Dori Butler & Her Community of Writers | Formerly Shy Young-Adult Author Reaches Out

In addition to being a prolific and award-winning young-adult author, Dori Butler spends time mentoring kids and teens and nurturing fellow writers in Southeast Iowa. (photo by Cheryl Fusco Johnson)

On April 28, 2011, at the Mystery Writers of America awards ceremony in the ballroom of New York City’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, Coralville author Dori Hillestad Butler was stunned to hear her name called. Her book, The Buddy Files: The Case of the Lost Boy, had been judged the Best Juvenile Mystery published in 2010. Nominated months earlier, Dori had been so sure she wouldn’t win that she hadn’t prepared an acceptance speech. Now 700 people waited to hear her speak.

At the podium Dori studied the crowd.  “Harlan Coben, Mary Higgins Clark—they’re all big-name mystery people,” she  recalled.

Taking a deep breath, Dori imagined she was in Iowa City at a meeting of Old Capitol Toastmasters Club #164, which she’d joined in 2006. Recalling club exercises in extemporaneous speaking, she thought, “The question I’ve just been asked is, ‘What do you say when you’re presented with an award that you’ve dreamed of winning since you were 14 years old?’ ” Then she answered that question.

“She did very well,” her husband Bob Butler later reported. “Several people complimented her on her acceptance speech after the banquet.”

Probably no one guessed that Dori, who’s published over 35 books, was once so shy that she refused an invitation to speak at an Iowa Library Association meeting, forfeiting not only the speaking fee but also contacts that would’ve led to paid author-in-the-school visits. One key to Dori’s publishing success is that she routinely volunteers for activities in which she can help others and foster community connections while improving herself. In Toastmasters, she spent a year as Vice President of Membership.

“Part of what makes a club successful is members who are committed to helping their fellow Toastmasters meet their goals and develop their skills,” explained Diane DeBok, public relations officer for Toastmasters District 19. “They think about more than what they can get out of Toastmasters for themselves. They help make Toastmasters a community. Dori is that kind of member.”

At her local public library, too, Dori’s fostered community connections while expanding her skills and helping others. For 10 years Dori has actively served on the Friends of the Coralville Public Library board, currently as president.

“Dori is a fantastic library supporter!” Karen Stierler, Coralville’s Youth Services Assistant recently reported.

A dizzying list of library programs that Dori’s supported buttressed Karen’s assertion. Every summer since 2004, Dori’s led the library’s Teen Writers Workshop. She leads a monthly library Scrabble club, too, and has presented programs on bullying.

“My favorite program that she was the instigator of is our CPL Teen Reads Book Club,’ ” Karen explained.

That club is one of only 16 in the nation chosen for the American Library Association’s Young Adult Library Services division. Publishers send the library advance copies of young adult books for the teens to read and evaluate. Then the teens help compile a “Teens Top Ten” list. The Coralville library received over 300 titles for this two-year program, which ends in November of 2012.

“What a great opportunity for the teens and our library!” Karen enthused.  

Dori views it as a great opportunity for herself as well. As she explained to Karen, it’s good for young adult authors to learn what teens enjoy reading.

Because Dori enjoys spending time with younger readers, too, she participates in the library’s Reading Education Assistance Dog program. Through the Delta Society, she and Mouse, her 100-pound dog, trained to become registered Pet Partners. In individual, 15-minute sessions in the library’s Storytime Room, kindergarteners and older children can pet Mouse and read aloud while Dori listens.

In a guest post for the All Things Dog blog, Dori revealed that training to become a pet partner with Mouse triggered the idea for her award-winning Buddy Files series.  “Therapy dogs come in contact with a lot of different people,” she wrote, “and each person a dog comes in contact with has their own story, or in the case of the Buddy Files, their own mystery to be solved. It seemed like the perfect hook for a children’s book series.”

In addition to penning award-winning books and mentoring Toastmasters, teens, and young readers, Dori’s nurtured a now-thriving community of southeast Iowa children’s book writers. In January, she stepped down after seven years of organizing write-ins, celebrations, and book club gatherings as the Iowa City Area Network Chair for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. (Previously she served as Iowa’s Regional Advisor for the Society.)

“If it wasn’t for Dori sending out a call five years ago for those interested in children’s literature in hopes of forming a reading group,” writer Wendy Henrichs explained, “our now merry and very supportive band of Iowa City area children’s authors would still be writing alone in our homes, isolated and probably not nearly as productive as we have been.”

As Jeni Reeves, a Cedar Rapids artist and children’s book illustrator, pointed out, “Dori’s generous spirit, given so freely to other writers and illustrators, is only superseded by her work as a brilliant author to the broader world.”    

© 2012 Cheryl Fusco Johnson

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