town and over to the school which is on a beautiful tree lined street with lots of gorgeous homes.  Monica had pre-sold a big number of books which Mendham Books at Menham had supplied, so I got set up and began signing them for the children.  She had also rallied a group of mums to assist with the distribution.

My first session was with the Grade Four group to teach a writing workshop.  The children were engaged and really interested.  I put a slide up on the screen and Monica heard one of the kids whisper to another that I had spelled a word incorrectly.  I was so glad that she heard them as I’d hate to have the reputation of ‘that author from Australia who couldn’t spell’.  It led to a great discussion on the ways we spell things differently in Australia and the UK to the US.
The children shared some of their writing and I was very impressed.  The time flew by and before I knew it, it was time for lunch.  We joined the children in the cafeteria for a chicken salad and a slice of pizza.  Assumption was one of very few schools we’ve visited with a dedicated cafeteria area. 

After lunch I spoke to the Grade 2-4 students as a group in the gym.  Monica set the scene with some music from John Williamson playing as the children came in and sat down.  Then I launched into talking about being a teacher, a writer and how Alice-Miranda came to be.  The children had a lot of fun with the drama activity and I saw the teachers laughing when I asked who Assumption’s second best tantrum thrower in the 2nd, 3rd or 4th grade could be.
It was a great day – over all too soon.  Monica raced us back to the train station so we could get into the city and she could take the kids to their after school activities.  It was wonderful catching up with her and Molly, Erin, Kaley and Colin too – although I’m completely annoyed that I didn’t get a photo with Molly and Erin for their friends back in Australia.  The girls will have to send me one to add to the blog!

We headed back to the city – I wished we’d had more time.  But rest assured, Morristown and Assumption – I will be back J  And Monica - thank you so much for a fantastic visit!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Hewitt School, Manhattan

I had been looking forward to my visit to The Hewitt School for months.  From the time I met the fabulous Head of Middle School, Justine Hoffman, Coordinator of Media Resources & Research, Amy Bowllan and the Middle School girls in 2010, and then continued the friendship when we Skype launched Alice-Miranda At School with the Middle School girls in February 2011, Hewitt has held a special place in my heart.  I was more nervous about this visit than any other on the trip – and it was AMAZING!

From the moment I walked into that beautiful front foyer, it felt like home.  My photo popped up on the screen with a welcome message, Justine appeared, then Amy and it really was catching up with old friends. I met the two Grade 4 girls who were going to introduce me – they were so sweet.

We took a few minutes to get organized and then headed upstairs to the library – my favourite room in the school.  The Grade 4 girls were all there waiting and made me feel a little like a rockstar!  The girls were very excited and I was thrilled to be talking to them and sharing my journey as a writer and some more about Alice-Miranda.
I was interviewed for the school media program Hawks TV by two of the girls and then headed downstairs to have lunch with a group of Grade 6 girls who I had blogged with last year and who had helped me a lot with things I wanted to know about New York.  I was writing Alice-Miranda In New York at the time and Hewitt provided much inspiration for the school Alice-Miranda attends while she’s there with her parents for a short time. Her school is called Mrs Kimmel’s School for Girls and it’s on East 75th street.  They also have a school dog at Mrs Kimmel’s called Maisie! 
I then had time to talk to the faculty over yet more delicious food.  It was great to meet the teachers and have an opportunity to chat.

I loved having even more time to talk to Justine and Amy.  Both of them are amazing educators and you can see it in the way they interact with the girls.  Justine’s enthusiasm is infectious and Amy is a consummate professional – with so much knowledge and energy. 
After lunch we moved to the gym and I talked to the Grade 5 and 6 girls.  They were attentive, asked good questions and totally indulged my love of talking!

We followed with a writing workshop for the Grade 6 girls and book signing for Grade 4.  The day went by in a blink – and I couldn’t believe that it was over.  I wanted to go back again today – in fact I could go back every day.  I didn’t do my writing workshop justice as it was all over too soon.
Before we left I had a chance to say a quick hello to the Head of School, Mrs Joan Lonergan, who I had also met in 2010.  She’s a dynamic leader and you can tell instantly that Hewitt is a very happy place to be – for the students and the staff.

