As promised, today my Featured Guest is Kelly Milner Halls. I enjoyed her recounting of a visit that paid off in warm feelings and good vibes. Boy do we all need more experiences like that! Here’s Kelly now.
TREASURE IS WHERE YOU FIND IT!
While speaking in Windham, New Hampshire in January, I gave my “Wonders of Weird” presentation, highlighting the quirky magic my brand of nonfiction often uncovers. I explained that I got paid for being weird because I research unusual topics. The one hour session went very well, and the elementary school kids were literally buzzing.
Contentment warmed my soul, and I wasn’t sure it could get any better. As is so often true, a child proved me wrong.
Though it was 8 degrees below zero outside, this 4rd grader had worn camouflage cargo shorts and a t-shirt to school. He literally twirled as he approached my presentation table, crowded with Bigfoot track casts and dinosaur fossils and other unusual trinkets. Touch. Twirl. Touch. Twirl. Touch. Twirl. His dance continued.
As he spun past me, he stopped, made eye contact and a proclamation. “I have treasure in my pants,” he said, delight beaming from his face.
“I’ll bet you do,” I said, infected by his joy. “I’ll bet you really do.”
As quickly as he approached, he darted away, and his more appropriately dressed friend declared, “Today — BEST DAY EVER.”
Eureka! I was among my own. Weirdness was abundant – and under the banner of celebration. And that is exactly my point.
My use of the word “weird” sometimes draws disapproval from teachers trying to ban it from their classrooms, for good reason. “Weird” can be a sharp dagger, wielded unwisely. But I use it for the same reason. If I can take that word back, wear it proudly, the blade is dulled. For that day, weird becomes a source of true enjoyment.
Twirling boys in camo shorts find their place in the world, but so do kids most likely to succeed. At another school presentation, a stunningly beautiful 5th grader waited until all the other kids had left the library to confess her secret.
“You know how you said you’re weird?” she said.
“Yes,” I acknowledged. “It really is true.”
She looked from side to side, to be sure none of her classmates were close, before she whispered, “I know. And guess what, I am pretty weird, too. My whole family is. You’d fit right in.”
Celebration of diversity — even weirdness — offers all kids a window of self-acceptance, just as unveiling the facts behind differences makes them much easier to accept.
My book Albino Animals was inspired by an African American child with albinism. I saw her with a group of school friends at the Denver Zoo and wondered at her striking appearance. I also wondered at her poise. How had that girl, a minority within a minority, grown up so self-assured? Clearly, people in her life had helped her grow up with pride. But were all kids that lucky?
I wanted to write a book from which less traditional kids could draw comfort from being unique. So I began my research on how albinism impacted the animal world. As my book came together, a young woman from the United Kingdom contacted me and asked if there was a place for her in the book. She brought me full circle.
My experience at the zoo introduced the book to young readers. A bold young woman closed the last chapter, complete with a color headshot. Not long after the book was released, a third grader at a Spokane, Washington school visit – one who insisted on calling me Miss Kelly Clarkson all day — saw the picture and took my quest in a new direction.
“She is so creepy,” the 8-year-old said. Gasps escaped the mouths of every teacher in the room, but I didn’t skip a beat.
“Creepy?” I said. “I don’t know about that. Let’s look again.”
“See, to me ‘creepy’ describes the weird guy that follows you around the toy department of Walmart.”
“So is she really creepy, or is she just different?”
The child took a thoughtful, second look at the image, as did every other kid in the room of 800. A moment later, she smiled. “You know, you’re right,” she said. “That girl isn’t creepy. She is just different.”
A gymnasium full of her peers readily agreed. Once again, diversity met celebration.
The stories go on and on. My choice to write about odd topics might never land me a Siebert. It’s true. And it’s a fact I found distressing, until I met Leo.
“You’ll see him at all six presentations,” his librarian explained as I set up my artifacts. “I wanted you to know he has permission. Because you see, Leo marches to a different drummer. He doesn’t make friends easily and until he found Tales of the Cryptids, he thought he didn’t like any books. He checks it out every week it’s still available and we thought it might be nice for him to share the day, if it’s okay with you.”
“Of course it’s okay,” I said without hesitation. “Point him out when he comes into the room.”
Leo became my Vanna White. He carefully held each item I described, as I described it, walking in and out of the crowd to give each kid a better look. It was as if he was holding the Crown Jewels. And his confidence grew with every presentation.
At lunch, I signed 800 bookplates so each student would have one to take home, as Leo ate his sack lunch across from me, paging through his favorite book – my book.
“Do you think this cryptid is real?” he would ask, and we’d discuss the merits of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster or chupacabras and the like. I looked up from time to time, as I signed to make eye contact, of course. Then there came a point of silence.
I looked up to find Leo staring at me. Studying me.
“You okay, buddy?” I said, and he quietly responded.
“I never thought the day would come,” he said his eyes never wavering.
“What day is that, Leo?” I asked.
“I never thought the day would come,” he said, “when I’d meet someone like me.”
“Feels good not to be alone, doesn’t it?” I said, trying to choke back the lump in my throat and the tears I knew would soon follow if I didn’t settle down.
“It does,” he answered. “It really does.”
It’s true. I may never win a big shiny medal from powerful people who define what “great books” really are. But Leo and kids like him give me prizes unparalleled. Treasure, you see, is where you find it. And what constitutes treasure is in the eye of the beholder.
Thanks to the kids who read my books, I’m a very wealthy woman, even when my bank balance approaches zero. I have treasure in my soul.
Thank you, Kelly. Readers, I hope you’ll use the comment boxes below to post your thoughts.