Day of Dialog 2015: Putting the Chaotic Past Into Some Kind of Order
Book Expo’s a funny beastie. For years it existed for the booksellers of America. Librarians? Sure, they could go but we weren’t exactly encouraged to attend. We had our ALA Conferences and that was nice and well and good.
But times, they change. The internet appeared. The bloggers congealed (I’m trying to find a better term to describe this and honestly this is the best I’ve got). And suddenly librarians weren’t just attending Book Expo. They were being encouraged to attend. Books is books is books. Maybe you understand why I tend to break into near hysterical laughter when I read the whole “print is dead” argument. Tell that to the Javits Center in May.
But before Book Expo really kicks up its heels and gets going, School Library Journal hosts a l’il sumthin’ sumthin’ called Day of Dialog. In terms of sheer concentrated moderation and discussion and smart talking, there’s really no comparison. For one day, the top authors with their amazing new books, many of which aren’t even out yet, do the talky talk thing. And we get to listen in.
In writing this up I’m skipping the YA section (as is my wont) and the publisher preview portion. The talks are always the most interesting part of any Day of Dialog (it’s not called Day of Promotion, after all) so that’s what I’ll report on. Accordingly.
On this day in question Rebecca Miller, our illustrious Editor-in-Chief, stepped up to do the customary intro. She was followed by Luann Toth. And then it was time for our Keynote Speaker to start us off for the day. Whom could it be? Well, his latest book is The Marvels, a title that I have only seen the smallest of glimpses of. My hope was to see it officially somewhere in the course of the week. You can’t hide it from me forever, Scholastic!! Luann, as she introduced him, also mentioned that he had a heckuva amazing exhibit at the D.C. Library’s Great Hall of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library from March 22-June 21. More details are here.
I am talking, of course, about Brian Selznick. To begin the day he started off with a pretty excellent intro, joking that he was going to cover all the topics that, by complete coincidence, were already being covered by the other panels today. And here’s what a stand up and cheer dude he is. He went out of his way to mention every single author and illustrator speaking that day. With that in mind, he said, all he could seem to speak about at this point were cat food, marshmallows and . . . oh, yes. Librarians. Reading slowly: “I . . . like . . . librarians.”
Boy howdy, does he. Because what Brian can do so amazingly is that he can name drop librarians. Even the very first ones who loved him at the start. Case in point,the first shout out was to the East Brunswick library, where he did his research for The Houdini Box. The title came out while he worked at Eeyore’s Bookstore (remove your hats in remembrance, folks) and while there Brian was tracked down by a librarian who proceeded to inform him that he would be coming to her school, she would throw him a dinner party, and he’d stay at her house. Those of us who remember Barbara Gross will believe easily that this conversation took place. Now around this time the great (and funny) author Paula Danzinger said she’d take Brian under her wing, would mentor him, and show him the ways of the world. So when she heard that he had already agreed to stay with Barbara she responded in horror, “You NEVER stay at a librarian’s house.”
But as Brian says, “I think it was clear that everyone in town just did what Barbara Gross told them too.” For example, he found himself in her presence alongside Eileen and Jerry Spinelli who subsequently turned to Brian and asked, “Excuse me, why are we here?”
Brian deftly transitioned this into his first literary “win”. Nancy Westlake in Iowa City, IA was the librarian who got in contact with him then. The award had a name like “The Lemmie Award” or something to that effect. In Nancy’s school, all the kids would vote on their favorite book and get deeply involved in the process. “I don’t like to brag but I went on to win FOUR Lemmie Awards. I’m the most winningest Lemmie Award winner in history.” And so Brian even made a point to fly out when Nancy retired.
I suppose you could say that it’s easy to delight librarians by mentioning librarians and saying how awesome they are. That’s fairly true of any profession. The difference comes in whether or not the speaker actually believes in what they are saying. And in the case of Mr. Selznick, his sincerity shines through.
The talk the turned to how Brian works. As a general rule, Brian refuses to never repeat himself. Instead, his method is to take what he’s learned from his previous books, and then build off of them in some manner. After Walt Whitman he felt he had gone as far as he could in that format (the nonfiction picture book biography). Hence the switchover to Hugo and its new style.