When we left the school, we headed over to the Carlyle Hotel, where Ludwig Bemelemens, the creator of Madeline painted the entire bar.  I had to see it for myself, particularly as I used it as a location for Alice-Miranda’s father to have a mysterious meeting in her New York story.  It’s gorgeous.  While we were there we met two girls, one of whom was Australian.  They are both private chefs on the Upper East side – modicums of discretion but I imagine both of them have some amazing stories – that they will never tell!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Greenacres is the place to be! Greenacres Elementary School, Scarsdale NY

Greenacres Elementary School is located in Scarsdale, a leafy suburb dotted with million dollar homes about 45 minutes north of the centre of Manhattan.  We caught a lift to the school on the complimentary Hyatt Shuttle service from White Plains Hyatt House where we had stayed on Monday night.  The hotel was great; free dinner, breakfast included and an enormous suite – all for a very reasonable price.   The sideshow at meal times was also complimentary.  Anyone needing inspiration for book characters need go no further.  The driver on the other hand steered the bus with a map in one hand and one eye on the road and managed to get us lost in the back streets of Scarsdale.  Thanks goodness for Ian’s iPad!

We met Carole Phillips, Greenacres’ lovely librarian and were shown to the library, which was bright and airy and clearly a very well loved place in the heart of the school.  I spoke to three groups of students from Grade 3-5; all fantastic.  They knew lots about Australia and had fun telling me what they knew.  They were very keen about Alice-Miranda too and I signed a huge pile of books for the students at the end of the last session.
It has been great fun to test the acting abilities of some of the children as they take on the role of Jacinta Headlington-Bear, Winchesterfield-Downsfordvale’s second best tantrum thrower.  We had a lot of fun with the students at Greenacres with some of the best dramatic performances of the tour to date.

It’s also been wonderful to have a lot of boys getting into the stories too – although I laughed when one boy asked quite seriously, ‘are these books for boys?’ to which I answered ‘yes, of course.  There’s action and adventure and lots of mysteries’.  I also told him if he was worried about the girl on the cover he could always make a new one of his own – perhaps with a dragon or something beastly on it. 

We had a great time at the school and I only wish we had stayed longer.  The visit came about through a friend at home who has a friend whose children attend the school.  We met the twins and talked a little about Australia.  Carole kindly drove us and our luggage to the station where we negotiated the ticket machine and caught the train to Grand Central Station.  Rushing through the countryside, the landscape changes dramatically from the grand houses with the large gardens to high rise tenements and real inner city living.  Once you hit 125th Street in Harlem the train heads into the subway and it seems like no time at all and you’re in Grand Central – what has to be the most beautiful railway station in the world.  We walked the eight blocks to our hotel and found that our room wasn’t yet ready.  So they stored our luggage and Ian and I headed out for a very late lunch.  We went to a steakhouse called Smith and Wollensky, just around the corner.  The steaks were huge as per usual – and delicious.  While we were there a very tall fellow came in with a short man in a suit.  Another big guy came in and it was obvious from the buzz around the waiters that they were ‘known’.  I assumed professional basketballers and I was right about one of them.  Our waiter told us that his name was Laundry Fields and he’s a player with the New York Knicks.  The other guy was an up and coming footballer, so we assume the small guy was their manager. 

There was also a television crew in the restaurant too but not to film the sports stars.  They were filming a segment on another one of the waiters who had just been voted the best waiter in New York.  They asked if they could film us too – of course we said yes and apparently we will be on the Bloomberg News Channel Friday morning at 7am New York time.  I think we will be gone by then as we have an early start.  But it was fun – we’d been in the city about an hour and already made the news!  Only in NYC.
When we arrived back at the hotel our room still wasn’t ready so we were offered complimentary breakfast for the duration of our stay.  I didn’t mind about that at all J

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Kent Place School, Summit, NJ

Kent Place School in Summit New Jersey is nestled among a tree lined neighbourhood, surrounded by beautiful homes.  It reminded me a lot of Abbotsleigh and Wahroonga where I work in Sydney.  Except that we don’t have campus police haring around the place in their little golf cart cars.  The school itself has been there since the late 1800s.  I loved the grounds with their numerous bronze statues, recently rebuilt log cabin and a wigwam.

