Shout out: Chicago

Things I've learned on the book tour (so far)...

--Brings lots of pens. (They disappear to the land of partner-less socks, car keys, and earrings.) My writing utensil of choice? Lumocolor fine point pens.

--Kids will ask you to sign anything (ala rock star fashion). For this reason, I always tote along a package of plain address labels.

--Kids dig free stuff. For all my stickers and buttons and TCO swag, I carry a clear plastic sewing kit (love the Container Store!) I also carry business cards and a CD of my book trailer and Powerpoint slideshows (just in case my flash drive goes bonkers. (just like the Apple commercials...sometimes Macs and PCs don't speak the same language).

--one extra thing to carry: a little homemade book (printed on heavy duty--yet cheapo--cardstock paper) taken from a page on Fin's blog. (kids aren't the only ones who love free loot. Plus it gives a sneak peak inside the novel).

I never was a girl scout, but my motto is "be prepared." At the same time, it's best to remember that...

...things don't always go according to plan.

When I arrived at the Chicago Public Library (after getting lost in the cavernous, bank-like building and riding the elevator down to the basement)...I discovered that the fabric pens we had ordered for the t-shirt painting extravaganza were too pale. No need to panic! I dipped into my bulging tote bag and dug out another set of silvery paints that I had brought from home.

"Man, you're really prepared," said Robin, (ultra cool Teen Services boss).

"That's one of the perks of being obsessive," I said with a smirk.

Yes, I managed to lug a package of paint through the airport, in spite of the Liquid Police. I had visions of the bottles exploding inside my luggage, so I double-wrapped them in Ziploc bags. At the bottom of my suitcase was an artist's portfolio--the perfect solution for carrying my jumbo stencils without bending them into yoga positions.

The kids poured into the basement, all laughing and talking at once. They asked a slew of questions during the "street art presentation" (I was told: do not use the dirty word, "graffiti," but I'm sure it slipped once or twice). I talked about Swoon's melting newspaper portraits (wabi sabi: beauty in decay) and the way Banksy used the war-torn walls of the Middle East as his canvas, like a conversation with the city, a form of call and response. They gasped over Invader's tiled Pacman murals, in which the whole world serves as a backdrop to a neverending video game.

The teachers smiled and nodded (They asked questions, too!) The kids clapped when they recognized some of the street art I'd photographed during my last visit to Chi-Town (including the Version fest show and local artists like Elisa Harkins and her crying clouds).

I kept looking at one boy in the second row. He had a sketchpad in his lap and he never stopped doodling. I knew he was listening (and he kept raising his hand, asking about the names of the street artists in Wicker Park). At first, he didn't feel like painting shirts with us. He was trying to draw his left hand (not an easy thing to do) and a teacher walked past and said, "There's a scene in the book where Fin draws her foot). He blinked and said, "Really?" Two minutes later, he was getting messy with the paint.

I strolled around the table, checking out the masterpieces-in-progress. One girl had scrawled, "Adam's Babe" across her shirt. ("Who's Adam?" her friend wanted to know. The girl rolled her eyes. "Adam Levine, you know? Maroon Five?") For some reason, she called me "British lady." (The Chicago kids said I talked with an accent. Neither did they realize...Midwestern kids have accents, too). At the end of the session, they gave me hugs and high fives. Another girl ("Miss Pink," I called her...decked out in head to toe pastel sweats) told me about her non-rhyming poetry. "I write when I'm feeling sad," she said. I told her, "So do I."

I signed their books (one boy insisted that I slope my signature sideways across the cover. "What are you? A graphic designer?" I joked, and he nodded.) Many of them wanted to share their sketchbooks with me--mostly wide-eyed anime cartoons of their friends.

"Time to go," their teachers called, dragging them out the door.

Robin gave me a tour of the library. I took pictures of the sun-dappled winter garden and browsed the hallways where new books had arrived. To my surprise, a circle of librarians sat reading in prayer-like silence (trying to decide which ARCs they wanted to purchase for their shelves). Their offices reminded me of the HarperCollins headquarters, complete with posters and toys of children's classic literature.

The day wasn't over yet. I had a long list of bookstores to visit. Since most of them were scattered throughout the suburbs, I decided to hire a driver. (more economical and efficient than a cab, in this case). I didn't realize that the only car available was...a black stretch limo. The driver and I made a pact.

Jorges said, "We're going to do this Chicago mafia-style. I'll park around the block and you can walk up to the stores."

"Deal," I said.

Among my to-do list...I swung by The Book Stall, a stellar indie store in Winnetka, and met their "well-informed and caring staff" (as printed on their bookmarks). I sat at the Goldilocks-sized table and chairs with the savvy teen buyer, Liz (who keeps a pink feather boa in her office.) It's a blast, meeting with bookstore people, because we already have oodles of stuff in common. As we chatted about TCO, a customer peeked around the corner.

"Where is that book?" she asked, and I signed a copy on the spot.

My last stop was the cozy Magic Tree Bookstore in Oak Park. The yin-yangy owners, Rose and Iris (affectionately known as "the Flowers") were talking about "blue carnations" when I strolled in the door. The girl at the cash register mentioned the food dye in flowers. "When you cut them, it stains your hands," she said. "Looks like you juiced a Smurf."

The Flowers took me to tea at a cafe next door. We chatted so long, I forgot about my driver.

"Is that your limo?" Iris asked, blinking at the window.

I called him up. "Our cover is blown," I said.

"Just tell them you run with people in high places," he said.

Maybe that's true. But when I finally collapsed back at The Inn of Chicago , all I wanted was a cheap burrito picnic on the floor, spread out on a hotel towel.

No time to rest. The next morning, I zoomed off again (in a glamorous yellow cab) to meet Katheen at Anderson's Bookshop in Downers Grove. Kathleen had read TCO "in one sitting" and selected it for her list of "New and Notable Books For Teen Readers." We loaded her car with hardcovers and drove to a school so large, it looked like a college.

"And this is just the junior high building," she told me, as we wandered past long rows of lockers (like the tracking shots in Kubrick thrillers). Even the teachers lose their way, as we learned whenever we asked for directions.

This time, I sat at a desk in a classroom with a panel of smiling English teachers. Kathleen read down her list, summarizing each title like a fast-talking movie producer (I told her, "You should move to Hollywood.") She did such a good job, I wanted to buy every last book. At the end of her presentation, I stood up and asked, "Are you guys sick of books yet?" I talked about TCO and signed copies for the panel. Kathleen made me blush, saying, "I wish I had read this book years ago."

My favorite part of the trip was driving back with Kathleen. Touring can feel lonely (in spite of the crowds of people you meet) and I was glad to sink into my seat and look out the window. We spotted a hawk perched on a telephone pole, the steeples of Polish churches, and snow-crusted lawns as smooth as mints. Kathleen stuffed a vegan muffin in my purse. She put me on the train back to the city and I listened to my iPod as dead trees and factories blurred past.

The next day, I had to fly back to Miami. Just enough time to take pictures of my reflection in Milllenium Park's Magic Bean and breeze through Quimby's bookstore. I bought a book about the secret lives of authors (I'm not the only one who's a little odd...or obsessive compulsive. (Did you know that Balzac drew pictures of imaginary furniture in his empty rooms? Or that J.D. Salinger drank his own pee?) I also scooped up a DVD to watch on the plane--Nomads and No-Zones--cinematic diaries about punk rock kids who hop freight trains across the country.

I kept thinking about what Jorges had said. There's a Spanish expression...while you're alive on the planet, you should do three things: form a family, plant a tree, and write a book.

I would add, "Travel with your book."

And bring extra pens.