When Brian Selznick writes a book he doesn’t think about themes or big ideas. He thinks about plot. Cool ideas that can be incorporated into a story. In The Marvels, his latest work, the starting impetus was a love of the theater. For him, the emotional motivation is the last thing to go into a story. But when you’re actually reading the books the emotions are the most important part. If you don’t care about them, the plot won’t matter. And readers read what they want into the stories. When he was on tour for Hugo, for example, Brian was told by a reader how much they loved how it was a tale of a person creating their own family. And really, until that moment Brian had no idea that that was what his book was about. It is, to a large part, the readers’ job to figure out what a book is about.
Now let’s talk about book trilogies. Trilogies of any sort are so tricky. If it’s a movie trilogy the second film is always the weakest, unless of course it’s a superhero trilogy, and then the last film is the one to skip. Children’s book trilogies are different. Sometimes they don’t have to have any direct links whatsoever. The Marvels, in a matter of speaking, is the third in Brian’s trilogy. He cited Maurice Sendak and how he thought of his own best known picture books as a kind of trilogy (Where the Wild Things Are, Outside Over There, and In the Night Kitchen). So too does Brian of his own books, though he acknowledges it to be, “A very heavy trilogy”.
In The Marvels there are two stories. One story is entirely in pictures. 400 pages of it or so and it starts off the book. Then that story ends and the rest of the book is in text, 90 years later (coming in at about 200 pages or so). There are five generations of actors involved and theater and all sorts of stuff (I’m being vague not on purpose but because I’m not entirely certain what the plot is). The main character lives in 1990 and pieces together the first, older story which may or may not have a connection to his own tale.
The story was inspired in large part by an old London theater. In researching it he met one David Milne, who encouraged Brian and his husband to go off “mudlarking” with him. Brian, naturally, didn’t know what that meant. Down the crew walked to the Thames, finding that what at first looked like stones and rocks were not, in fact, stones and rocks. They were little pieces of London history. “I was haunted by this image of the detritus of history spread out upon the beach”. In that washed up detrius there was, for him, a connection to the vast power of storytelling. Stories make sense of the past, particularly when the past feels messy and uncontrollable. And the ability to transform life into a story is the triumph of order over chaos, and power over powerlessness. That is what The Marvels is about.
Brian then read a selection from the book, and in it we heard of two characters contemplating not just treasures washed beneath their feet but what in life is memorable, and forgettable, and permanent and impermanent.
In closing he urged us, each and every one, to continue putting the chaotic past into some kind of order.
Then it was time for the panels.
Celebrating the Natural World and Raising Awareness About How to Protect It
Moderated by Julie Roach of Cambridge Public Library.
So here we have a panel consisting of Anita Silvey (Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall), Louis Sachar (Fuzzy Mud), Paul Fleischman (Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines) (also my first time seeing him), Wendell Minor (Trapped! A Whale’s Rescue), and April Pulley Sayre (Raindrops Roll). The books, as Julie pointed out, ranged from preschool to high school. It was an interesting collection of folks. Sachar was almost the odd man out since his was the only purely fictional book (speculative fiction at that) in the bunch but he worked in the context of the talks.
First off, there was some talk about kids and engaging them in literature. Sayre spoke about how kids these days can really get involved in macro photography, so her latest book (Raindrops Roll) engages kids not only on a gee-this-is-pretty level but also because it’s an art that some of them (with the right equipment, of course) could do. This transitioned gently into how each speaker was engaged by the subject matter of their books. Silvey, for example, said that Jane Goodall begins each talk with a chimpanzee pant hoot. “She had me at the hello pant hoot”. As the answers went down the line, the answers morphed into how the authors became interested in environmental concerns themselves. Paul Fleischman spoke on his picture book training as well, “In picture books Every. Word. Counts. Nothing can be extraneous.” He then quoted Eudora Welty saying that each book teaches you to write it and not the next one (a statement that stood almost in direct opposition to what Brian had been saying earlier about using each book to build onto the next).
Julie tied Sachar back into the conversation by pointing out the loads of science and math in his book. When asked what he hoped kids would get out of it, he said he hoped first and foremost that they’d enjoy it. This has always been his point about his own books. I remember well his desire when Holes came out for it not to be forcibly assigned to kids in school. So I was happy to see that he mentioned in his discussion of his latest novel Fuzzy Mud the whole subplot on “virtue” and how his main character is actually trying to be virtuous. It is, to be fair, one of the most interesting elements of the book and something I hadn’t really noticed until Monica Edinger pointed it out to me. He also said that the book says something about out of control population growth, but I’ll admit that I didn’t pick up on that element at all.
