This story begins in a Virginia kitchen.
Two women are talking about a project.
But they don’t talk about it for long. (Things happen this way in kitchens.)
Instead, they started talking about something they loved — children’s literature — and the children’s book authors, illustrators, and professionals they knew.
“We should start a conference!” they said.
They asked the then-president of Shenandoah College & Conservatory of Music (now Shenandoah University) if the school would host it. He agreed.
So they held a conference in 1986. Unsure of attendance, it was open to just 85 people.
“Within three weeks, it was filled,” says Children’s Literature Program and Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Karen Huff, Ed.D., who was one of those women in the kitchen. (She worked at Shenandoah back then, too, by the way.) The other woman was Laura Robb, who has since authored several books for teachers on teaching reading and writing.
The program that started with a single happy thought will celebrate its 30th anniversary this summer.
Since its inception, the conference has hosted more than 400 authors and illustrators.
Attendance tops 85 these days, too. It now regularly ranges from 250-300 a year and the conference meets at Halpin-Harrison Hall on Shenandoah’s main campus. And, for the past seven years, the conference has been supported by a grant from the Claude Moore Foundation.
So what is the Children’s Literature Conference?
For one whole week each summer, teachers and librarians hear talks by authors and illustrators and participate in breakout sessions with them. Teachers and librarians can also earn up to three hours of graduate credit through the conference.
Teachers and librarians are nourished and revitalized at conferences like Shenandoah’s, says author, winner of the American Library Association’s Margaret Edwards Award for lifetime achievement, and former National Teacher of the Year Sharon Draper, who has previously spoken at the conference and spoke again this year. “They need to think and dream and create and be inspired. The Shenandoah Children’s Literature Conference offers just that.”
Over the years, the conference has grown, occupying a variety of spaces, eventually settling in at Halpin-Harrison. In 1991, it also added a writing section, courtesy of Director of Teacher Licensure and Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Mary Bowser, Ed.D. It also hosts a young writers’ institute for rising fifth graders and above.
For a few years in the 1990s, it offered two conferences each summer — one focused on fiction, the other on non-fiction, and in the early 2000s, it held several yearly conferences in England with focuses ranging from the work of Beatrix Potter to Arthurian legends.
It’s still a small conference, though, so everyone who attends can have access to authors and illustrators, says Huff, who is the kind of person who can get so excited about a book, she’ll leave it on other people’s doorsteps for them to read.
That access makes Shenandoah’s conference special, says regular attendee James Madison University Associate Professor of Reading Education Joan Kindig, Ph.D. “The quality and diversity of authors that comes each year is second to none, she said. The conference is also distinguished by “the small group sessions that the authors give, which provide attendees real insight into that author or illustrator’s work.”
When a teacher hears an author or illustrator speak about a book, they grow more excited about teaching their works because “now they know the story behind the story,” Huff says. Then, that excitement translates into the classroom or library.
What’s happening for the ‘Big 3-0’?
The 30th anniversary slate of authors and illustrators is a humdinger.
The June 22-26 conference, titled “Reading Matters: Changing Minds, Changing Lives,” kicked off with Draper, followed by Patricia MacLachlan, whose 1985 book, “Sarah, Plain and Tall” won the Newbery Medal, considered the highest honor for children’s books, in 1986. Kwame Alexander, author of the 2015 Newbery winner, “The Crossover” also spoke on day one.
It featured Mac Barnett, author of several middle-grade novels and picture books, including “Extra Yarn” and “Sam and Dave Dig a Hole,” both illustrated by Jon Klassen. Barnett’s presentation was something special, as he offered his ideas on what to write for children, which for him, is anything that speaks to a child’s real experience and lives in the intersection of what kids like and what adults like. It’s no surprise that his TED Talk, “Why A Good Book is a Secret Door” has more than 1.2 million views.
Illustrator Peter Brown, whose “Creepy Carrots” was a 2013 Caldecott Honor Book, also inspired some fun, as he attended alongside that book’s author, Aaron Reynolds.