We were greeted so warmly by the librarian Deborah Afir.  I had connected with Deborah quite randomly when I was researching schools in the area. Some of her girls had read Alice-Miranda At School and around the time I emailed her she was pre-ordering Alice-Miranda On Vacation.  It was obviously a visit that was meant to be!

The day started with the Pre-K, Kindergarten and Grade 1 students who were wonderful listeners.  They knew quite a bit about Australia too and I couldn’t believe that the Thorny Devil was mentioned yet again.  I have no idea why it’s such a well-known Australian creature!  The children have a fantastic Science program with two inspiring teachers – I would imagine that’s the reason why the students were so well versed in Australian animals.
The second and third grade students were equally terrific and it was a pleasure working with them .  For lunch we went to the cafeteria which was certainly impressive both in terms of the physical space and also the array of foods on offer.  Ian and I had mac and cheese which was delicious.  There is also plenty of soup, salads, a sandwich bar and other hot food as well as frozen yogurt for dessert which is obviously very popular with the girls.
Deborah took us on a tour of the Primary School and we saw a recorder lesson – and I have to say that it was the best recorder lesson ever!  The song was fun, the recorders melodic and it even began with a very cool rap.  My memories of teaching recorder were pretty much akin to fingernails down a chalk board so this was a magnificent achievement!

We also saw the Science room; complete with an array of animals, including rats – which the girls take turns looking after, a corn snake, newts and a whole tank of Brooke Trout fingerlings that they raise for the fisheries department.  It was impressive indeed.

I signed a great big pile of books for the girls and then met the Grade 4 and 5 students.  Many of them knew Alice-Miranda and were keen to have more books.  In fact I’ve already had emails from students asking that Random House in the USA to publish the rest of the series – and there was rumour of a petition too J

It was a great day and I look forward to heading back to Kent Place again soon!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Greenwood South Carolina

The past few days have been wonderful – except for my new computer dying on me, but more about that later.
I will start at the beginning.  We went to Greenwood South Carolina, as a friend of mine from high school lives there with her family.  I hadn’t seen Dianne since just after we left school – 25 years ago.  I know, I’m giving up my age good and proper now.  We have been back in touch for about 5 years since a couple of friends and I organized the 20 year school reunion.  Although Di couldn’t come to Australia for the reunion, we kept in touch over Facebook and email and when I said that I was coming to America she suggested we could head south.  I thought it would be great to see her – although I was a little apprehensive about landing on her for three or four days.  But I’m so glad we did.  It has been such a highlight of the trip so far.  Seeing Dianne it was like we hadn’t talked since yesterday.  She hasn’t changed a bit, except that she’s now an extraordinary mother to three of the most beautiful children I have ever met.
We flew into Greenville/Spartanburg Airport, which is very quiet and extremely civilized and reminded me a lot of Perth at home.  I had been excited and a little nervous for several days, wondering what it would be like catching up with Di.  But from the minute I saw her, I knew it was going to be great.  We didn’t stop talking all the way to Greenwood, which is about an hour or so drive from the airport.  Greenwood is a pretty place – with lots of Oak trees and some very beautiful old homes. Dianne and her family live on a golf course estate with picture postcard homes dotted along the edges of the fairways. It’s a real community where everyone knows everyone, and people look out for each other.  When we entered the house there was a huge poster, ‘Welcome Harvey’s’ which Di’s daughter Alex had made.  There was also another decorative welcome on the hall mirror.  I couldn’t wait for the kids to get home from school to meet them.
We met Steffan, Di’s husband, who is very charming and funny, and then Alex arrived home followed by Matthew and Kieren.  They are all adorable; Alex is quiet and artistic, Matthew is the family comic; Kieren is very charming and smart – they are all very smart – just like their parents.  They got straight on with their homework and piano practice – and I even bumbled through a couple of pieces with them.  Then we went out into the yard and there were squirrels!  I love them – they are so fast and cute.