Minor was the only illustrator on board so Julie asked him about his art. Wendell mentioned that generally speaking, when it comes to picture book publishing there’s an understanding that authors and illustrators don’t tend to talk but he and Robert Burleigh do. Frequently. He insists upon it. He mentioned too that Trapped was based on an incident when a whale seemingly thanked the human divers that saved her. I heard the story first on RadioLab myself, and if you ever have a chance to listen I recommend it. They spend a lot of time trying to figure out what exactly the whale was doing since it wasn’t necessarily saying thank you (though that’s what we humans wish it was doing).
Anita did a very funny recap of the difficulties of researching a subject for kids, where she mentioned the first stage (your publisher thinks you know something about the subject of your book and honestly, you don’t), the second stage (you do loads of research and now know everything – too much for a kids’ book), and the third stage (you pare it down). During the course of her talk I was able to ascertain just how smart a speaker Anita is. Her particular talent comes in how deftly she alternates between the serious subject matter and jokes. Meaning and humor. The keys to any good talk.
Julie wondered if there was a common thread that connects each individual author’s books to one another. Their answers were:
April – The hope of getting kids to feel connected to the material.
Paul – The presence of the past. When he was a young adult, Paul lived in a house build in 1770 and it gave him that connection to history that he’s always trying to instill in his young readers.
Wendell – A sense of place and a sense of time. “History is nothing more than stories about very interesting people.” Also, “History is not old. It is now.” That would be the theme of the day, it seems.
Anita – The personality of a true believer. She feels particularly connected to those people who give their life, life’s work, and life’s blood for what they do. “I understand that personality.” She pointed out that she has dedicated her own life to children’s books, after all. So there’s a connection there.
Louis – A sense of optimism. That for each of his characters (even in his oldest books) the world is open to them. They can do anything and become anybody. Once they find themselves and persevere through their problems, of course. That was the hardest thing about Fuzzy Mud. It was written with a foreboding sense of impeding catastrophe.
Julie asked if there was a book in any of their childhoods that was a catalyst for them. That made them what they are today.
April: Petersen’s Field Guide to Birds. She just loves a good field guide.
Paul: Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols.
Anita: Her teacher kept saying a swear word. “F.D.R. In my house that was a swear word.” So instead of saying something, she decided to learn more about the subject. That was a turning point for her.
Wendell: His mother would read Beatrix Potter and he fell in love with the animals. He also mentioned how many scientists he’s met that went on to do what they did because of My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.
Louis: In Our Town by Damon Runyon.
The talk closed up and I got briefly distracted by the #KidPit hastag trending at that time. Apparently it’s a way of pitching unsolicited manuscripts on Twitter. Huh. Who knew?
Focus, Betsy, focus! Next up:
Middle School Confidential:
The Tough and Tender Trials of Today’s Young Teens
And we’re off! After a quick break it was time to spend some time with Tim Federle (Five, Six, Seven, Nate!), Lisa Graff (Lost in the Sun), Luke Reynolds (The Looney Experiment), Rebecca Stead (Goodbye Stranger), and Rita Williams-Garcia (Gone Crazy in Alabama). Essentially, the world’s greatest cocktail party, but on a stage. Moderated by Stacy Dillon I was impressed by the fact that they were able to incorporate an author from a smaller publisher (Reynolds is with Blink) with the big boys.
I was also very excited for this panel because I, for one, have noticed a huge uptick in literature for middle schoolers. Such books are the devil to catalog, of course. Generally speaking there is no middle school section in public libraries so you’re stuck trying to figure out whether or not to place a book in the juvenile section or YA. Neither is quite right. And in a year where I’d argue that two of the three recent Newbery winners were clear cut middle school books (Brown Girl Dreaming and The Crossover), this is a conversation I want to hear people talking about.
First off, Stacy Dillon said that she was going to ask the panelists about “your middle school selves”. But to get them off to an easy start she lobbed them a softball question of what they liked to read when they were in middle school.
