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  • In Other Words

Alan Sitomer recalls his first IRA Annual Convention

by Alan Sitomer
April 3, 2012
Have you ever met Dave Barry? Yes, THAT Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, author, comedian, and modern-day Will Rogers? Well, neither had I.

Until IRA.

And what a disaster.

Picture this. IRA’s Annual Convention is in San Antonio and I am a first time attendee. But not just a first time attendee; I’m a first time author. My very first novel had just been published, THE HOOPSTER, and I’d been invited as a guest of Disney Publishing to speak on a panel, sign books, and generally get introduced to the reading world at large wearing my brand new hat of YA author.

Cool, huh?

If you are familiar with San Antonio, you know that one of its hot spots is The Riverwalk. Basically, there’s a river and there’s a sidewalk around the river and someone in the city’s marketing department decided to name it The Riverwalk. Of course then, in the spirit of capitalism and exploiting tourists, they put a bunch of restaurants and bars around the thing and made it a “must visit” destination if you are ever in “The Tone.” (Okay, I just made that name up, but it sounds kinda cool, no?)

Actually, I’m joshin’ … The Riverwalk’s kinda cool. Especially if your new publisher hires a dinner boat, puts you on it, and seats you right next to Dave Barry for a fancy-schmancy banquet of epicurean delights as you cruise the high seas of people-watching pedestrians as they walk beside the river and overpay for margaritas and guacamole.

I think there were 12 of us on this vessel. In addition to Dave Barry, we had Ridley Pearson, another author extraordinaire, and all kinds of very high-ranking publishing executives from the world of Disney/Hyperion.

I wore a sport coat. All of us did. Like I said, it was fancy-schmancy.

To my way of thinking, my maiden voyage as an officially published author was getting off to one heck of a metaphorically apropos start, being that we were literally “on the water,” and my career was “setting sail” and all. Basically, I was over the moon. This was the big time. I’d arrived. Years of dreaming about becoming a “published author” were being realized. Let there be wine, right?

And wine there was. The nauti-waiter (nautical waiter) poured a nice red for all of us. One of those deep reds, too, the kind that came from a splendiferous estate where fat, bearded men ambled through their vineyards with walking sticks.

“A toast,” one of the execs cried out. After all, Dave and Ridley were sitting on the New York Times bestsellers list for their new book PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS, IRA was destined to be a magnificent affair, and The Tone was roarin’ like a 1920s outdoor speakeasy.

We all reached for our glasses. Unfortunately, however, one the book editors sitting across the table accidentally knocked hers over.

And totally drenched Dave Barry.

This wasn’t one of those “little spills” either. This was one of those “your tan colored sport coat, white shirt and beige slacks were just drenched to the hilt with a bold cabernet sauvignon and, since the boat departed the dock just eight minutes ago, you’re going to be stuck at sea in soaking wet clothing for the next two hours without a chance in hell of even one piece of your attire being saved from absolute ruin by this, the Stain of All Stains.”

Mortification struck. The whole boat froze. Slowly, eyes turned, a burn in the gaze of all the top brass, only one thought on their collective minds for the female member of their team who had made this tragic gaffe.

“You couldn’t spill it on the freakin’ new guy?”

I recoiled. International Celebrity, Pulitzer Prize winner, Library of Congress Hall of Fame nominee doused. Me? Totally bone dry. The math just didn’t add up. In truth, I felt like pouring a bottle of red wine over my own head just so I could handle the guilt and shame of not having been the victim. It should have been me who took the bath. Everyone on the boat knew it should have been me.

But Dave, such an unflappable gentleman and nice guy extraordinaire cracked a joke about how “if I knew you were gonna take me swimming, I would have worn a bathing suit,” and off we sailed to a dinner which was not ruined (very much unlike Dave Barry’s clothing).

Classy guy, top to bottom.

Of course, the next day at IRA was my book signing. My first book signing for Disney. Ever. I’d seen the lines for Dave and Ridley earlier that day. I’d seen how Avi had people snaked around the building waiting for his Avi Hancock. I made sure to bring two pens in case one ran dry, and did a series of hand-stretching exercises preparing to meet the forthcoming challenge.

It was the loneliest hour of my life.

And the loneliest hour of my life was made only more miserable by the fact that they weren’t even charging for my book—they were giving THE HOOPSTER away for free!

Sadness gave way to despair when my first “customer” (if I can even call her that) came up. She picked up my book and I smiled with the glow of ten-thousand watts. She read the back cover and I reached for my pen. For sure a signing, right?

“Ehh,” she said, setting the book back down. “Nah.”

And then she walked off.

THE HOOPSTER wasn’t even good enough for her to take as an autographed freebie? My career was a sham… and it was ending before it had even gotten out of the gate. Riverwalk Margaritas and I were about to share a long night together.

Of course the wonderful folks at Disney tried to cheer me up. “Don’t worry, you’re new. One day, you’ll have lines, too.”

I didn’t believe them at the time, even though later that night I did sign a few books at a publisher’s dinner. But ya know what? That prognostication came true. Now, people do wait in lines for me to sign their books. And they even pay for my books, too.

Just incredible. But that first IRA, it taught me to keep the faith.

And every aspect about my career since has proven that there are scores of readers out there who need us. They need the writers, they need the teachers who play match-maker between kids and books, they need the media-specialists who are so tragically under fiscal assault in this day and age, and they need the book publishing peeps who work so hard to bring the printed word to the page (and e-page, as the case may be).

Yep, times are certainly changing in the world of books. But one constant remains: kids need books to build their brains, and I am not sure if there is a better place to learn more about how to tackle this task than IRA Annual. Fact is, I am sad that I won’t be able to make it to Chicago this year. (It’s for good reason, though. My wife is due to deliver Baby #2 on April 25th, and some things in life ya just can’t miss!)

So spill some wine on a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, if you happen to see one… and have a great conference! Remember, the young’uns need ya.

Alan Sitomer was named California's 2007 Teacher of the Year. In addition to being an inner-city high school English teacher and former professor in the Graduate School of Education at Loyola Marymount University, Alan is a nationally renowned speaker specializing in engaging reluctant readers who received the 2004 award for Classroom Excellence from the Southern California Teachers of English, the 2003 Teacher of the Year honor from California Literacy, the 2007 Educator of the Year award by Loyola Marymount University and the 2008 Innovative Educator of the Year from The Insight Education Group. He’s the author of six young adult novels, three children's picture books, two teacher methodology books, and a classroom curriculum series for secondary English Language Arts instruction called THE ALAN SITOMER BOOK JAM. A Fun Look at Our Serious Work appears quarterly on the Engage/Teacher to Teacher blog.

© 2012 Alan Sitomer. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.
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