For dinner that night we had homemade lasagna and salad - scrumptious – Ian and I had been craving some home cooked food.  After dinner we took a drive into town so I could visit my first ever Wal Mart!  It was huge and had everything from groceries to guns.  I marvelled at the prices – a double sized punnet of strawberries for $2.00!!  Tresemme shampoo in the big size for $6.00, beer for less than $10 for a 12 pack.  Shopping in the USA is amazing.
Dianne had worked her powers all over Greenwood and arranged for me to visit five of the local schools over the next three days.  On Wednesday morning after a traditional southern breakfast of Grits with egg, sausage and cheese – this was my first ever try of Grits and, I would go there again.  It’s not at all what I expected – I thought it would be crunchy but it’s more like a smooth cereal.  I gather it would be pretty tasteless though without the eggs and sausage. 

We headed to our first school, Hodges Elementary where we were warmly greeted by Frances Gilliam, the Assistant Principal among a range of other jobs. Her southern accent was gorgeous and I was looking forward to meeting the children.  They were great – I spoke to two groups and many children had ordered books for me to sign too.  They knew some things about Australia and asked lots of good questions.  The school itself is beautifully cared for and well laid out and the children had impeccable manners. 
That afternoon we took Kieren and Matthew to swimming and Alex to gymnastics and then Di and I hit the supermarkets again.  Again I was gob-smacked by the bargains.  The town has and Aldi and a Bi Lo as well as some other supermarkets I don’t recall the names of, in addition to Wal Mart.  There are also just about every chain restaurant you could ever imagine.  That appears to be very common across the USA.

On Thursday we headed out to Matthew’s school called Woodfields to talk to the grade 3-5 students.  It was a large group in the hall and again they were a great audience.  I had promised Matthew that I would make mention of the fact that I would not have come to Greenwood if it wasn’t for him (well his mum).  Matthew is a born comedian.  He has that natural comic timing – he even did a stand-up routine for the end of school performance night.  Anyway I decided to invite him to be my ‘Jacinta’, the school’s second best tantrum thrower when I ask a couple of children to come out the front and act out a section of the book.  He was fantastic.  So was the little girl who played Alice-Miranda.
Woodfields is a beautiful school – the design is fantastic with five wings fanning out from a central atrium.  The principal Mrs Metts and the librarian Miss Steffke were so welcoming.

From Woodfields we headed to Cambridge Academy, where I spoke to two groups.  The grade fours and then the rest of the school.  Loved it!  I signed lots of books and Miss Thomas was so enthusiastic.  In the US the children seem to call everyone Miss even if they are Mrs but in the south everyone is Miss and I giggled when Dianne told her own children to call me Miss Jacquie. 
I also loved the children’s names.  There are lots of doubles – Anna May, Emma Grace and then some more unusual ones where the second name is the mother’s maiden name.  I love that, except in my case I’d have been Jacqueline Jones – not so great.  There are so many southern belles!

On Thursday night Dianne made us pulled pork which is truly delicious and another very traditional southern dish.  I had been looking forward to spending a relaxing afternoon writing the blog and getting some editing done when my new ASUS Ultrabook computer decided that it didn’t want to play anymore.  So Steffan kindly drove us into town to see what could be done.  Apparently nothing unless we sent it to California.  So we thought about options.  And decided to visit Wal Mart (after visiting two other electronics shops) and bought a backup net book.  We found there was an ASUS repairer in NYC so we decided to wait until we arrived here to find out if the problem could be fixed.  Anyway, that’s another tale.
Pulled pork is delicious and I will have to find out how to make it.  We also sampled some lollies or candy that we had never tasted before.  We had been given a big box of Saltwater Taffy which we opened after dinner.  They reminded me of a lolly we have back at home called a red skin – only softer and better.   

On Friday we headed for Alex’s school Lakeview where I met the lovely Lindsey Insalaco, who had worked with Dianne to organize my visit.  She also presented me with a gift on behalf of all the schools – a Starbucks voucher (apparently someone had seen me getting Dianne to head through the drive through every day on the way to the schools) and several Greenwood souvenirs.  It was unexpected and very kind.
I talked to a huge group of grade 3-5 students in the cafeteria.  The kids were fabulous – answering and asking questions and listening so well.  We had a role play out the front and Alex played Alice-Miranda this time.  The boy who played Jacinta was scary!