Rita: Thirty-One Brothers and Sisters by Reba Paeff Mirsky. Insofar as I can tell, this book is out of print so if any enterprising publisher wants to bring it back, I think I know someone who might be willing to give it a blurb. And Love Story. Of course.
Rebecca: Rebecca was able to come up with the most books in her answer. She loved the James Herriott books. Clan of the Cave Bear. She loved Stranger in a Strange Land and books by Ray Bradbury. And on the younger side, there was Norma Klein’s Mom, the Wolfman, and Me. And I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She even gave a shout out to Daddy Was a Number Runner, which is a book that constantly appears on NYC summer reading lists and is bloody impossible to order for my branches sometimes.
Tim: He said his family moved from San Francisco to Pittsburgh. “We were the first family to ever do that. Ever.” Books he enjoyed included Matilda and stories by Shel Silverstein (like Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back “It’s so pro-gun!”). He also said he tried to read The Shining thinking it would be something about (insert jazz hands) Shining!
Luke: Like a lot of kids, Luke had a challenge going on with a friend to read the longest book. He checked out Crime and Punishment, got to the end, and realized he’d hardly understood a word. Luck also recounted a somewhat surreal moment in his life when he remembered listening to The Autobiography of Malcolm X on audiobook in his suburban neighborhood while delivering papers with his toy poodle in tow.
Lisa: Like Luke she tried to read the longest books, so attempts were made on Moby Dick, The Bible, etc. So she went back to reading books by Roald Dahl, Louis Sachar, and she was obsessed with The Baby-Sitters Club. In the end she had about sixty of them and though they were eventually donated to a school library, she likes to think that they’re still there, along with her own books today.
“Share a secret about your middle school selves”, asks Stacy and Rita lets off a sound like a full balloon emitting air painfully.
Rita: Well, when Rita was young she bonded with her best friend over their professed hatred of boys. She would watch the local gophers with her friend and she’d name them after boys in her classroom. “So . . . we had rocks. And we had slingshots. It was an acceptable thing back then. We didn’t even make them, we bought them at the corner store. They expected us to use them on SOMETHING!” Then they’d wait for one in particular, their main target, to poke his head out. They’d named him after the book Chiefie. They never got him, though. So at school they figured they’d freak out their mortal enemies by staring at them during reading time. Chant: “I have laser eyes, I have laser eyes.” At this point Rita paused and addressed the audience directly. “How many of you have figured out I had a crush on Chiefie?”
Tim: All the way up until he was 14, Tim would sneak into his parents bedroom and sleep on the floor because he was so afraid. This is honestly why he’s so drawn to middle schoolers. He finds the tightrope of “I know everything and I know nothing” so appealing. Around 7th grade, Tim knew he was gay and fortunately he was in a very accepting community so he didn’t feel bad or guilty about it. Just the same, it was a secret because he knew the minute he told somebody it would no longer be his own. He didn’t need to act on it yet. After all, “Not all secrets are bad.”
Luke: He shoplifted quite a bit. In a way, the revenge for this is that when he tells his kids this fact, they say, “Can you teach us?” Really, doing it was how he processed his own fear.
Lisa: “I will tell you but promise not to tweet it.” Note that she didn’t say I couldn’t blog it. Haha! Back in the day Lisa was The Narrator for Joseph and the Amazing Technocolor Dreamcoat (one of six Narrators, actually). The boy she had a crush on played the part of Joseph and, fun fact, he’s now mildly famous on Saturday Night Live now. Anyway, Lisa peeled his name off his cubby and put the sticker on the inside of her vest so she could wear it close to her heart. Awwwww. And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is why I want her for Funny Girl.
