Taming Your Fangirl Urges In the Presence of Your Squeemakers*

Reading Time: 8 minutes
Jon Klassen signs a book for a five year old girl
Once my daughter thought a Caldecott Medalist should know about her cannibal fish. Image: Amy M. Weir

This weekend I will be attending a lecture/book signing with—and therefore briefly meeting—one of my celebrity crushes, Dav Pilkey (DON’T JUDGE! Read my article I’m linking to!), and I can feel my inner fangirl starting to bubble up something fierce.

So I’m trying to prepare myself mentally for the moment. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for reluctant readers and kids with ADHD”—that’s good, that sounds like a perfectly reasonable thing to say. More reasonable than printing out and giving him the above-linked article. Should I tell him I wrote an article about him? Can I ask for a hug? I want a hug. Or is that weird? What if I blush?

What do you do when faced with a real person you’ve adored from afar? Where do you draw the line between expressing your deep gratitude for their work and being an obnoxious and/or inappropriate creeper? How do you keep the squeeing under control?!

I know a lot of people would look down their noses at me. They can tell the difference between loving a piece of art and loving its creator. They wouldn’t dare call themselves a “fan” of a real, fallible person. I am not so cool-headed.  I love things deeply, and I love people even more so, whether famous or not, near-perfect or deeply troubled. I have so much love to go around, and when people create wonderful things, I love them for it.

I don’t worship or idolize them, but I still have a great deal of FEELING. I’m just socially awkward, so having a great deal of feeling and knowing exactly how to express it don’t always balance out. To be honest, I’m much more likely not to show any emotion, or not even approach a person I admire (famous or not) to tell them so. I’m too shy. But if  I don’t say something, then I’m haunted by regrets. And the regrets feel bigger when you only have one opportunity to speak to a person. Hense, pre-panicking over your squeemakers.*

Fan mail is so much simpler.** You can write it all out and not have to worry about social cues, and you’re certainly not intruding on the person’s actual personal time and space. Maybe sending Martin Freeman a birthday card every year is going a little overboard (not that I would ever do that) (I missed a year. And some years it was part of a collective fan thing). But otherwise, it’s a lovely way to express your gratitude without being a stalker. I am so for fan mail!

Of course, you’re not really intruding on a person’s time and space at a signing, either, because they’re there to meet fans. But when you’re a socially-awkward person who feels things passionately, and you only have about sixty seconds to actually address your squeemaker, and you don’t quite trust yourself to get it right…you tend to overthink things.

The most I’ve ever fangirled over meeting a—I hate the word “celebrity,” it implies glitz, glamour, and gossip magazines—public figure? Someone I’d only met through their works and interviews?—well, the most I’ve fangirled over such an individual was at another book signing, in library school, and the squeemaker in question was Lois Lowry. I really could have used a script. She seemed unimpressed with me. “I drew illustrations for Number the Stars,” I managed to stutter eventually. “When I read it. Because I loved it.”

She nodded, and stated, “I get a lot of pictures from that book.” Well, great. Not only am I unoriginal, other people actually sent her stuff. (This was, come to think of it, just a couple months before I decided to start writing fan mail).

Luckily I didn’t have too long to feel mortified. At the very next table was a woman named Theresa Nelson. Yeah, you probably haven’t heard of her. Not as famous as Lois Lowry, at least: she had only a few books out at the time, critically acclaimed but nowhere near bestselling. I might not have read any of them if I hadn’t been assigned to in preparation for this event—they were serious realistic fiction, not my genre, though I did enjoy them very much when I did read them. But the woman caught my eye across the lecture hall and gave me a bright smile. And her talk was full of life and observations I related to. “Have we met?” she asked when I reached her signing table.

“I don’t think so,” I said, “but you smiled at me in the auditorium.”

“Ah,” she said, looking at me closely, “Maybe I just recognized a kindred spirit.” A person who uses phrases like “kindred spirit” is by definition a kindred spirit! We chatted about writing, and how much I identified with comments she made in her speech about the links between storytelling and dreaming, and I said I was no good at writing endings, and she said, “Same here! I need to tell you about a book that changed my life. It’s called Bird By Bird. It’ll help with your ending problem.”

Later I dutifully sought out the book, which, if you’re a writer type who hasn’t read it yet, you should probably go do that now, too, though I’m still not over my ending problem (but I do tend to quote the title story to my kids a lot whenever they’re overwhelmed, and they say, “Why do you always say that? This is nothing about birds!”)

Anyway, I went into that event squeeing over meeting Lois Lowry—a meeting which turned out to be intimidating; and I left squeeing over Theresa Nelson because the meeting itself had been so gloriously sweet. I was now a huge fan of her because I’d met her. Go figure.

Oh, that was the same event where Virginia Hamilton was waiting two people in line behind me for the bathroom. And I can’t not mention it whenever Virginia Hamilton comes up in conversation. It’s a compulsion. Why am I so obsessed with that fact? Is there really something that interesting about a prestigiously-awarded woman who-would-eventually-have-a-prestigious-award-named-after-her using the bathroom like ordinary folk? Is it really that exciting that she was using the same bathroom at the same time as little ol’ me?

