Over the last decade or so as a kids' writer I have stood up in front of untold thousands of children. Mostly I have been aware of how much they have in common. No matter who they are, where or how they live, they swallow the same lies, laugh at the same punch lines, and ask the same questions. Which is just as well for me because I have only a limited supply of stories, jokes and answers.
Questions come in three varieties. Kids want to know where I get my ideas, how old I am, and how much money I make. That's really about it. I could cut question time right down by starting off with answers for these.
Every now and then I am surprised. I was surprised a couple of years ago when a self-important girl in the front row asked me what I thought of Immanuel Kant. (I was briefly tempted by a joke about Kant and Can, but figured I'd get an easier laugh by making a face and falling off the stage into the audience. Interestingly, given Kant's 4th Categorical Imperative, it did not occur to me to tell her the truth.) And I was surprised last week in Durham when a guy at the back of the crowd wanted to know if I was his father. And while my jaw dropped slowly, another kid towards the front of the crowd cried out, "Yeah! I was thinking that too!"
The teachers responsible for the two students leapt to their feet, frowning, but I waved them back down. "I like surprises," I said. I'd never been asked anything like this before. Not once, let alone twice.
I had the two kids stand up. They were both gawky and thin, with mops of hair. The crowd started to laugh. I quoted Shakespeare: "It's a wise child," I began ... and then my mind (never completely under control) conjured an image of me, fourteen or so years ago, wandering around Durham like Johnny Appleseed. And before I knew it I was giggling uncontrollably. We all laughed for a good long time, and then the bell rang to end my presentation. The kids filed out laughing. All the teachers were frowning now.
Not everyone likes surprises.