Stacy directed the next question directly to Rebecca. With Goodbye, Stranger in mind she wanted to know about those moments when you say goodbye to someone who has changed or to an old version of yourself. Rebecca for her part said her books were about sensitizing kids to their own lives in a deeper way. There’s this moment when you cross a line into a new kind of awareness, and there’s no going back. For her part, Rebecca has always been genuinely moved by the fact that we change and leave versions of ourselves behind us. The end of childhood (“which is really many ends”) is like a series of deaths (I said something similar to this in my review of her book, by the way). That’s why there’s so much to say about those moments and that’s why we think so much about those moments. Rita chimed in, saying she was blessed in having a character like Delphine who is a child (though she doesn’t know it) and who is often playing the role of a stoic adult. “The death of girlhood” is a plague in general, said Rita, but certainly in the black community. These are girls who don’t truly know what it is to have a childhood. Rita recounted a moment when she once saw a four-year-old feeding her baby brother mashed potatoes, and there was something in the way in which was attending to her brother that showed that she’d done this very often. This is a girl, said Rita, who will never have her childhood or that feeling of complete silliness, giddiness, wonder, and fear. She is being set up for that cycle of being a very young mother. For this and many other reasons, the joy of childhood is something important to Rita in her work.
After this, Luke mentioned that there was a Toni Morrison quote about what kids really want to know is whether or not your eyes light up when you look at them. That’s what writing for middle school is really about. Kids want someone to see not the 10% on top but the 90% below. Lisa said that in her own book, Lost in the Sun, her character Trent is at a crossroads. He can either become the person people think he is or he can bust out of that, which is the harder thing to do. It’s hard for kids to figure out where the truth is and what truth you want to hear.
Stacy then turned the conversation to a popular topic. She pointed out that different themes of bullying appear in each of these author’s books. She asked if bullying was the impetus of the writings or if it just naturally is a part of the middle school experience. Rita, “Well, it helps to have an older brother and sister.” As she pointed out, we never think that we’re the bully, especially if we’re the older sibling. After all, “We’re keeping them in line.” You don’t think you’re the one tormenting someone since you have a different opinion of the situation. She hoped that we see a lot more characterizations of the person who holds the power, in complex ways. She really spoke to the complexity of bullying that is often just NOT in evidence (in books of this sort). I’m with her on this. We gain very little from the one-sided depictions that are so popular in our fiction right now. After Rita spoke, Tim said that when he wrote his first book (Better Nate Than Ever) he was still working with the boys of the musical Billy Elliot. As he watched, he could see that they would bully each other. As a result he wanted to write a kid who was teased for many reasons and then, in time, to write a sequel where even on Broadway he’s still “The last kid chosen for dodgeball”. So when he talks to kids about the experience of being bullied he makes sure to say, “Everything that got me picked on in middle school is what gets me paid now.” And he tells kids that bullying doesn’t stop after middle school which, rather than scaring kids, he think is really important for them to hear and offers a strange kind of comfort. Rebecca, for her part, didn’t consider bullying at all when writing her book but after people started to read it she could see what they were talking about. A particularly interesting point made by Rebecca was the fact that it’s not just kids who bully one another. It’s how a school reacts to a given situation (like, in the case of her book, a sexy selfie). Schools and administrators can BE bullies themselves. Had she focused on bullying as an issue from the start when she was writing, she would have concentrated more on how the kids treat one another.
Stacy asked at this point, “How do you keep something for the middle school rather than YA crowd?” It at this point in the day that I noticed that Tim is not a passive panelist. In point of fact, he is very good at directing the questions on a panel, thereby avoiding the awkward pause that sometimes can come when people don’t want to answer the moderator. Watch him and you’ll see that he keeps everything oiled and running smoothly. As for this question Lisa (who has done both MG and YA novels), said that middle grade books are where kids are feeling out where their place is in the world is and YA titles contain characters figuring out who they are and what makes them unique. With that in mind, tween is where you’re trying to figure out EVERYTHING (it covers both sides). Rita spoke at this point with a, “So, okay, I don’t MEAN to make you squirm”. Then she brought up No Laughter Here. Now this is the rare book that was actually challenged in the NYPL system by a patron who believed that it should be moved from the children’s section to the YA. It was such a brave friggin’ book too. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s about the topic of female circumcision. Said Rita, these particular characters were her best teachers about stepping aside and remembering whose story it is. Of all the books mentioned today, this is probably the quintessential middle school book. Said Rita, you must filter everything you know through your characters perspective and limitations to “as far as they care to know”. Then she knows she has to pull back and even let her characters be wrong about things. Know everything you can possibly know and then know your character and trust your character even more.