Yes, famous people, they’re just like us, and somehow this is exciting. You try to be cool about it because of course they are ,but when things like that happen it can be hard to calm the inner fangirl down. This one time while we were both apparently watching the Olympics, Sonia Manzano tweeted something about the gymnastics competition and I tweeted back something like, “I know, right?” and she tweeted back to me, “I KNOW! RIGHT?” and it took all my power not to @ her in a general “OMG @SONIAMANZANO IS DISCUSSING OLYMPIC GYMNASTS WITH ME,” which, if the name means nothing to you, it’s probably because you know her better as Maria, and your inner four-year-old would be freaking out, too.

Speaking of children’s television, the most famous person I have ever met—multiple times, at that—was Mr. McFeely, but I actually had little trouble keeping the fangirling to the absolute minimum. Perhaps I’m a little desensitized, having grown up in the Pittsburgh area, just ten minutes from Fred Rogers’ own hometown of Latrobe: I was almost used to seeing Mister Rogers characters and actors around (Bob Trow, the man who played Bob Dog and Robert Troll, actually lived in the same tiny town as me, and he used to hang out outside the corner store. “Did you see who that was?” my mother whispered to me once after we passed him…and I hadn’t. That’s how desensitized I was). Only once was I ever in the same room as Fred Rogers himself, though, and he did warrant a fangirl freakout, to the point that I was far too nervous to actually cross the room to meet him. He was talking to other people, and I didn’t know what to say to him, anyway. Maybe, “Hi, yours was the only TV show I wasn’t deathly afraid of as an overly-sensitive preschooler,” but that’s so glib. No words cover the true extent of his impact on me and the world. To this day the only thing I can imagine, in the presence of Mister Rogers, is giving him a big hug and silently walking away. I sort of regret that I hadn’t, but another part of me thinks I shouldn’t have, anyway.

But I digress.

In the case of Mr. McFeely, I actually think it was less desensitization, and more the semi-professional situation. The Children’s Museum where I worked has close ties with the Fred Rogers Company, and the two organizations often partner up for projects and events. Mr. McFeely often showed up to kick off charity events, like, in one notable instance,*** the annual Sweater Drive. We had several local school groups coming in on a chilly November day, so I brought out a wheeled bin for them to put their coats into. Which made my very first interaction with the great Mr. McFeely, him pointing to the bin and asking me, “Is that for the sweaters?” and me telling him, “No, it’s for the school group.” And for a minute there, in my head, I was like, “Holy heck, you just told Mr. McFeely ‘No’!” But, you know, we were both working, working together, at that. It wasn’t time to think too hard about momentarily disappointing important figures from my childhood, it was time to kick off a Sweater Drive for a bunch of kids, which meant discussing logistics of outerwear collection with a man who just happened to be an important figure from my childhood.

Once, I saw him just arriving in the Museum lobby, just inconspicuous David Newell, not in costume. The Museum director greeted him with a boisterous “Speedy delivery!” which I kind of marveled at the nerve of. Would he not be annoyed at her outing him like that, in the lobby, out of costume? Did he get annoyed at people so closely associating him with a character he played? Apparently not, judging by the warmth of his response. His character brought joy to people, and we were all in the business of bringing joy to children, and that made us all partners that day, regardless of how much farther his reach was.

Have you noticed I tend to geek out the most over people in children’s media? Yeah, you can see where my passions lie. The connections your brain builds in childhood are the strongest, so the artists who inspire you as a child go deeper into your soul, too. That’s why I’m devoted to children’s librarianship, and that’s why I geek out over children’s authors. But knowing they’re actually there for the children helps tame my fangirling, too.

A few years ago one of my favorite picture book author/illustrator teams, Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, came to Pittsburgh through the same program that’s bringing Dav Pilkey in this weekend. I’m embarrassed to admit how long I spent fretting that I really wanted to go see them but didn’t want to go by myself, before I realized my own children were actually their target audience. Phew. It seemed so much more natural to speak to them through the filter of my children! My son bonded with Mac Barnett over having the same name as one of his latest protagonists, and my daughter derailed Jon Klassen’s innocent question about pets by cheerfully telling him all about how our guppy ate all but one of her babies. “That’s terrible!” he said rather jovially. Any mortification I might have felt about my daughter regaling a Caldecott Medalist with tales of her cannibal fish was quickly relieved when I remembered he won that Caldecott for a book about cannibal fish.

My children are of course coming with me to meet Dav Pilkey. They’re excited, too. But I’m still trying to work out whether it’s okay to give him a hug.


*Everyone should start using this term as widely as possible when referring to the objects of their fangirling, and credit Nivi Engineer with its coinage.

**Side note, the only time I ever confessed my feelings to a real-life crush was through the mail, too. Mail in general is so much easier.

***Not THE most notable instance. The most memorable visit from Mr. McFeely when I was there was the time we had an exhibit about Dutch picture book character Miffy, and we had a staffer in a Miffy costume with a shockingly huge head helping Mr. McFeely with his presentation, and Mr. McFeely accidentally knocked Miffy’s head off in front of hundreds of schoolchildren, whose hysterical laughter sidelined the show for at least ten minutes, after which voices in the audience kept shouting, “Pop your head off again, Miffy!” But that one doesn’t have anything to do with me personally encountering famous people.