In the afternoon we headed for our last school, Pinecrest, where I was working first with a large group of Kindergarten students – around 80 in all I think, then the Grade 1 and 2 students – about 180 at least.  They were all great and I was thrilled when the librarian Miss Pinson asked if I had time to talk to the grade 5 students too.  There were a couple of classes available and it was wonderful to have that opportunity to speak to them.  You could have heard a pin drop during my talk - they were amazing and asked fantastic questions afterwards too.
There were several students who made a big impression on me.  A girl called Julia who said that she wanted to be a writer.  She asked me what I did when people put me down and told me that I couldn’t do it  -meaning being a writer.  I told her that people usually did that when they were jealous that you were pursuing your goal, and the best way to get over it, is work hard and achieve your goal.  No one can tell you that you can’t but only you can decide if you really can.

There was another boy Nicholas, who I gather doesn’t always make the best choices.  He came and spoke to me at the end of the talk and said how much he had enjoyed it.  He was a very handsome boy – and apparently very talented too.  He reminded me of a young fellow I worked with out in the desert in WA many years ago now.  Gentle and stylish but walking a precarious line.  I told him that I was so pleased he enjoyed my talk and how gorgeous he was.  His smile was bigger than the room.
I was standing saying goodbye to the children (leaning down) when several of the girls began touching my hair.  One of them said, ‘how come your hair’s so soft?’  I was fascinated with the African American girls’ hair with their extraordinary braids – some of the girls said that it took their mothers all day to do it but they kept them in for a couple of weeks and slept with the beads and bubbles.  I don’t know how they do it but I loved their hair.

After the school visit we headed to McCaslan’s Bookstore in Main Street for a signing.  We arrived early and so went to have a look at the theatre where Dianne has become a much loved volunteer, looking after everything from kid wrangling to set design.  For a relatively small community the theatre is obviously at its heart with productions every few weeks.  They were about to put on Good Grief Charlie Brown – which I would have loved to see – but opening night is this week.  We also saw the arts building which is in the photograph above right.  We also dropped into the Index Journal and met Joseph Sitarz who had written a huge article about Dianne and me the previous Sunday.
When we arrived at McCaslan’s we met the lovely Anne who had helped organize the signing and orders for the schools.  The store has been in the same location on Main Street for 91 years.  There was already a queue (a line I should say) and I met lots of children and their me-maws (that’s grandmothers to us back home), mums and dads.  It was great to have kids who I had met over the three days coming in to buy books and have them signed and I think Anne and her team were pleased with how it all went.  We sold out of Alice-Miranda On Vacation and had only a few Alice-Miranda At Schools left.

On Friday night we went to dinner at a very traditional Southern restaurant called Crackerbarrel.  There is a shop selling all sorts of southern wares attached to the store and the rocking chairs out the front are fantastic – unfortunately not good travelers though.  The food and d├ęcor is very traditional too.  I had chicken fried chicken – delicious!
While we were having dinner three little girls walked past and smiled at me.  I had visited their school.  A little while later they came up with their mother and asked if I could sign them some autographs.  It was so cute – so we took some pictures as well.  Then one of the Crackerbarrel waitresses asked if I could sign something for her grandchildren too.  I happily obliged – after all, it has never happened in a restaurant before at home!! 

Packing to leave Greenwood, Ian and I were both sad to go.  We would have happily stayed the weekend except that the plans had been made – and when we first said that we would go, we really didn’t want to outwear our welcome.  Alex made us a beautiful card and some origami so we wouldn’t forget.  The kids all gave us lots of hugs and we vowed to come back again soon.  At the airport on Saturday morning it felt like we were leaving family and as we headed up the escalator to the gate, there was a tear or two from me!

I can’t wait to go back again.  To the wonderful people, the delicious food, the glorious accents and especially to our friends the Holmquists.