Bruce Hale writes the sidesplitting Chet Gecko Mysteries for kids. (Photo by Sonia Sones)
I think of it as “Englander Envy.” For nearly a decade now, I’ve had a good gig (or more accurately, a bunch of good gigs) writing about books for local and regional publications. Since I wrote my very first book review (of William F. Buckley Jr.’s The Red Hunter, which I liked but didn’t love) for the now defunct alternative weekly Icon, I’ve written about hundreds of books and interviewed an array of authors, including several whose work I admire greatly.
Given the various perks that come with book reviewing—the books that keep pouring into my home, the aforementioned interview opportunities, the chance to sit on the committees for community reading projects in both Linn and Johnson counties, and the (possibly illusory) sense that folks value my opinion about something I love to talk and write about—you might think I would be well satisfied with my lot among the local literature lovers.
Nevertheless, I’ve always been envious of Julie Englander, host of Iowa Public Radio’s Live from Prairie Lights. Julie, after all, gets to spend time with all sorts of authors, from the up-and-coming to the most beloved and respected authors of our time. In recent years, as the readings have been streamed live at writinguniversity. uiowa.edu and archived at wsui.uiowa. edu, the reach of the series has been extended to anywhere with an Internet connection. Now, there’s a great gig.
So when the Metro Library Network, made up of the Cedar Rapids, Marion, and Hiawatha Public Libraries, received a generous grant from the Giacoletto Foundation to start an author series, I immediately applied to be the series coordinator, and I was thrilled to be selected.
The first year of Out Loud! The Metro Library Network Author Series is now in the books and, even without a respected radio and Internet program, I must say that hosting it was every bit as fun as I suspected it would be.
The grant allows us to present three authors each year and we’ve chosen to present a writer for youth, a writer with a tie to the writing programs at the University of Iowa, and a mainstream author in each cycle. To that end, this summer we presented youth author Bruce Hale, visiting Writers’ Workshop faculty members Elizabeth McCracken and Edward Carey, and Cedar Rapids native and bestselling thriller writer John Sandford.
My 11-year-old son suggested we book Hale, who is best known for his hilarious Chet Gecko Mysteries featuring a fourth grade detective and his mockingbird sidekick. He was a true delight both on and off stage. He told his tale of going from reluctant reader to author to groups of children and adults at each of the three libraries and wrapped up with an evening presentation at Theatre Cedar Rapids. As he told stories, drew pictures, and took questions, Hale appealed to the adults in the room as surely as he charmed the kids.
Next up were the novelists McCracken and Carey, who are married. We were delighted when they agreed to give a joint reading. This was a particularly special evening for me because I took a creative writing class from Elizabeth (who is perhaps best known for her novel Niagara Falls All Over Again and who has a memoir coming out in September) when I was a freshmen at the University of Iowa and she was in the Writers’ Workshop. I’ve always been proud to say that I was once her student (even if I wasn’t a particularly good writer) and I was very proud to present her. She read a moving short story that can be found in the spring 2008 edition of Zoetrope: All Story.
For his part, Edward, who hails from England, is an amazing writer and an amazing reader who read a quirky, grisly passage from his work in progress. While we await the arrival of the new book, I can’t recommend his Observatory Mansions highly enough.
The floods forced the postponement and relocation of our final event, but it was a true pleasure to bring John Sandford to town. We ended up holding the reading at Washington High School, the author’s alma mater, and 300 folks turned out to hear him talk about his career. At least one former classmate came with yearbook in hand, and it was clear that old friends and more recent fans alike were thrilled to see the creator of the Lucas Davenport thrillers, who argued, with both passion and wit, for the literary value of genre fiction.
He also spoke about the key role the Cedar Rapids Public Library played in his life as a young person, comments which no doubt helped us raise $2800 that evening to help the library recover from the floods.
All in all, it was a great first year despite a delayed flight that nearly cost us Hale’s visit and the disastrous flooding that derailed our first effort to present Sandford (which, of course, was the least of the problems the floods created).
We’re hard at work booking authors for the 2009 edition of Out Loud! To keep up with the series, or to share your thoughts on who we should try to bring to the area, check out the series website at metrolibrarynetwork.org.