Rebecca said that to her mind it’s very hard to distinguish middle grade from YA because it’s so impossible to draw a strict line. Everyone reads different things (just look at what the panelists said they read when they were middle schoolers, after all). So she’d never tell a kid what to read at any given moment. By the same token, she does think that middle grade fiction should include really truthful, honest stories about kids who are 12 and 13-years-old. Maybe kids are reading lots of YA because they are experiencing many of the feelings that are fleshed out in YA books and not found in the middle grade stuff. This ties in quite nicely to the selfie question in her own Goodbye, Stranger, of course.
And what are they working on next?
Lisa: “I’m working on a sequel to A Tangle of Knots.” *clapping comes from audience* “Don’t clap because it’s terrible.” (She’s still in the early draft phase)
Luke: “I’m working on a book that was originally called The Crossover.”
Tim: “I have my first YA novel for next spring The Great American Whatever. And a new cocktail recipe book. It’s called Gone With the Gin.”
Rebecca: Not writing a book at the moment.
Rita: Yesterday she tweeted that she was falling in love with her latest book Clayton Bird Goes Underground (?). Not sure about the spelling on Bird on that one. Hope it’s my last name. Cause that would be awesome.
Now I’m not going to write up the A.S. King luncheon speech, and this is a shame. I didn’t write it down at the time because she’s YA and I don’t cover that topic. Still, she had many wonderful things to say about feminism and inclusion that I dearly hope that someone somewhere wrote this stuff down or, better yet, recorded it. If I hear that anyone has, I’ll link to it here. It was a killer speech. (Note: Here is the report on the speech.)
Nonfiction Goes Graphic (In Format)
Love the parenthetical at work here. Don’t want folks worried that we have Alan Moore here to talk about Lost Girls, or something.
So here we come to our last panel. And, to my mind, it’s a good one to end on because it closes things out with a bang. Jesse Karp was moderating a panel consisting of Don Brown (Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans), Claudia Davila (Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War), Nathan Hale (The Underground Abductor), Maggie Thrash (Honor Girl), and Maris Wicks (Human Body Theater).
Jesse turned out to be a dude. A loquacious dude. So we went a bit over time, but he clearly knew the subject matter and was able to place the books on display in a great deal of context. Right at the start he began by tying in today’s speakers to folks like Spiegelman, Satrapi, McCloud and a lot of the other greats who work in the nonfiction medium. These people, said Jessie, exemplify the breadth and scope of this topic. After introducing them he mentioned that he initially had been a bit worried about doing five panelists since surely one of the books he had to introduce would be a dud. Not the case (and I believe him on this matter).
In an interesting switcheroo, Karp encouraged each person to show a page from their work as they talked about their books. First up, Don Brown. He’s not a strict graphic novelist in the traditional sense but his work is unique and visual. Don mentioned that he’d been making books for kids for more than 20 years, the bulk of which were biographical picture books. So why the switch to graphic novels? To a large extent he was inspired by Maus, which when it came out it answered the question forever as to whether or not historical truth could be done in a graphic format. Brown’s Great American Dust Bowl title was the first book that he tried in this format. Come to think of it, I believe I reviewed it in the Times alongside fellow panelist Nathan Hale’s Donner Dinner Party. With his newest book he selected a more recent tragedy: Katrina. Brown explained with an image how the visual medium is perfect for showing moments like a couple climbing away from the water, having to claw their way out of their own roof. “In a graphic novel you can have action across the page that will emphasize the points you’re trying to make.” He also juxtaposed Bush’s “Heckuva job, Brownie” alongside the images of dead bodies after the flooding. Said he, “All historians have a point of view. If they say they don’t, they’re lying.”
Jesse pointed out that one argument often leveled against comics is that they’re forcing you to see things in a specific, singular way. But as Brown pointed out, doesn’t prose do the same thing? After all, every book has a point of view, even if it’s not immediately apparent. That’s just reality. Imagery is always very dicey and Brown understands why people have a problem with it, particularly when it comes to graphic novels. Similarly, people have the mistaken belief that if it isn’t a photograph there’s something inauthentic about it. But don’t be fooled. There’s no such thing as photorealism. All the elements that make a photo up tell a story apart and beyond words. And Don accepts that and embraces it, so he has no problem with forcing people to witness his own point of view of a historical moment.
Said Jesse, perspective is essential. He then introduced Maris Wicks.
“Maris is great, by the way,” says Don Brown.
“Greetings, human beings”, says Maris.