One day focuses on young adult books with authors Karen Cushman (“Catherine, Called Birdy” and Newbery Medal-winner “The Midwife’s Apprentice”) and Kathryn Erskine (“Mockingbird” and “Seeing Red”).
Non-fiction is what another day is all about, featuring Tanya Lee Stone (“Almost Astronauts”), Steve Sheinkin (“Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon”), and Jennifer O’Connell (“The Eye of the Whale”).
And one day concentrates on the work of acclaimed author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. It’s a return visit for Naylor, whose extremely popular “Alice” series began with the 1985 book “The Agony of Alice.” Her book “Shiloh,” which also began a trilogy, won the 1992 Newbery Medal.
Other speakers during the week include Meg Medina, Susan Stockdale, Twig George (a librarian, children’s author and daughter of famed children’s author, the late Jean Craighead George), and illustrator Raúl Colón.
The 30th anniversary lineup features authors of all ages —Barnett is in his early 30s, while Naylor is in her 80s — who also use online resources to reach their readers. Naylor maintains a blog for “Alice” fans where she routinely answers questions. People like Barnett and Brown communicate via video. Children often watch online author interviews, and as a result “children are much more involved with the actual author,” Huff says.
So why do acclaimed authors and illustrators enjoy speaking at Shenandoah?
(Here’s what past attending authors and illustrators say.)
Medina, author of “Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass,” “The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind” and “Tia Isa Wants a Car” says longevity helps make Shenandoah’s conference special. “I don’t think that happens unless the quality and leadership is there.” She also loves meeting teachers, librarians and other participants. They’re “where the rubber meets the road” when it comes to reading, and that helps authors learn how teachers operate.
“The devoted staff of this conference creates a fun, nurturing, invigorating atmosphere in which artists and educators together celebrate the world of children’s literature,” said Mary Pope Osborne, author of the blockbuster “Magic Tree House” series.
“Southern hospitality extends to a love of books and reading,” at the conference, says Andrea Davis Pinkney, author of more than 20 books, editor, and Coretta Scott King Award-winner. “It was book love from start to finish.”
“I’ve only been once, but I loved it,” said Deborah Heiligman, author of a wide variety of books for children and young adults, including “Charles and Emma,” “Intentions,” and “Cool Dog, School Dog.” “I loved listening to other authors talk, and I thought the attendees were interesting and incredibly well-informed. There were great questions, which is always stimulation, and the hallway and meal conversations were about books and reading and writing. I would come back in a heartbeat!”
“It’s known in the field, among authors and illustrators and educators, as a conference where you’re treated with respect, and where you know the audience will be rapt and appreciative,” said Pam Muñoz Ryan, author of “Esperanza Rising,” “The Dreamer,” “Becoming Naomi León,” and “Echo.” “Karen makes it special with her love and enthusiasm. She is such an advocate for what we do, for literacy, and getting books into readers’ hands. It’s always an honor to be invited.”
How has children’s literature changed as the conference has aged, and what does the future hold?
Finding more diverse voices is always important, Huff says. One of the speakers at the first conference, Winchester native Nancy Larrick Crosby, penned a highly influential 1965 article for The Saturday Review called “The All-White World of Children’s Books” lamenting the lack of diversity in the genre. Although Larrick, an educator and editor of poetry anthologies for children, wrote the article 50 years ago, diversity is still an issue. (Larrick died in 2004 at the age of 93.)
Medina, a Richmond-area resident, is a founding member and executive board member of the We Need Diverse Books nonprofit. It’s vital for not only children to see themselves in books, but for children to see their classmates there, too, she said. That way, children develop empathy for the experiences of others. In a world in which minorities now make up the majority of American classrooms, the literature is still lacking, she says. “There’s work to be done.”
However Medina says she is heartened by the 2015 Newbery Medal and Honor books this year, and how they recognize the way families truly look today.
Pinkney agrees that when it comes to diversity, “We’re doing more than talking about it.” And books are the perfect places to explore diversity. “Stories have wide arms. They can embrace many.”
