Interview: Running a Kid’s Track at a Geek Convention

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©2013 John O'Halloran
Kids talking with real life astronaut, Cady Coleman. (Photo: John O’Halloran)

When I went to the World Science Fiction Convention (aka WorldCon, aka LonestarCon3, aka LSC3) over the Labor Day weekend this year, I was very impressed by their services for children. From the bonded, licensed day care that I used for my two-year-old to the impressively creative “Rangernauts” track that an 11-year-old of an acquaintance of mine enjoyed, I wanted to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes. I tracked down the organizers, James Bacon and Alissa McKersie, and they graciously agreed to an interview.

Geek Mom: Hello! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. Could you briefly introduce yourselves, and maybe talk a little bit about how you first found your way to WorldCon?

Alissa McKersie: My name is Alissa McKersie and my first Worldcon was Denvention in 2008.  My husband at the time attended regularly and thought I would enjoy it.  And boy, did I!!!  I was told I fit in better than a fish to water!  It was a couple of years before I could attend again, however.  I was finally able to go to Renovation in 2011, and this is where it all changed!

James Bacon: I’m James Bacon, Irish Science Fiction fan living in London. I went with local fan friends by ferry and train to Glasgow ’95.  It was a great con, but I couldn’t get to another until 2004. I ended up helping the Children’s Programme there run by Inger Myers and Persis Thorndike.

GM: Once you made your way to WorldCon, how did you come to be involved in the kid’s track of programming?

AM: While looking through the program book of Renovation, I remember coming across a program item that I was really excited about called “Doctor Who Lego Build”.  Keep in mind, I was unfamiliar with Worldcons, and I had NO IDEA they even had separate programming for children.  On another note, I did quite a bit of volunteering. I helped out back stage for opening ceremonies!  That was quite fun! So, when I found out that this Lego Build was for kids, I thought that I’d just volunteer for it! Gosh, I work with kids everyday (I’d been teaching martial arts for 13 years), so let’s go have fun!  And, I did!  James Bacon was running the Kids’ Program at Renovation, so this was when we met.  I remember him coming to me the very next morning and asking me to join the team for the next year at Chicon 7.  Thus, ChiKidz was created.

JB: I’d been running unusual conventions, Aliens Stole my Handbag, Damn Fine Con, and They Came and Shaved us, which were ‘Fun Cons‘ aimed at adult friends in fandom who wanted an eclectic weekend. The organizers of the 2005 Worldcon, Vince Docherty and Colin Harris, asked myself and Stefan Lancaster to run the children’s program. This terrified most sane thinking parents in fandom. We ran Young Adult Fun Activities (YAFA). It was fun!  Iain Banks, George R. R. Martin, and Robin Hobb all participated!  We chopped up a car and even played with liquid nitrogen! There was a program item entitled ‘Where will the Future of Fandom Come From’—to everyone’s surprise, except the panelists’, we invaded from the back door bearing water pistols!  It was very rewarding.

After YAFA we ran Chaos Space Pirates in 2006, gave Aussicon ideas in 2010, and ran Reno Kids 2011, ChiKidz 2012 and Rangernauts this year. I think being able to run the program of a moving event like Worldcon consistently and consecutively is really helpful.  It allowed a build-up of team and resources.

GM: What would you say is vital for making a successful kid’s track program?

AM: Willingness to have fun, be a bit goofy and enthusiastic yourself, and be genuine about what you’re doing. Kids know who’s real with them, and they see right through people who aren’t genuine.  There’s also a lot to say for being organised and prepared.  We (James and I) come days early to prep ahead of time.  We have a great team each year that we are so grateful for that we couldn’t be successful without!  Everyone works so hard to paint, build, and even test… just to make sure things can be played with (and even broken, LOL) right away!  But, that is the BEST part!  The KIDS are what matter!  THAT is what is vital for making a successful Kids’ Program.

JB: Real support. Financial support really helps. The Worldcons make funds and world class participants available while giving us a great location and space. Kids’ Program is not a 2nd class stream, in actual fact to most Worldcon Chairs it is one of the most important. It’s a 5,000 person event and we are looking after 200 children, but it is still a cherished part of the convention.

©2013 John O'Halloran
A stack of duct tape as tall as herself! (Photo: John O’Halloran)

A good Team is vital. A big one, it is exhausting. Planning, as Alissa says, everything must be ready. You cannot fail children, or run out of duct tape.

Listen. We did ‘Make Lightsabers’ nine years ago. The kids loved it. It never gets old. The best items we did this year were based on ideas, or successes and the feedback from children themselves.

