Special Delivery: Why Amazon’s Big Drone Hullabaloo was a Failure of Journalism (and how we can do better)

If you read this blog, it’s probably because you know me as a children’s author, but for seven years out of college, I worked in local television news. My undergraduate degree is from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, and in my years there, we talked a lot about what makes a news story — and what doesn’t.  Amazon’s big 60 Minutes reveal about plans to deliver products to your door via drone wouldn’t have made the cut.

How come? Because there’s a difference between a legitimate news story and a publicity stunt. One way to tell the difference is to ask good, intelligent questions about what you’re being told and shown, no matter how shiny those things may be.

Make no mistake – I’m a huge fan of technology in all its latest greatest forms. I desperately want to try out those Google glasses. I’m about to send a kid off to college to study engineering – heck, I loaned him my van for two days so he could chase an electronics-laden weather balloon into the Massachusetts woods. And I’ve ordered things from Amazon. But when Amazon trotted out its “delivery drone” prototype,  I wished the 60 Minutes people had asked some better questions. Here’s how that conversation might have gone…

Question: Wow…that’s pretty cool. But isn’t it illegal to fly drones in lots of places? Say, close to airports and in heavily populated areas like those to which you’d be delivering?
Answer: Why yes…yes, it is. And we have no reason to believe that’s going to change soon.
Question: Those propellers on your delivery guy look kind of sharp and dangerous, too. Any worries that could be a problem?
Answer: Well…yes. Drones aren’t toys. They’re aircraft, and like other kinds of aircraft with whirling, spinning metal blades, they’re dangerous and can slice up human flesh quite nicely. We’re…uh…going to have to think on that one.
Question: What’s to keep people from running off with your drones and repurposing them for their own nefarious plans?
Answer: Nothing. We expect people will have a lot of fun taking them apart.
Question: Won’t that get expensive for you? And what about the drones that crash and break things or hurt people? There could be lawsuits. And I also read that drones are awful in wind. Isn’t it windy sometimes in places you deliver?
Answer: We hope it will never be windy when we need to deliver things.
Question: So given all that, are you really working on this as a serious thing, or did you just want us to talk about you right before Cyber Monday?
Answer: Hey, do you want to see our warehouse? It is bigger than a lot of football fields…come on!


None of this is to say that drones aren’t pretty cool. They are.

But you know what’s even cooler? Walking into an independent bookstore that smells like paper books and maybe hot chocolate, too. Finding a real live person behind the counter (she’ll probably be wearing a Santa hat). Telling her about your dad who loves old coins and baseball, or your kid who likes to take apart your toaster to build things, or your best friend whose favorite thing in the world is butterflies…and having that fellow book lover find the perfect, just-right book for the person you love.

Shop local. Shop small. Give books.

Authors Wanted (to help celebrate World Read Aloud Day!)

World Read Aloud Day 2014 is just three months away. Do you have plans yet?

For the past couple years, I’ve helped out with LitWorld’s World Read Aloud Day by pulling together a list of author volunteers who would like to spend part of the day Skyping with classrooms around the world to share the joy of reading aloud. World Read Aloud Day 2014 is March 5th, and I’d love to do this again, to help interested authors, teachers, and librarians connect.

A suggested World Read Aloud Day Skype visit goes like this…

  • 1-2 minutes: Author introduces himself or herself and talks a little about his or her books.
  • 3-5 minutes: Author reads aloud a short picture book, or a short excerpt from a chapter book/novel
  • 5-10 minutes: Author answers some questions from students about reading/writing
  • 1-2 minutes: Author book-talks a couple books he or she loves (but didn’t write!) as recommendations for the kids

Sound like fun? If  you’re the author of a traditionally published* book and you’d like to volunteer to do some 10-15 minute Skype visits with classes on March 5, 2013, please send me an email via the contact form on my website (you can get there by clicking on the little envelope on the right side of the screen).  Deadline: January 1st, please, so people can plan.

  • Put WORLD READ ALOUD DAY VOLUNTEER in the subject line
  • Include the following information in the body of your email:
    • Your name
    • Your publisher
    • What ages your books fit best (Elementary, Middle School, or High School)
    • What time zone you live in (EST, CST, etc. This is important for scheduling!)
    • Hours you’ll be available for Skype visits on March 5, 2013 (10am-2pm EST, for example)
    • Your website (and email if your website doesn’t have contact information)

So a sample email from an author volunteer will look like this:

Kate Messner
Elementary/Middle School
11am-2pm EST

Please use this exact format; it will make it easy for me to copy & paste your entry to the blog post, and then I will love you forever.

I’ll pull all the author volunteer information together in a blog post for early January and share with teachers & librarians who want to Skype with read-aloud authors on March 5th.  Teachers & librarians will contact authors directly to request visits.  If you’re on the list for a while and then realize your schedule for the day is full, it will be helpful if you email me to let me know that so that I can cross you off and you don’t keep getting requests.

*I’m limiting this volunteer round-up to traditionally published authors who write children’s and YA books. That’s not because I have anything against self-publishing or ebooks — it’s simply to limit the scope of the project so it doesn’t overwhelm me. If someone else would like to create a similar list of self-published and/or ebook author volunteers, I’ll happily link to it here.  Thanks for understanding!

The wonderful people of NCTE2013

I spent the weekend before Thanksgiving in a whirlwind of books and readers and general awesomeness at the National Council of Teachers of English Convention in Boston. Here are some highlights.


A couple weeks before NCTE, I had this crazy idea. What if a whole bunch of us – authors and teachers and whoever else wants to come – made plans to go for a run/jog/walk together one morning? #RunNCTE (yes…it even spawned a hashtag) happened Saturday morning at the convention, with about two dozen enthusiastic morning fitness fans. Erin Dionne mapped out a route for us and gave directions before we took off.

Here’s Team-Bloomsbury after the run – from left to right, it’s Erin Soderberg, school/library marketing guru Beth Eller, and me.

After the run, I spent some time in the exhibit hall, ogling new books and saying hello to some fellow book people like Wendy Mass…

…and Brian Floca, who illustrates the MARTY MCGUIRE books!

On Sunday, I took part in two panels – one with my Teachers Write summer writing camp friends Brian Wyzlic, Jennifer Vincent, Jo Knowles, and Gae Polisner!

My other panel was with more talented writers & artists – Matt Phelan, Linda Urban, and Loree Griffin Burns. Here’s Linda showing us some pages in her notebook.

After our panel, I signed books at the Bloomsbury Booth. Can you spot WAKE UP MISSING on the banner?

Many thanks to my fellow panelists and to the teacher-readers who made NCTE 2013 such an amazing experience!