It’s a beautiful day in April, chilly but clear. Clumps of snowdrops and crocus flowers poke through thin layers of winter mulch. A circle of daffodils joins them. Nearby a stand of false indigo and Joe-Pye weed sit idle, waiting for the heat of summer. Only the hardy kiwi vine stretched across the front fence and several spirea bushes in the tree lawn show any interest in putting forth a spray of greenery. I take all of this in sitting on the top step of the front porch, sipping hot tea. As I do, I run down my checklist one last time: overnight bag, storytelling suitcase, presentation materials, box of books for book sale, audio equipment, water bottle, and lunch. After breakfast, I load the car, and take off. My destination is the grand old city of Appleton, Wisconsin.
One of the beauties of being a published author is engaging with readers. And that’s what I’ll be doing for the next couple of days at the Fox Cities Book Festival held each year in the lovely city of Appleton, Wisconsin. I’ve been to the festival before, several times. When I’m invited, usually it’s the highlight of my year. One reason is getting there.
When I was younger and had a lot more balls in the air to juggle, I’d race from one event to the next, not taking much time to enjoy the in-between times. Now that I’m older, and maybe a bit wiser, I take more time traveling to events. To get to Appleton, I could jump on the interstate and head north, through Milwaukee, then along the west side of Lake Winnebago, arriving at my destination less than four hours later. A half-day’s drive at best.
But I don’t do that. I break it into a two-day trip, stopping overnight at the surfing capitol of the Midwest—Sheboygan, Wisconsin. It’s a great place to stop, but not for its waves. Rather, for what the city has to offer: a quaint little motel on the river, a “locals” coffeehouse nearby, the Kohler Art Museum, and Trattoria Stefano, one of the best Italian restaurants in the area. If there’s time, I’ll head to the Kohler-Andrae State Park south of Sheboygan and stroll along the boardwalk that weaves its way through ancient Lake Michigan sand dunes. Although it’s the midpoint of my journey, Sheboygan feels like an endpoint, and a very satisfying one at that.
The next day I throw my things into the car, ready for the second leg of my journey: a slow meander through back roads east of Lake Winnebago until I reach Appleton. This is a pretty little piece of Wisconsin that—other than the gigantic wind farm near the lake—is a throwback to the German Catholics who settled the area in the early part of the 19th century. You can tell this as you travel northwest out of Sheboygan not only from the small Catholic churches dotting the surrounding farmland, but also from town names—St. Anna, St. Joe, St. Peter, St. Cloud, Mount Calvary, and Jericho. By the late 19th century, there were so many German Catholic immigrant families in the area it was affectionately called “Holyland.” Today, I decide to take Rt. 32, the more direct route, through Howards Grove, Kiel, New Holstein, and Chilton, before swinging west on Rt. 114 to Stockbridge and Sherwood. Above Sherwood, I catch route 10, which takes me into the heart of downtown Appleton.
Interstate 41, the 441 by-pass, and Rt. 10 draw an almost perfect square around Appleton. The square is bisected, however, by the Lower Fox River, which runs from the north end of Lake Winnebago, just below the southwest corner Appleton, northeast to the city of Green Bay, where it empties into Lake Michigan. To get out of Lake Winnebago, the Lower Fox River first squeezes past Doty Island, between Neenah and Menasha, before it heads due north. At Stroebe Island, the river turns slowly to the northeast, preparing for its forty-mile run to Green Bay. But before it does, the Lower Fox River makes an “S” turn near downtown Appleton, at the foot of Lawrence University, where pulp and paper mills used to dot the riverfront from the mid-19th century on.
I arrive at my hotel, one of several in the downtown area. There’s also a small convention center and a museum dedicated to Harry Houdini, who grew up in Appleton. (The other famous native son, of course, is Senator Joseph McCarthy, architect—and chief prosecutor—of the 1950s “Red Scare.”) Other than that, downtown Appleton is like many small Midwestern towns—a sleepy, provincial outpost with quiet tree-lined neighborhoods spreading out on either side of College Avenue, the central north-south dividing line.
But I’m not here to admire Appleton, or even to provide a detailed history of the city. I’m here for the Fox Cities Book Festival. When I ask about the plural form of Fox Cities, I’m told that it refers to several cities along the Fox River that collectively consider themselves a regional whole. The chain of cities includes Neenah, Menasha, Appleton, Little Chute, Kimberly, Combined Locks, and Kaukauna. It’s an important bit of knowledge because the Fox Cities Book Festival doesn’t take place only in Appleton, but in all of the cities in the chain. But I’ve been contracted by the main branch of the Appleton Library and an elementary school on the east side of the city.
It’s not the first time I’ve been to Appleton. Several years ago I participated in the book festival, doing presentations at three schools and the public library. I remember the trip fondly. I also remember it for a most embarrassing incident. The librarian at a local elementary school had arranged for me to visit his school. The two of us got along very well, and I could tell from his enthusiasm that he truly loved children and books. The week before the festival he emailed me, asking me if I wouldn’t mind bringing the Golden Archer Award that I had received for Shake Dem Halloween Bones. The librarian wanted his students to actually see the medal. The Golden Archer Award is the students’ choice award for the State of Wisconsin, which I won in 2001.
“No problem,” I replied. “Of course I’ll bring it along.” But I only remembered to throw it into my bag at the last moment.
When I arrived at the school later that week, the librarian was really excited, especially because I was going to show his students the Golden Archer Award. Of course, I was equally happy to share the award with them as I had not really shared the award with anyone yet. When it came time to bring it out, I made a big fuss over the award and thanked everyone profusely for voting for Shake Dem Halloween Bones. And then I reached into my book bag and picked up the award. But as I lifted it out of the bag, I froze. In my haste to pack I grabbed the wrong award. Instead of the Golden Archer Award, I grabbed the Christopher Award, which I had won in 2007 for How We Are Smart, a collective biography that takes a multicultural look at Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.
I stuttered and stammered, and then I fessed up, announcing sheepishly that I had brought the wrong award. The students were dead silent. The librarian was mortified, even annoyed (I think he really wanted to see the Golden Archer Award himself). But then we all had a big laugh and I carried on as if nothing had happened.
This year everything went off without a hitch. No problems whatsoever. I had a great time at a local elementary school, and I had an even better time at the library where an unexpectedly large crowd had gathered. I even had dinner with the librarian who had arranged my previous visit, and, once again, we had a big laugh over my earlier faux pas.
And, now, the winner of the 2001 Golden Archer Award. The envelope please—or, in this case, the medal…