If it seems or sounds dangerous, that is great, especially if there is a danger, but obviously the risk is managed.

Be flexible with the kids, while maintaining discipline and order. They are individuals, so everything is not for everyone, but a ‘Give it 10 minutes and see how it goes’ or ‘would you like to help me’ can carry children into something they subsequently enjoy. Be very relaxed, it is meant to be fun.

Would ‘YOU’ enjoy it? If Alissa or myself would genuinely enjoy an item, there is a good chance it will work. So, in a way we vicariously live through these kids, which is better than thinking like an adult and imposing what you think they might like.

GM: What worked particularly well at LSC3? What would you have done differently?

AM: Again, the team of people that supported our program was great. We had some returning staff members and some excellent new volunteers this year.  I think part of the difficulty we always have is that people don’t know that a separate program for kids is available.

JB: The Lead Pouring [with the artist Guest of Honor] was very successful, the warning that the molten metal will remove flesh from the bone got everyone’s attention. Frankenstuffies continues to be hugely popular, and the plush toy massacre was fun. The rockets propelled by pressurized air and water was good, too.

The best item was no doubt Astronaut Cady Coleman, accompanied by Scientist Tracy Thumm and Engineer Heather Paul: a full NASA team. They were fantastic and looked at the Lego Space Station and Ships the children made. We also had Corry L. Lee, a experimental particle physicist, and Lt Kate Zurmehly (US Army) for that item, and that made it quite the line-up. An amazing group of role models, and having them engaging with the kids was fabulous.

RN Frankenstuffie 4
Proud owner of a Frankenstuffie. (Photo: Alissa McKersie)

GM: OK, I have to ask: Frankenstuffies?

AM: Absolutely! What we do is we take stuffed animals and dismember them…yes, we cut them up! We actually try NOT to do this while the kids are around. Last year, a friend of mine and I did this at home in Phoenix because we had the time and the transport to Chicago…this year, we did it in the room, the day before the con started. If you ask our Team (Gaye will tell you especially), we had some traumatic events that day! So, for the activity, the kids can grab whatever pieces they want and stitch together their own Frankenstuffie! And we use embroidery floss, so it’s more visible, like Frankenstein! What they come up with is unbelievable! Some kids are very traditional, and some kids are so imaginative! The variety is so cool to see!

GM: What sort of feedback do you get from the parents and the kids?

AM: I am still getting emails from parents from Renovation that wish they could be coming each year! Every year that we are running a Kids’ Program, I hear from parents and kids alike “then we WILL be there,” or something to that effect.  Several parents have said to me that they enjoy the programming for the kids, so they volunteer for more activities (which is always nice, as we need more parent volunteers!) But the BEST feedback for me are the big hugs I get at the end of the convention from the kids that say, “this was the best part of my convention”!

JB: A lot of it is instantaneous. It is rather incredible. From mannerly thank yous to requests for hugs, one can see the happiness. Parents are always just grateful, and many are supportive and get involved. I have to be honest and say we had nothing but great feedback this year. But that is because we have a massive team, and the unseen people, like the Chair, Randy Shepherd, getting the NASA team; or the facilities team, Helen Montgomery and Joyce Lloyd, making sure we have un-damageable aluminum tables; it all makes it work, and the resulting positivity is really amazing.

GM: Do you have any final words of wisdom for those who might be thinking of tackling this sort of thing at their own conventions?

AM: Remember, Worldcon is a five day on-going event, so it’s a bit of an anomaly.  James and I spend the entire year working on it in various capacities.  I don’t know that another convention is going to be that intense.  However, that being said… I think we both have a blast at Worldcon, regardless of the intensity!  So, bring scifi (or whatever your convention is about) to kids, be genuine and enthusiastic about it, and like I said in the very beginning… be willing to have FUN!!

JB: Have a good team. We had Mary Miller, Scott Hipp and Gaye Ludwig, Joy Bragg-Staudt, Corry L. Lee, James Shields, Lia O., Linda Welzelburger all helping us, and we recruited some teenagers who turned up, and they were superb, too.

Yeah, have fun. Each evening I ensured I enjoyed the vast social scene, partied, danced. or attended amazing ceremonies, and that breaks up the continuous assault of children! Don’t worry too much about things, like girls love slot cars and train sets and boys like to make scrap books and dragon wings, make the stuff available and let them play where they like.

©2013 John O'Halloran
The 2013 Rangernauts team with NASA astronaut Cady Coleman. (Photo: John O’Halloran)
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