Each and every year New York Public Library generously sponsors a one-day conference for librarians and educators called Bookfest at the library’s main branch. Until this year. Not that NYPL didn’t host the conference, but they certainly didn’t sponsor it. Yes, at long last my two employers have finally come together in a big beautiful showing. School Library Journal sponsored Bookfest this year and I couldn’t have been more pleased. It’s like watching two characters on a television show you love finally getting married. This was the Lily and Marshall wedding of the library age (those of you playing at home will get ten points for recognizing that reference).
The routine at Bookfest is always the same. You get a big time speaker for the first part. In the second part everyone splits into little moderated groups on different topics. You could choose a picture book group or a YA novel group. Anything fits. Then everyone has a delicious boxed lunch and three big-time author/illustrators then talk and discuss upon a given topic. This year the primary speaker was Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall books. The other three speakers were Jeanette Winter, Walter Dean Myers, and Ibtisam Barakat.
And now allow me to introduce you to the World’s Tallest Podium. Not really, but in my infinite wisdom I decided that the best possible way to photograph this event would be from the front of the audience. Makes sense, no? Not really. You see, once upon a time I thought I was going to be a photographer and I even went so far as to major in Fine Arts with a concentration on photography. Needless to say, I am not a very good person with a camera. I have a definite problem with planning anything out. So when I chose a chair that was directly below the podium, I did not anticipate shots like this one when the job was completed:
Whoopsie-doodle! On the other hand, it gives a good sense of scale. Check out the heights on these people. Here’s Jack Martin, our YA coordinator thingy (they keep changing the positions in this library):
Here is Margaret Tice, our Assistant Coordinator thingy:
And here is Walter Dean Myers:
Altogether now. "One of these things is not like the other." If your primary association with Mr. Myers involves him sitting on one side of a table with you on the other hoping to get an autograph, you probably wouldn’t be aware of how bloody tall the man is. That man towers!
But back to the beginning. Brian Jacques was, as I said, our speaker and there is a reason for that. The man is bloody brilliant at talking for long stretches at a time. It put me in the mind of comedian Eddie Izzard. You don’t think that his stories are necessarily going anywhere and then you realize that they are all connected and traveling back to the start. Jacques was fond of dropping in fun details about his own life. He was in a folk group in the 60s that used to back up The Scaffold, a group headed by Paul McCartney’s brother Peter (remember, Brian Jacques is from Liverpool). He was born during the Battle of Britain. And he only knows one librarian joke. Actually, that was probably one of the best things about Mr. Jacques. Aside from being a ribald speaker he isn’t afraid to really get into topics that a wimpier man would eschew. Nuns beating him up as a kid at a school he referred to as "St. John’s School for the Totally Bewildered"? Good stuff. And when asked what character from the entirety of literature he most identifies with, the answer was keen. "Flashman".
My sole regret with this talk is that I wasn’t able to get a picture of Mr. Jacques with his tongue sticking out. Cause in the course of a single talk it’s amazing how often one man’s tongue can appear to drill home a joke. I suppose that’s fairly self-evident, though.
Some good lines:
When discussing that inevitable question kids ask, "When did you decide to be an author?" Jacques said that his typical response is that one day he sprung out of bed and said, "Today I shall become an author! And I shall auth and auth and auth."
Other line that I liked out of context: "I’ve got to eat Spam. I don’t know why."
Once he finished it was time to separate into groups. Now this was the first time I’d ever been asked to moderate a group for Bookfest and I was all kinds of excited. I’d chosen to do Middle Grade II with a concentration on graphic novels. My theme was "Quests" but that was just because I’d been asked to incorporate Redwall in some way, so I did the Redwall graphic novel. And because my group was undoubtedly the smartest, cleverest, best looking in the room I was able to offer the extra special treat of leading them to the brand new children’s room in the Humanities Library (due to open in 2 weeks or so). That was to reward them for being so nice as to chose my group. Of course, as we were leaving I saw that a different moderator had made complex FOLDERS for her grouping, whereas I hadn’t made so much as a handout. Crud.
But it was a ribald discussion. We talked about Redwall and Moomin and Bone. We talked about Mouse Guard and Jellaby, and in the midst of all this we worked in Pogo, Babymouse, Robot Dreams, and The Babysitters’ Club. I was mighty grateful for the presence of Lori (Prince) Ess, Queens Librarian extraordinaire, who was able to turn the conversation into a cohesive whole through a graceful summary. Kudos, lady! And extra kudos to everyone who came. Next time (if there is a next time) I’ll include handouts and chocolate.
Of course I was kind of unable to get out of the room again because people kept curiously poking their head in for "just a peek" and I’m so doggone proud of the space that I couldn’t help but let them. Earlier in the day I’d raced down to our Closed Stacks in the Reference portion of the library to grab our permanent copies of a book by each of the authors. Unfortunately we’d classified Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood as Young Adult, which is utterly unfair and meant that we didn’t have a permanent copy but whatchagonnado? Even so I was able to hop into line and get signatures on books like The Librarian of Basra, Scorpions (first edition, ho ho!), and Redwall signed to The Children of New York. Boo-yah!
After lunch it was time for the talks, and boy oh boy I hadn’t expected them to be this exciting. Jeanette Winter started off by reading her newest (and as of yet unpurchased, I believe) picture book A School for Nasreen. The story is a true one about the secret schools for girls that existed under the Taliban rule. It was more than a little touching, and I think we all were delighted that she’d chosen to share it with us. Next came Ms. Barakat, a fiery and amazing speaker with a passion and intensity that woke everyone up from the front to the back of the room. She was full of sentences like, "If we hold back our tears we are not learning" and "There ought to be this adjustment where we reclaim our humanity." It was gutsy beyond measure to hear her recount her history, the problems in the Middle East, and the solutions to the problem. The fact that she was so open and accepting and not brimming over with anger was impressive, but I’d already gotten a sense of this from her book, so I wasn’t surprised. I did wonder how many people in the room hadn’t read her book and would be surprised, though. To hear about the atrocities committed by Israel is not something that tends to happen very often in a New York setting. And to hear someone this dedicated to peace is remarkable. She never spoke about the threats she’d received after her book or her talks, but instead spoke about the writing process and how a writer leads the reader by the hand because, "Most of us don’t like going anywhere alone." She spoke about how artists lead the culture. She did have a tendency to speak longer than her designated time, but just the contrast between her and her soft-spoken fellows was amazing.
Walter Dean Myers came last in the wake of his book Sunrise Over Fallujah. "We are all involved in every war. And we are all involved in every peace," he said. Where Barakat was hot and passionate, Myers was cool and thoughtful. They made for a fascinating pair, particularly when they answered questions at the end as posed by both Margaret Tice and the audience itself.
The final thing I took from the conference was Jeanette Winter saying that she was very excited about the proliferation of graphic novels on the market today. This got me to wondering . . . will Ms. Winter dip her toe into the graphic novel world soon? She’d certainly be in good company will fellow picture book artists turned comic whizzes Don Wood, David Small, and LeUyen Pham. Time will tell . . .
The best part is that this whole kerschmozzle was taped and should be available online at NYPL.org at some point. I’ll keep you posted on when it’s up.
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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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