Michigan Memories: Alma Mater, Playhouse, Faierie Doors, and Scholars

Magical! That’s what it was like to return to Michigan with my very cute husband and sometimes co-author Greg Leitich Smith for a few days earlier this month.

Our primary mission was to visit Linda Pavonetti and Jim Cipielewski‘s class, “The Author’s and Illustrator’s Art and Craft,” at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. (More on that shortly).

We decided to fly up a couple of days early to visit Ann Arbor, home of our alma mater, The University of Michigan Law School, where we first met as 1L students in 1991.

We took an uneventful Northwest flight to Detroit, during which I read most of debut author Maggie Stiefvater’s upcoming Lament: The Faerie Queen’s Deception (Flux, 2008).

Despite my head-over-toes joy over being back “home” in Michigan, the story was a constant lure for my attention, and I finished it not long after arriving. Here’s the blurb I sent to Andrew Karre (editor interview) at Flux: “Chock-full of the fierce and the fey, Maggie Stiefvater’s Lament is musical, magical, and practically radiating romance. A blood-fresh reinvention of old traditions, perfect for engaging sharp minds and poetic hearts.”

We arrived just after noon at Detroit Metro Airport, which was much spiffier than I remembered, and I found myself vaguely enchanted by the light display–complete with New Age-y, sort of spa music–along the walkway.

After a short stop at Hertz, we were crusing to Ann Arbor. In no time, our bags were checked in at the Campus Inn, which has an excellent restaurant and is within short walking distance to the student union.

From there, we walked to lunch at one of our old haunts, the Red Hawk Bar and Grill on State Street. It was just as good as we remembered, and I highly recommend the chef’s salad (black forest ham, smoked turkey breast, bacon, hard-cooked egg, tomato, red onion and cheddar on romaine with honey mustard vinaigrette).

After lunch, we continued on to the law school quad. You know how usually when you return to a school, it doesn’t look as impressive as you recall? That was definitely not the case here. By the way, our law school classmates include fellow YA author Niki Burnham.

The classroom doors were all locked, and the reading room (immediately below) fixtures were undergoing renovation, but we still enjoyed strolling the halls and remembering when.

That evening, we drove to author Shutta Crum’s (author interview) farm, which is just outside the city. Visiting Shutta’s place is like walking into the pages of a storybook–the quilts, the color, the quiet pond and brown barn…the deer, the fruit trees, the rows of grapes.

After a yummy salad and vegetarian lasagna (must ask for recipe!) with Shutta and her husband Gerry, we retired to the wood-floor garage-turned-playhouse to visit with a few of her pals from the local youth literature community.

The sparkling guests included: author Jacqui Robbins; author-illustrator Tracy Gallup (who was kind enough to give us autographed copies of her “A Crazy Little Series” (Mackinac Island Press)); author Ann Purmell (with whom I had an excellent discussion about books that reflect kids who work per her Apple Cider Making Days, illustrated by Joanne Fair (Millbrook, 2002)); Ann Arbor District Library children’s librarian Ieva Bates; and Borders bookseller Ruta Drummond (the latter two, pictured last, are sisters–is that a book family or what?). We also enjoyed the great company of Tracy’s husband Doug and Ann’s husband Bruce!

Thanks again, Shutta and Gerry!

The next day we went shopping (note: this is not the proper name of the law school, but we bought the shirt anyway because of the shark).

Did you know that Borders started in Ann Arbor?

And we visited one of Ann Arbor’s famed faerie doors, which we had learned about from Shutta the night before. If you’re heading that way, here’s a list of all the doors (with photos) and a nifty tour map.

Check out this related story from NPR; peek: “All across the city, ‘fairy doors’ are popping up. The miniature openings into imagined fairy homes are unsponsored, unauthorized works of public art that have captured the imagination of the city.” Below is a shot of The Peaceable Kingdom and its faerie door on South Main. How sweet is that?

On a more personal note, we also enjoyed lunch at Cafe Felix (the Tabla Mixta–proscuitto, melon, strawberries, baked brie), visited The Natural History Museum, and stopped by The Arcadian in Nickels Arcade, which is where we bought my engagement ring in 1993.

Then we were off for Oakland University! We stayed at the nearby historic and award-winning Cobblestone Manor, a place of sumptuous breakfasts, gorgeous gardens, and grand cheer.

Later, professors Linda Pavonetti and Jim Cipielewski showed us around Oakland U.’s vast and beautiful campus, including Meadowbrook Hall, and then treated us to a wonderful dinner at Kruse and Muer (shrimp and chicken penne).

The next morning, Greg gave an hour-long presentation–centered in part on the importance and process of writing humor for young readers–and then fielded a 45-minute question-and-answer session from the students, followed by a signing.

On a side note, Linda is the president of the United States Board on Books for Young People. More on that soon!

That evening, after a beer-battered fish-and-chips dinner, Jim and Linda treated us to a local treasure–Cook’s Dairy Farm! The setting was as delightful as the iced cream was delicious. I ordered the classic chocolate, and Greg ordered the cookie dough. Both were wonderful, though I did end up stealing more than one bite of his.

The next day, it was my turn to speak. It’s probably the broadest talk I’ve ever given as my audience’s areas of interest spanned from early elementary through young adult. I spent time on Native youth literature with an eye toward related trade books in the classroom. But I also touched on my own upper-age level titles, including Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008), and read a very short excerpt from Eternal (Candlewick, 2009).

Jim was spectacular with the supporting AV equipment, and the students’ questions were insightful. It was a bright, thoughtful class, and I particularly enjoyed visiting informally with them at the signing after my presentation.

Afterward, on our tour of the education school, I happened to ask whether the library had a Native youth literature collection and was wowed by the responding interest and enthusiasm. It meant a great deal to me and lingers in my thoughts.

I also had a great time both days at lunches–one chicken soup and a chicken-salad sandwich, the other spicy, stir-fried chicken and vegetable (Thai food). I forgot to ask if it was okay to mention our companions (some of whom also chauffeured us around) by name, so I won’t, but thanks to all (and to the prospective YA writer in the group, go for it)!

Greg and I decided to stay one more night at the bed-and-breakfast, and this afforded us an opportunity to meet the next incoming speaker, Marie-Louise Gay.

What an unexpected and amazing treat it was to chat with her, study her books, and ask questions about her process! She was tremendously gracious in taking the time to visit with us.

That night, we dined at Bistro Bourdeau, and then, the next morning, it was time to return to Austin! The journey home was longer than expected–one of those three-hour flights that turns into seven, much of it spent sitting in the plane on the runway. But that gave me an opportunity to finish Suddenly Supernatural: School Spirit by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel (Little Brown, 2008) and The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower by Lisa Graff (HarperCollins, 2008), both of which were terrific reads!

Memo to children’s-YA book creators: if Linda and Jim ever invite you to speak at Oakland University, go!

Memo to Linda and Jim: thanks!

See Greg’s report!