The rain fell steadily as my friend Bill and I caught a taxi on Sixth Avenue.  In less than ten minutes we jumped out at the entrance to the Jacob Javits Conference Center.  I checked my watch—seven-ten in the morning.

We ran through the door of the expansive glass and steel building that enclosed acres of space divided into four open levels.

“The Children’s Book and Author Breakfast doesn’t start until eight o’clock.  We’ve plenty of time to get a table close to the stage,” I said to Bill as I looked over the balcony and down into a capacious hall.  Below me, organized into a loosely spiraling line that started somewhere below the escalator and ended at a pair of closed doors, were about four thousand other folks with a plan identical to mine.

Why was this event so special — and especially to me?   I am a writer, but not a children’s writer, nor do I have any interest in becoming one.  So why was I attending the Children’s Book and Author Breakfast?

Fifty-two years ago, almost to the date, on my first trip ever to the Big Apple, I got to see a relatively unknown actress playing Elisa Doolittle in the gigantic Broadway hit, My Fair Lady.  Julie Andrews was the young actress performing her first role in the American Theater.

Now you can guess the reason for my wanting to attend this breakfast — to see Julie Andrews again in person, the star whose performances I have enjoy for over a half-century.  She was to be the Master of Ceremonies at this highlighted Book Expo America breakfast event, which took place in New York City in the summer of 2009.  I attended the BEA conference because ForeWord Magazine had selected my book, Chasing Wings, as a finalist for a 2008 Book of the Year award in nature writing.  These awards were being presented at the meeting.

“Julie Andrews is a super movie star,” you say.  “We know her as Mary Poppins, Maria von Trapp from “Sound of Music,” Millie Dilmount the character in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and most recently, Queen Clarisse Marie Renaldie of Genovia, where she tried to civilize Ann Hawthaway’s character in the “Princess Diaries.  A celebrity she is, but not a writer.”

Ah, but Julie Andrews is a writer, an author for thirty-eight years who has written over twenty children’s books of stories, poems, and limericks.  She and her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, have even started a special publishing program, the Julie Andrews Collection.  Its mission she told us “… is to create books that instill the three Ws, Words, Wisdom, and Wonder.”

The doors to a great ballroom opened.  Within ten minutes, the long, coiling, twisting line of waiting people unraveled and filled the seats around more than four hundred tables — ten individuals to a table.  A continental breakfast was arranged in the center of each table.

After everyone completed the morning repast, the grand lady of stage, screen, and the written word appeared at the podium, smiling and looking just as lovely and gracious as she did fifty years ago.  She opened the program by greeting us and saying, “Wouldn’t it have been lovely if this were a pajama party and we could all have just rolled out of bed into breakfast.”  With a slight smirk, she continued, “I actually feel a little as if I did…getting up so early this morning.”

Julie Andrews discussed her passion for writing, how her writing career developed and how she integrated it with her life as an actress.  She gave credit to those people who inspired her along the way.  And she talked about the founding of the Julie Andrews Collection publishing program and her attempts, through this special program, to provide quality books for children of all ages that nurture the imagination and celebrate the sense of wonder.  She said, “…there is no greater gift to give our children than the awareness of the miracles that are under our noses every single day.”  The best way, she believes, to instill this perception is through the wisdom of words.  She feels that her celebrity will aid in her efforts to create an impact on the lives of young people.

Upon completing her talk, Dame Julie Andrews introduced the other authors on the stage, who, as she said, “… are the megastars of the sandbox in which we play.”

She first introduced her special mystery guest, balladeer Peter Yarrow, of the former Peter, Paul and Mary trio.  Mr. Yarrow led the audience in singing “Puff the Magic Dragon” and several of his other noted “children’s” ballads.

Another guest author on the dais, with a special connection to Julie Andrews, was Meg Cabot.  Ms. Cabot authored the books that were made into the Princess Diaries movies.

After Meg Cabot, the former actor and dancer, Tomie dePaola, began his presentation by singing “The hills come alive with the sound of music….”

From left to right: Peter Yarrow, Julie Andrews, Meg Cabot, Tommie dePaola

When Mr. dePaola retired from his acting career, he became an author and illustrator of children’s books.  His claims to fame in this genre are the blue elephant characters and foldout books.  His foldout books are so complex that he has to enlist the help of paper-folding engineers to bring his fantasy alive.  He ended his talk by again singing more verses from the Sound of Music.

When the Children’s Author and Book Breakfast ended, the crowd dissipated as rapidly as it formed.  We dispersed into the mass of 35,000 other educators, librarians, book buyers and sellers, publishers, agents, and their guest who attended the 2009 Book Expo America.

After hearing Julie Andrews, I do believe her contributions, and those of the other authors on the breakfast agenda, will provide children, as they grow to adulthood, with an appreciation for reading and writing.  It was great to listen to a friend, whom I feel I know very well, but never met, expound on the wonders of reading and writing.  And the breakfast, it was okay — I’d expected tea and crumpets or at least bread and jam, and maybe, a spoon full of sugar.  But, not being in London, I had to settle for bagels, cream cheese, and coffee — the manna of New York City.

©  Richard Modlin, 2009

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