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May We All Be Like Jeff Kinney: Lessons from the National Book Festival

September 23, 2012

Nothing compares to the National Book Festival on the Mall. Imagine this: dozens of white tents dotting the Washington, D.C. mall, each of them either representing a genre (Children’s, Teens, Fiction, etc), or shading a well-known author signing his or her books. Throngs of people toting red canvas bags, courtesy of the Library of Congress, scurry from one venue to another, anxiously craning their heads for a glimpse of their favorite author.

I look forward to the National Book Festival every year with such anticipation one might call it a little sad. But come on. Two years ago John Irving and Judy Blume shared a book signing booth. John Irving! Judy Blume! I’m not ashamed to admit I teared up a little.

Last year I attended just to see Gordon Korman. I obtained a first edition of I Want to Go Home!, the hilarious book about a boy who really, really wants to escape summer camp. I was touched when Gordon Korman commented on my edition, noting that the cover of the present edition looks like “the Columbine boys.” I left the booth feeling so fortunate to have met a writer I greatly admired as a child – my first middle grade book, It’s All Relative, has Gordon Korman’s influence all over it.

To my great disappointment, The National Book Festival wasn’t nearly as enjoyable this year. Part of it was timing – I was interested in the signings of John Green, Jeffrey Eugenides, R.L. Stine, and one other writer  – and every single one conflicted.

Part of it was the crowds. Fans waited for hours to get their books signed. The speaker tents were so crowded that most listeners had to stand, and anyone on the periphery couldn’t hear a thing. I walked the entire length of the Mall to hear one writer speak. After spending ten minutes straining to hear, I hiked back towards the book signings to get into an already-long line…and the book signing didn’t begin for an hour.

The element that bothered me the most, however, was the accessibility of the writers. That sounds so selfish, doesn’t it? Just because I’ve bought a writer’s book, that doesn’t mean they’re indebted to me in any way. I always thought it was so funny when fans would wait outside of a building for a movie star, and then get so annoyed when he or she made a beeline for the limo. The situation here wasn’t as flashy, but it’s the same thing.

In this case, I waited over two hours to have a writer sign my book. This particular writer has very much influenced my own work, and I know I wouldn’t be quite the same writer without that influence. So meeting this person was personal. (To me, at least).

The book signing for this writer lasted only an hour, and a long line had formed well before the signing began. After the clock started for the book signing, an attendant came to tell us that the writer would only sign books, not posters or programs. To me, that wasn’t awful – if you like the writer enough to want her to sign something of yours, shouldn’t you have her book?

But some people got really upset. One woman who stormed away commented to the effect that “I’m the only who orders the books for X school. I always orders hers. I won’t make that mistake again!”

A half an hour after that, when we were down to the wire and shifting uncomfortably, wondering if the line would bring us to the front in time, an attendant walked by to announce that: 1) the writer would only sign her name; and 2) the writer would only sign one book. Well. Not a big deal. Probably better, in fact – especially for the people near the back in the line.

Then I got to the front. It was hot, my shoes pinched, I missed all of the other book signings to see this writer – really, this was a big deal for me. It’s not every day you meet one of the writers who shaped you. I handed her my book, blurted out something inarticulate and non-writer-like to the effect of “thank you for your contribution to Literature, you’ve really inspired me” …and she didn’t even acknowledge that I had spoken. She smiled a brittle plastic smile somewhere behind my head and grabbed the book of the next person.

One second. One. Second.

I felt so deflated after that. Even cheated. It wouldn’t have taken any effort for her to speak to the people who had waited in line for hours to see her. After growing up loving her books and the characters in them, I thought the writer would match.

I had twenty minutes to wait for Scott, my boyfriend, to pick me up. Completely dehydrated, battling a migraine, crabby, and tired, I retreated to the shade behind the authors’ book signings. When it was time for me to meet Scott, I walked around the book signing tables towards fourteenth street.

A huge crowd at the table at the corner caught my eye, and I paused. What writer had drawn such a crowd?

Jeff Kinney, the author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Of course. I stood on fourteenth street for just a few moments, watching. I had a clear shot of Mr. Kinney, and he was wearing a purple shirt (confident, awesome men who draw stick cartoons wear purple), and grinning at all of the fans that came up to him. It was clear that he was happy to be there, maybe even humbled given that I know his road to publication was one of the most difficult. Every kid that got his book signed walked off with a smile and a conversation to remember.

I was so glad I saw Jeff Kinney before I left. He seemed like such a nice person, and it was clear that he appreciated his fans. In Writer Land, we are told again and again that the most important thing is to “connect with the reader,” and he was doing just that. Jeff Kinney reminded me that no matter how many books he puts out in the world or how much money he makes, he remains the same guy awesome enough to combine humor with cartoons. It’s that same personality and vision that got him published in the first place, and he still shares it with his fans.

May we all be like Jeff Kinney.

Digital Bookmobile. Sigh, no fighting it – I need a Kindle/Nook (right after I find out what those are)

Jeff Kinney (sitting, in purple) chilling in his awesomeness

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One Comment
  1. I’d love to go to the National Book Festival someday. Jeff Kinney sounds like a class act. My son ADORES his books.

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