The 2018 Chicago Toy & Game Fair was a noisy, crowded, sprawling affair filling Festival Hall at Navy Pier over the weekend. There was no obvious focal point but a blur of activity: wandering Star Wars characters and Boy Scouts, virtual reality, stuffed animals, board games, more than 100 young inventors hyping handmade games at science fairish booths.
Ava Gray, 12, received her press credentials, plunged in and started asking questions.
“What’s your name?”
“How do you spell that?”
“How old are you?”
One of 25 young reporters nationwide who won a spot on the Scholastic News Kids Press Corps, the South Side 7th grader had, like any good journalist, formed a strategy to cover the event.
“I want to investigate the ping pong tournament and the yo-yo challenge,” she said ahead of time.
Before she had stepped through the entrance, however, she was snagged by a flack, Emily Blosser, from Brilliant PR & Marketing, who guided her toward the Young Inventor Challenge.
“They’re coming up on a break,” Blosser said. “The perfect time to interview. So we’ll walk back there. All right?”
Ava was delivered to a pair of sisters, Emma and Kyra Bichler, 10 and 7, who talked about their game, Breakaway.
“I like code,” said the older girl.
Ava never stayed in one spot long but moved from one inventor to another, peppering questions.
“Can you tell me more about this game?”
“Did you invent this?”
Meridian Madness is the brainchild of Morgan Coolidge, from Wicker Park. Players trek to all the different places she plans to visit, like Paris.
“You answer trivia questions as you go,” she said, picking up a stack of blue index cards. “To get to different countries you just go to the airport and pay with different types of money.”
“Wow, seems interesting,” Ava said. “What motivated you to invent this game?”
“I really like the prospect of traveling,” replied Morgan, 10. “But I haven’t really done it a lot.”
Ava was accompanied by her mother, Kelly. I had to ask: was she not devastated at the prospect of her bright young daughter entering a field as troubled, if not moribund, as professional journalism?
“I just want them both to be happy,” she said — she also has a 10-year-old son. “I studied writing, that was an outlet for me, so Ava has a love of writing. I’ll be more than happy to see her as a journalist. It’s very important work.”
Ava, while interested in becoming a doctor, said covering the fair made journalism seem more appealing.
She certainly has reportorial instincts, zeroing in on the more newsworthy stories she encountered, such as Ellie Skalla, of Oak Park, who was not standing in front of any homemade board but a slick display for GalactiQuest, named “most marketable concept” at the show last year, now in production and slated to be sold at Target stores starting January.
“I didn’t want a Candyland-ish game,” said Ellie, 11, referring to the simply plodding around a board according to a spinner or dice. Instead, she created a game where you try to “conquer as many planets as you can.” Then you start farms.
Ellie gave a box containing the new, still unavailable, game to Ava, the first in what could be a lifetime of freebies, comps, samples and perks that pad the otherwise rocky path of newspaper reporters.
I introduced Ava to another bedrock of professional journalism: a large media organization buying you lunch, and we repaired to Harry Caray’s. Ava’s toy fair story is to be 350 words, she said, while it doesn’t have a deadline, she plans to get it done this week, after she gets her homework done. I had a few questions of my own.
Scholastic Magazine goes to 25 million students; is it daunting to write for that audience?
“No,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
“Are they paying you?”
She seemed startled, paused, and said no, they aren’t. I grimaced in sympathy; Scholastic is the world’s largest publisher and distributor of children’s books, a global corporation with revenues of $1.6 billion. Although I immediately realized, to be generous, the gig can be considered education, similar to the unpaid internships and write-for-free web sites that news organizations worldwide use to generate copy while not subtracting from their bottom lines. Ava Gray certainly isn’t complaining.
Welcome to journalism, 2018. A game where many play but few win.