So Maris began with the statement that she is a big nerd. She loves the natural world and also loves making narrative nonfiction books. Turns out, she’s the one who did the Dian Fossey / Jane Goodall / Biruté Galdikas book, Primates! I had no idea. The style in her latest book, Human Body Theater, is not precisely the same. The reason for this was that Maris wanted the book to be something fierce. “I think self care and self knowledge are really important,” she said. In terms of the slide she wanted to show, her selected section was on cuts and scabs. As she explained, part of the awesome language of comics is that she can go inside the skin of a papercut and there’s a narrative to that. Though, to be honest, there’s a narrative to everything! Whether it’s mucus in our “crazy large nasal cavities” or the beating of our hearts. It is text heavy, but she hopes the playfulness of the writing and art will help. The pictures also help you along with the hope that you’ll be able to tap into the flow of it all. Additional Bonus: There’s a fair amount of anthropomorphism. Said she, “I make a lot of things that don’t talk, talk.” A bit ironically, Maris also works as an educator at an aquarium and she and her co-workers take a bit of care to move away from anthropomorphism there. But in a story like this one, you care more about things if you can relate to them. It’s sort of what Brian said at the beginning of the day about emotions and empathy. If you don’t care about the talking skeleton on the page, what’s going to compel you to keep reading.
Jesse following up on her talk, pointing out that the images of anatomy in this book have a kind of power that a photograph never could. This raw sense of life and animation can’t be found in a photo, so the drawn medium really does contribute to a sense of engagement. But all of that being true, the imagery must to some extent be accurate. So how do you work with primary sources on the visual end and turn them into something “uniquely you” and yet remain accurate at the same time? Maris responded that research is actually her favorite part of any book. For this title, for example, she engaged the services of a lot of textbooks and picture dictionaries. DK’s books for kids were useful, and she looked at them to see how the information on this topic had been presented in earlier children’s books. After all, when information is presented in a different way it creates that all important “ah ha!” moment. And since a lot of what’s in her book is information that is already being learned, what she hopes is that her book is just going to help child readers remember the facts or give them a little different information or just present it in a new way.
Next up was Claudia who confessed at the start that this was her first trip to NY. She was also a little different from her fellow panelists because she was the illustrator of her GN and not the author. This book is a memoir of Michel Chikwanine, a man who, when he was five-years-old, found his free and fun-loving childhood over when he was abducted by rebel soldiers. Her main goal with this book was to honor Michel’s experience as he visits schools and brings awareness to child soldiers around the world. A big part of the book examines his relationship to his father, an activist who was in time killed by the soldiers. In terms of the art itself, Claudia utilizes a more painterly style, rather than pen and inks. This was a conscious choice since it calms down the visuals and doesn’t glorify the violence and action. In many ways, Claudia’s goal with this project was to create the whole book without depicting any violence. In terms of the story’s audience she said it was for grades 4 and up, though I’m afraid I disagree with that. I actually have read this one, since it arrived at my desk and I assumed that it was middle grade. Yet when I read it the content, while not visually graphic, is definitely for middle school readers at the very least.
When Jesse was given a chance to speak he mentioned that he was amazed by the extent to which the art actually controls the reader’s experience. The subject matter is very heavy and yet the style finds a tone that would make Jesse comfortable handing the book to his students but does not get rid of any of the immediacy and authenticity of the text. Don Brown had talked earlier about how he placed President Bush’s panel next to one containing dead bodies for effect, but here it’s not just the placement of the panels but the panel borders that tell a tale. What’s inside of them is still appropriate for kids to read but the borders suggest that what isn’t within these enclosed spaces is far far worse. Claudia responded that she thought it was very important that the book was written in the first person. That way the reader can connect with the experience. Almost every panel has Michel in it so it really is about his specific experience. She went on to say that generally speaking, in a book like this one you never want a duplication of the art and the text or else the art will feel redundant. The text itself is very graphic with tons of detail, after all. And because the text was so graphic it gave her an opportunity to illustrate something “adjacent” to Michel’s experiences.
