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My first-ever inperson book tour - from nervous to nourished!

I was walking into Alcona Middle School, full-on hot flashing after a restless night of sleep, when a thought entered my mind: what on earth am I doing here? I’d given my short story workshop to middle school students in the past, but that was via Zoom, behind the safety of a computer screen. This was my first time workshopping with middle schoolers in person.

This was a test – my first in-person book tour – and there were many unknowns. I had no idea how the workshop was going to be received. Would I face hecklers, as my main character, Jay, feared, or worse, kids bored out of their minds? I also went into the workshops wondering if I would enjoy the experience enough to want to continue giving them.

In addition, the Alcona Book Club chose my novel as one of their reading selections and I was also going to join their monthly meeting. I wondered what questions they might have. I wondered if they enjoyed the book. It was all new and nerve-wracking, but mostly I was excited.

During the workshop, I ask the students to think about stories that have resonated with them and focus on those “vivid scenes,” the ones that stay with you long after the others fade. So, I thought I’d share a few of my own vivid scenes from the two days I spent workshopping with six classrooms of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders:

In Mr. Yokum’s eight grade class, gearing up to start my first of six workshops, a tall young man jumped up to pass out the worksheets I’d brought as soon as I asked for help. Later, he shared that he was working on a novel set in the 1950s with a twist that I think is truly ingenious. There was at least one student in each class who hoped to be an author one day, which made my heart happy. The student who gave me the note below before I left was working on her fifth novel!

It’s the personal conversations that occurred as I was walking around the room during the brainstorming sessions that truly struck me. I had one conversation with a blond-haired teen, asking him if he grew up in Lincoln. He shared with me that he had moved around quite a bit, both before and after his dad left the family. He and his dad are still in contact, and I mentioned that he could write some of the stories his dad has told him down as a way to connect with him from a distance.

I met a young lady, sitting in the front row, who’d come from Ukraine and had to leave her father behind. Another young lady was planning to write about the day her mom lost custody of her and how relieved she was to get to live with her dad. After hearing about how I had “honorary” grandparents growing up, one student said she too had grandparent-like family who were not biologically related because her blood family made them feel less than every time they visited.

The students shared so many personal stories about loss and trauma and yet, they were still engaged and curious, thoughtful, and kind. I didn’t anticipate hearing these personal stories, but I am so honored that each one would choose to share them, to be vulnerable and authentic.

On Tuesday, I met with the Alcona Book Club members and, again, found myself in a roomful of new friends. I was touched by the insights they had about my novel and uplifted by their encouragement.

During our discussion, I was asked if I found the students in rural, northern Alcona County very different than the students in Ann Arbor, arguably the most liberal city in Michigan. What a great question and my answer, after some thought, was no, I did not find them very different from one another. The youth I’ve met, these Gen Zers, have so many qualities I admire. I find these youth to be open-minded, generous, kind, worldly, and strong. And this is despite having had to deal with a world that is far more uncertain and unstable than the one I grew up in. I also find they are more serious, mission-oriented, and driven than youth growing up in my day.

Not only did this my time in Alcona confirm a desire to continue hosting middle grade writing workshops, but it reaffirmed my faith in the power of storytelling and of connecting. I hope each of the students knows how grateful I am for their welcome and participation, and how proud I am of them for being so open, curious, and brave.

I share this quote in my workshop and trainings:

Thank you Principal Thomas, Mr. Yokum, Ms. Stewart and all the Alcona Middle School students for making me feel so welcome. Thank you to the Alcona Friends of the Library Association for sponsoring the six school workshops, especially to Kat who helped make the arrangements, and to the wonderful book club members.

Lastly, a huge thanks to my Aunt Kathryn for putting me up and all the fun we had shopping in Alpena, hiking in the woods, and visiting the animals at the farm across the road. And to my cousins, Lynn, and Dave VanderLinde, for suggesting my book to the book club and, as always, for being your awesome selves.

I promise you I will be smiling whenever I think of my visit!



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