Mighty PEN (Part One)
You can live a long time in New York City and never know about rather large, rather important, rather influential literary organizations until they pop up in front of your nose. So it was that had you said the words, "PEN American Center" or "PEN Children’s Book Committee" to me roughly one week ago I would have smiled blankly at you and blinked in discomfort. PEN? Oh dear. This is something obvious, isn’t it? Yep. Quite simply it is, "An association of writers working to advance literature, defend free expression, and foster international literary fellowship." The kind of organization that can boast members like Susan Sontag, W.H. Auden, and Langston Hughes. Oh me oh my.
I received via e-mail an invitation to attend a panel of prize-winning children’s authors under the title Dreadful Lies/Peculiar Truths. Present would be Susan Campbell Bartoletti (Newbery Honor winner for Hitler Youth), Robert Lipsyte (YA author of The Contender and, more recently, Heroes of Baseball), Vera B. Williams (A Chair for My Mother, as if you didn’t know), and moderator Susan Kuklin (who, amongst other things, did that very nice picture book Dance with Bill T. Jones).
You live in New York, you get spoiled. Yet even jaded little me didn’t want to pass up the chance to hear these people talk about, "how we navigate the narrow strait between providing brute facts and protecting young readers." Yowza! Sounded hot. So at 7:00 p.m. I walked into a quintessentially New York building. Now, the map will call it The New York Center for Independent Publishing but when you mosey in off the street what you think you’ve stumbled into is The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. That’s what all the interior signs call it anyway. The space is an odd, though not unpleasant, mixture of gilt, gold, marble, wrought iron, glass, must, and framed flags. Lotsa framed flags. You’ve soaring heights and magnificently narrow bathrooms all at once. Had the evening been a bust I would have been content to peaceably stare around myself in abject awe. As it was, I didn’t have to worry too much about becoming bored.
I should mention right now that the entire affair was recorded for podcasting. If you would like to hear firsthand some of the things said, merely go here and find the panel discussion in full.
A couple things became very clear, very fast. First off, Robert Lipsyte is not afraid to voice his opinion on any and all subjects. The result is that he’s custom-made for good sound bites. When discussing his book on Muhammad Ali he’ll mention that older sportswriters hated him and younger sportswriters loved him, "and we were both wrong." Or he’d say (and this is pretty true) that in YA novels the "gay kid has replaced the magical Negro" in terms of creating a diverse foil for the protagonist. Bartoletti is just as honest but subdued. She was very good at picking up where her fellow panelists would leave off and weave their discussions into her own work. Williams for her part started off slowly, but when she got rolling she was fun to listen to. I enjoyed hearing her discuss how, as a child, she took on the cause of children, of which she was one. Williams the younger felt oppressed by authorities figures (perhaps her sister in particular). Whether or not that comes out in her works is up for discussion.
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO)
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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