“Life is a bunch of crazy!” interjects the young man seated across from me at a table in one of the back rooms of Mason Street Grill, as he shakes his head with slow acceptance of this fact. Nate, 14, is the son of one of the dinner guests, herself the long-lost childhood friend of the guest of honor, Lisa McMann. Lisa’s other guests are all fairly nondescript, which is not a surprise once you find out they’re all booksellers or librarians. Book people aren’t known for their flamboyance, but they certainly get animated when you get them going, as Lisa has with a game she’s proposed to the group. The premise of which is this: the group owns a 24hr television network and gets to decide on the programming. Each person takes a turn saying what show(s) would be fun to share with the world.
As the appetizers arrive, a sampling of nearly everything on the menu, half the lineup is set, ranging from reality shows (Survivor and The Biggest Loser) to British classics (Dr. Who, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Fawlty Towers) to contemporary sitcoms (Modern Family, and How I Met Your Mother). By the time the entrees have been ordered and wine glasses have been refilled, the lineup has rounded out with some kids programming (Reading Rainbow, of course, and Phineas and Ferb), fun educational shows (Mythbusters), dramas (Deadwood and E.R.), and some “news” (Colbert Report and Daily Show). Book people, it turns out, watch more T.V. than you might have thought.
Naturally, the conversation turns to the written word. Lisa has been in in town for three days doing events at schools and libraries in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties while promoting her new kids’ novel, The Unwanteds. Imagining a world where artistically inclined kids are separated out from society, Lisa was inspired to write it when her own creative kids (her daughter is into theater and music, while her son loves to draw) came home with letters saying their school’s arts programs had been cut.
Considering this, it’s an exceptionally wonderful thing for her to interact with middle grade students in a way that encourages them to take up the pen for themselves. Lisa says she tells them, “You don’t have to be an adult to write a good story. You don’t need a college degree. You can be an inventor today.”
In fact, one of her visits was to Lincoln Avenue School, which supports a selection of artists-in-residence who get free use of studio space in exchange for helping out in classes. As a result, there is art everywhere in the school, which enthralled Lisa to no end.
That same desire to connect and inspire is why Lisa arranged this dinner at Mason Street Grill. When she was 19yrs old, working as a bookseller, and writing in her spare time, she watched a lot of authors pass through the bookstore. One night, one of them invited her out to a dinner after a reading. That author? Madeleine L’Engle, author of the children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time. The ensuing conversation at dinner with such a literary superstar pushed Lisa to become the writer she is today, with an emphasis on reaching out to inspire others to write.
“This kind of setting is really important,” she says, with a big smile, as she passes the desserts around to the librarian at her elbow, “you never know when you might inadvertently encourage a fledgling writer.” I smile back.