Next up, one of my favorite comic artists, Nathan Hale. His current book about Harriet Tubman is nothing short of amazing. Jaw-dropping. Spectacular. Nathan said he thought broadly about nonfiction and graphic novels on his way here. And as he did so, a metaphor popped into his head. So imagine if in the 40s, 50s, and 60s in America, all sports started dying off and all that was left was pro-wrestling. That’s what comics in America has been for a very long time. The last 50 years have been guys in tights punching each other. So when people ask him if he read comics growing up he’d say no. But then he realized that he did read newspaper comics. In fact, he was a die-hard comic page reader. Even when Nathan speaks to librarians these days, a lot of them instantly zero in on the superhero stuff. But that’s just not the case around the world. Nate then proceeded to talk about international graphic novels that spanned a wide range of topics. Series like King of Tennis, about a kid who just wants to become the best possible tennis player. There are even comics in other countries that cover OUR history! One that he mentioned is French, from the 1970s, and about soldiers during the Civil War (my husband says the series is The Bluecoats).
BUT! There is good news on the horizon. We’re starting to bring it all back. Getting back to those newspaper comics, Nathan then talked about Bill the Cat and how Alley Oop was beautiful but neeeever funny. His favorites, however, were the political comics because the drawings in them were so crazy. He didn’t know what they were about but he knew they were grown-up stuff and that they were true on some level. So he started adopting that. Think about how he used the animals in Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood. In speaking about his latest book, he said that there was nothing cooler than seeing the country suddenly go Harriet Tubman crazy. She’s trending on Twitter! There’s going to be a movie! Harriet Tubman is one of those names that immediately makes a schoolkid sleepy so Nathan didn’t want to use her name anywhere on the cover. As a result, she’s Araminta for most of the book and then when she changes her name to Harriet Tubman that’s a kind of gasp aloud moment.
Jesse said that humor is clearly central to what Nathan does and that this heavy subject matter is laced with humor but it works all the way through. Yet, at the same time, and not unlike political cartoons, there’s information that needs to be conveyed. There’s real heavy duty information. Everything Nathan does is more interesting to him if it’s visual. It just makes it that much more appealing than an information dump. The thing about graphic novel readers is that they can read a GN faster than a novel, but, by the same token, they’ll reread it many many more times.
Maggie was last. Her book was basically about unrequited summer camp love. It was also about getting your heart pulverized for the first time and now your childhood is OVER (another theme of the day)! Unlike a lot of the other folks, she’s entirely self-taught. Heck, her style changed between the beginning of the book and the end. And as with most memoirs, you’re very involved in her struggles. “You get to be with me with my frustration and my ineptitude”. With comics all the noise of prose is gone. As a result, what’s on the page is intense and immediate. “I’ll never go back.” Jesse concurred, saying that Maggie so powerfully evoked her own feelings that the sense of desperation at work here is palpable. With a memoir, unlike a biography, in some sense you have to punch through the whole idea of perspective and pull the reader into who you are. And he assumed from having read this, it’s a kind of emotional baring of yourself.
Finally, the panel was done and it was the moment of the hour. For the very first time, the announcement of the 2015 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards were happening at Day of Dialog. A VERY smart move (and I’m not just saying that). Up came Roger Sutton (“My brother-in-arms” as Luann Toth called him). It was sort of like getting to sit in on the Emmys. Rebecca Stead was with him as he navigated the PowerPoint.
First awarded in 1967 this particular award is given to excellence in literature for children and young adults. The award calendar is unusual and sets it apart from the usual end-of-year lists. Eligible books this year had to be published between June 1st 2014 – May 31st 2015. In recent years the Globe’s commitment to the award has been considerable, says Roger. He then pointed out the previous winners in the room. Folks like Paul Fleischman, Don Brown, Louis Sachar. Rebecca Stead. He even asked a trivia question: What has won the Boston Horn Book-Globe Award, the Newbery and The National Book Award? The Answer: M.C. Higgins the Great.
And the winners are . . . .
Honors: Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Award: Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell
Honors: The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Award: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming
Honors: It’s Only Stanley by Jon Agee
‘Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers
Award: The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee
Friday, October 2nd the awards will be given out in person. More info can be found here.
And that’s all she wrote with very tired, numb fingers, folks! Monica Edinger’s recap can be found here. Many thanks to SLJ for letting me tag along and to all the folks for the great day. And the cookies. Seriously, where did the cookies come from? They were amazing. Two thumbs up big time for the cookies.
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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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