Monday, March 25, 2002

Interview: Ann LaPietra

Ann LaPietra is the owner of the Marshall, Michigan bookstore "the kids' place" and the woman behind the popular John Bellairs Walk, a tour of the sights and sounds of Marshall and how they inspired John’s New Zebedee. We asked Ann about the walk, the city, and John’s enduring popularity.

Q: How long have you been at the helm of the kids' place?

A: 16 years. (I would say all the store's life -- but then I'd have to finish the old joke and add, "Not yet.")

Q: Could you please explain the inception of the John Bellairs Walk?

A: It began as the third celebration (after the kids' place opened in 1986) of Bellairs' birthday -- that is, in 1989. We had previously done a "straight" birthday party having cake, games, reminiscences (two older gentlemen got into an argument over whether John Bellairs was the best or worst busboy Schuler's restaurant ever had) and one party based on The Eyes of the Killer Robot featuring a very nice gentleman from the robotics department of a local college, with assistants, and two "robots" -- one programmed to throw a ball, the other to "serve" chocolate chip cookies.

Without a new book for a theme, we decided to celebrate the third time by "inventing" a literary tour, like the Historic Home Tour for which Marshall is famous. Marshall historian Richard Carver, and correspondence with John Bellairs, helped me pinpoint the sites, and the idea struck a chord with local teachers and librarians, and the then-head of the local historical society (who was an elementary school teacher). They "became" the books' characters, who told "their stories" at significant points along the way. All this in a slippery and frosty Michigan January!

But anyway, librarians and teachers from the area do "dress up" as Bellairs characters -- Lewis, Rose Rita, Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman, Miss Eells (from the Anthony Monday books), sometimes Father Higgins, etc. They are stationed along the route to explain the books, the characters, the author and his town to the walkers. The purpose is to enjoy -- and to stretch the kids' imaginations, as John's was inspired, by his surroundings.

Somewhere at the Library of Congress is a more thorough explanation of all this, because the following year (1990) the tour won the Lucile Micheels Pannell Award. This award, given by the Women's National Book Association, "honors a creative program that brought children and books together".

Of course, you need to have the map of the tour with you. When the store "did" the tours, they were open to all and usually attracted both adults and children. We have also done them especially for adults -- the Great Lakes Booksellers Association and Michigan Association of Media Educators among them. The schools have done the tours for the last several years.

Q: When is the tour?

A: During Michigan Week (mid-May) for local and visiting 4th-graders. The tour is, at all other times than the May event, self-guided. Maps are available at the Chamber of Commerce office and the kids' place -- and necessary, because Bellairs took poetic license with geography.

Q: How popular have John's books been in Marshall?

A: I have no idea of John's popularity in the '70s. When his father died he came back to town (for the last time) and signed House but that was before my time. Today they are popular here and elsewhere -- we used to correspond with a Las Vegas class that, every year, wrote their own "John Bellairs books", and I really think the idea for the tour probably began when two teachers from Wisconsin came to the store on their spring break, wondering if there was a John Bellairs Tour? Today, the books are consistently popular, and continually rediscovered. Brad Strickland, bless him, has had a lot to do with that.

Q: So...could you get us into the Cronin House?

A: One important thing to know is that the tour is outside. The house with a clock in its walls, for example, is the home, still, of a member of the Cronin family. We do not lead anybody through it or, ordinarily, inside anywhere.

Q: Okay. Did you ever meet John?

A: I never met John.

Q: But you did correspond with John (letters, phone, etc.)?

A: We did correspond, and I spoke to him once or twice on the phone.

Q: What were some of your impressions of John?

A: I know too many people who actually knew John Bellairs to have any impressions first-hand. I always considered it lucky to like the work of the author local to the town where I started a bookstore. And I do like the books.

Q: Are there a lot of people that actually visit Marshall because of John's books?

A: We have some people come -- more write, to me or to the Chamber of Commerce -- to Marshall because of John's books.

Q: How were you first exposed to John's work?

A: My youngest daughter heard about them in school, I think, and was impressed because they were about "her" new town -- and they were illustrated by Edward Gorey, so "they had to be important!"

Q: What book do you think best captures the spirit that is New Zebedee . . . or Marshall?

A: The first three (House, Figure, and Letter) are easily recognized by Marshallites -- the people and the places.

Q: Any theories on where the name "New Zebedee" came from?

A: No -- except for "the names have been changed to protect the innocent!"

Thanks, Ann!

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