“We need diverse books because we live in a diverse world,” Draper says. “Every single child, regardless of race or gender, deserves to read books that include characters that look like themselves. So we need diverse writers as well. We need to encourage creativity and the love of writing in our schools so that today’s diverse children can grow up to be tomorrow’s diverse writers.”
“I’ve seen tremendous growth in nonfiction, young adult, and graphic novels, multi-platform and multi-media publishing,” Ryan says. “And now there are the new distinctions of tween and new adult, both of which address specific ages where there were gaps. I’m not sure I can predict what will be next. I hope as an industry we can open our eyes a little wider to books which embrace stories with characters from a breadth of cultures, orientations, physical challenges and fringe circumstances.”
Non-fiction is also an area poised for greater growth, say authors who have attended and enjoyed Shenandoah’s conference. Steve Jenkins, author of nature nonfiction books like “Egg” and “The Animal Book,” sees contemporary science as a growth area.
“There are so many ways we can write nonfiction, and I think we’re just beginning to tap that,” Heiligman says. “I am very excited to see how this field grows in the next few years.”
History is one potential growth area, says Aranka Siegal, whose 1982 Newbery Honor book “Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary 1939-1944” describes her childhood experiences in a Jewish ghetto and a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. “Young people need the foundation to build on since they will decide and determine the future. Particularly regarding my teaching of the Holocaust and tolerance, if we forget the past mistakes, history will repeat itself.”
Osborne is also a fan of history told in both fiction and nonfiction narratives. “If world history can be told in a way that engages readers, it is a valuable contribution to a child’s education on many levels.”
The stories the authors tell may appear in a variety of formats as time passes, according to Pinkney, who is comfortable with e-readers, online, and traditional methods of telling a tale. She also noted that one cannot discount or disparage the power of imagery, because some children read the images and then the narrative.
Jarrett Krosoczka, another conference speaker from the past who has authored the “Lunch Lady” children’s graphic novels, as well as the “Platypus Police Squad” chapter books and picture books like “It’s Tough to Lose Your Balloon,” “Punk Farm” and “Baghead,” says image-heavy graphic novels are gaining credibility. “Now even though a graphic novel won a Newbery Honor Award this year, I’m not foolish enough to think the fight is over in defending these books. There are still many adults who tell a child they need to read a ‘real book’ and not a graphic novel. Graphic novels boost confidence and enthusiasm, and they will continue to take their rightful place in our school libraries.”
It’s exciting time to be involved in children’s literature, Pinkney says. More adults are reading children’s books and kids and adults are sharing books with one another with the help of social media, films, and the power of parental nostalgia — parents are sharing beloved books, like Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” with their kids.
Children’s literature is big business, by the way.
Children’s and young adult book sales rose 20.8 percent to $1.9 billion from 2013 to 2014, according to Association of American Publishers figures posted in the March 12, 2015 Shelf Awareness book/book industry e-newsletter. The growth rate is far greater than the 4.9 percent net increase for all book sales.
Well, no matter what form they take, how they’re accessed, or the specific topics they address, what’s the common thread in all great children’s books?
Medina: “For me, it always boils down to dignifying the child’s experience.” Her favorite children’s book of all time is “Charlotte’s Web,” because it’s a story of friendship, loyalty, and death told gently and with great respect for its readers.
Osborne: “I’ve always thought that the best work has a combination of two elements: originality coupled with familiarity — the creator has a unique way of telling a story that children can relate to with their own feelings and experience.”
Krosoczka: “Well, all of my favorite books have engaging characters that children can befriend!”
Pinkney: A great story has unforgettable characters and emotion. It’s “something that moves me, emotionally.”
Ryan: “In a successful book, the reader wants to turn the page.”
Siegal: “The lessons that teach us about the essence of life and build a sense of values that can . . . help children to make decisions and deal with life. These are books that build character and leadership.”
Joy defines a great Children’s Literature Conference, too.
Happy 30th Birthday to the kitchen concoction that could — Shenandoah University’s Children’s Literature Conference.
And here’s to many more years of imparting joy to teachers, librarians, authors, illustrators and young readers everywhere.
Contributed by Stephanie Mangino