The outside of the school is shockingly quiet. Purple leaves of a fruitless plum tree rustle in the breeze. A pink plastic headband lays abandoned on concrete. Three of my future travel companions round the corner: Dallas with a box of books in hand, Micky holding a guitar, and Audio, Dallas’ son, wearing a shirt with neon dinosaurs. And so the adventure begins.
We sign in and are given giant yellow stickers to distinguish us as visitors although the fact is apparent enough as it is. Just to the left is a library where the reading will be held. Dallas wrote a book and tours the country reading to children; I’m just along for the ride.
Temporary metal bookshelves brought in for last book fair of the school year stand arranged in a circle. Clunky gray metal. Gigantic, easily read titles. Until this moment I have completely forgotten about book fairs and how much I loved them. Taking ten or fifteen of my parents’ dollars and buying stories about bunnies or adventures on a river. I loved to read. You forget what you were like as a kid. You forget that you once did things simply because you liked them. You forget that you just didn’t think so much. You forget how that life was good.
Audio turns seven in a week. His face is sweet and perfect; his little nose sprinkled with freckles. Trying to make friends, I ask him what his favorite dinosaur on his shirt is; he points at a place on his elbow where there are no dinosaurs at all. This kid is thinking in the abstract before he even understands what “abstract” means. I love him already. Kids rip your heart out that way sometimes. You just want to give it over to them carte blanche.
He runs towards a pile of black fabric in the corner, knowing with a childlike instinct that it’s a soft heap of beanbags. He tucks himself under a shelf and sits there for as long as he wants, looking out over the carpeted room lined with books. I’m so far removed from my youth that I would never have even thought to just launch right into them the way he did. Instead, I start thinking about why they are there, what they are filled with, if they’re made with canvas or tarp or heavy-duty cotton. Useless thoughts. Audio just goes. There’s trust in youth – trust and adventure and fun. Now I am spending my adult life trying to replicate this mentality, this passion for life and living. Not just in brief, treacherously fleeting moments, but permanently…all of the time…now…tomorrow…always. That’s why I flew across the country to go on a children’s book tour with three virtual strangers. This is living.
The first group of children is ushered inside. They are from the kindergarten class. A librarian with graying strawberry blonde hair and reading glasses asks her charges to politely keep their book fair money tucked in their pockets and to not play with it while Dallas is reading. In my estimation, kindergarteners are in that adorable-primate phase. Their brains are still mushy and they get distracted easily.
Dallas asks if anyone would like to help him pass out books. In the next few days I will see how Dallas manages to flatter children by constantly requesting their involvement, asking questions, listening. Wherever we go, children eagerly shoot up their hands in hopes of having the chance to just get involved. Two children are chosen and they pass around hyper-green books to their classmates.
“This book is for Audio, the most awesome person I know.”
They sit on their knees, cross-legged, attentive. Little bodies with little hands and little feet wearing little shoes. They are dressed in clothes their parents picked out for them. They are all miniature versions of what their parents think they should be. The class quiets down and Dallas begins with his son standing alongside him.
“There are places in the world where people do not dream…”
The children flip past rocket-powered unicorns and musical baboons. The thick pages make gentle cardboard noises as they turn. “This smells new,” one child says while pressing his nose into the folds of his book. Everyone follows suit, giggling in agreement.
At the end of the reading, the kids automatically turn their books into Dallas in a pile at his feet. They know the drill. Organized chaos. You forget what it’s like, being so little and trainable and wild and bubbly. It’s almost impossible to imagine. “Criss cross apple sauce!” hoots the librarian, sending all of the children into a seated position on the floor.
Another group comes in after they leave, this time from the first grade. It’s amazing to see how rapidly children grow and what difference a year makes. They are physically larger, sharper, more alert and engaged.
At the end of their reading Dallas has a question and answer segment, something he does after every reading. There are always some lighter questions like “How do you make the cover of the book?” or “Where do you get that gold sticker from?” But there’s always a question or an answer that illuminates some simple yet profound truth.
“What happens when a good writer makes a mistake?” asks a seated child.
Dallas suggests that Audio respond. And then Audio, at just six years old, says, “Turn it into something new!” The answer is true and malleable and accepting of our mistakes and in possession of such understanding on how the world works and how to deal with our expectations of ourselves. The statement is so important for children to learn and adults to remember. I nearly cry.
The tour will be filled with many of these small moments.