Children’s book author and the nation’s first Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jon Scieszka kicked off Shenandoah University’s 32nd Annual Children’s Literature Conference on June 26, calling it the “best and smartest children’s literature festival.”
Approximately 200 teachers and librarians attended the 2017 conference with the theme, “Once Read, Never Forgotten: Creating Readers One Book at a Time,” said Director of Children’s Literature Program and Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Karen Huff, Ed.D.
Here’s a video recap of the week:
All the authors and illustrators who attended really connected with the year’s theme, Huff said, noting that the final speaker, author/illustrator Grace Lin, “wrapped it up with a bow,” as she talked about how the books she loved inspired her career path in numerous, and somewhat divergent, ways.
Lin wanted to forget her Chinese heritage as she grew up in New York state. She didn’t see people who looked like her in the books she loved, and she disliked being reminded of her ethnicity. She recalled trying out for an elementary school performance of the “Wizard of Oz,” so hoping to be chosen as Dorothy, when another girl said Lin couldn’t play the role because of the way she looked. “I felt like I was nobody. I could never be Dorothy. I could never be anybody important like that.” She nurtured a love of fairy tales and even read a few Chinese ones, expertly placed on a family bookshelf by her mother (although Lin wasn’t impressed by their basic black-and-white illustrations). She grew up and went to art school, intending to create gorgeous fairy-tale book illustrations one day. But, while in Italy, she spoke, in Italian, to someone who made her realize she couldn’t even say why her parents left Taiwan for America. Lin, who also couldn’t speak her parents’ first language, was ashamed of herself. “For the first time, I was ashamed for all the right reasons.”
She grew to realize that she needed to follow her own artistic vision, and for her, that meant incorporating family and her family’s culture into her work and the stories she told. “I found myself hungry to discover my own culture,” she said. She became an author whose work, while classified as multicultural, is for all readers, although she did harbor fears that her work could become pigeonholed. The books became a mirror in which Asian children could look, and feel proud, and which non-Asian children could use as a magical window to see into another culture. Schools performed one of her books, “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon,” as a play, and the book was so popular, one school needed to make room for four children’s portrayals of the book’s protagonist, Minli. The children loved the story, which received a Newbery Honor in 2010, for itself. Any story can be loved by any reader,” she said, “if given the chance.” Books can be both mirrors and windows into an experience, and children’s books that do both inspire empathy and self worth, and help build “a brick road worth following,” she noted, harking back to “The Wizard of Oz.”
Other children’s book authors and illustrators who presented at the conference included Jewell Parker Rhodes, Lisa Graff, Duncan Tonatiuh, Jacqueline Davies, Sophie Blackall (2016 Caldecott Medal for “Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear”), Melissa Sweet (who authored and illustrated a book about “Charlotte’s Web” author E.B. White and noted that White’s initial idea for the book “Stuart Little” came to him in a dream as he traveled by train through the Shenandoah Valley), Rafael López, Brendan Wenzel, Jen Bryant, R. Gregory Christie, and Mac Barnett. Literacy expert and author Pam Allyn also spoke at the conference.
The week also began with a community “Rockin’ the Library” event held at Handley Library in Winchester. The event, which drew more than 500 participants, featured cupcakes and an appearance by Scieszka and Barnett who collaborated on the book “Battle Bunny.” Copies of it and Scieszka’s “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs,” were given away (more than 250 books in total), Dr. Huff said. “Jon Scieszka published ‘The True Story of the Three Little Pigs,’ in 1989, so even some of the parents of young children remembered loving that book as a child,” Huff said before commenting on the reasons for the community event’s popularity. “How could anyone pass up an event that promised great authors, books, music and cupcakes? My hope is that it becomes an annual event to celebrate authors, books and summer reading.”
“Dr. Huff and her staff assembled a phenomenal cadre of authors and illustrators,” said Chynita Turner-Pryor, past president of the Virginia State Reading Association and a K-5 reading specialist at Magruder Elementary in the York County (Virginia) School Division. “I appreciated the diversity among the speakers as well as the various evening activities provided. Some of the authors/illustrators were new to me, but they have quickly become new favorites. I also appreciated the candor in which they spoke about themselves and their craft. Those stories will come to mind as I share their books with my students. Pam Allyn mentioned referring to students as striving readers instead of struggling readers – I will share that premise with my colleagues this upcoming school year.”
“Shenandoah’s conference is valuable for preservice as well as veteran teachers,” said Turner-Pryor, who attended the conference for the first time this year. “The preservice teachers seemed to be excited about the information shared and meeting the authors. As a veteran teacher, I was able to reflect on my craft and think of ways that I can use the information learned and knowledge gained in my classroom this upcoming school year. Aspiring authors and illustrators were also able to get advice and guidance from the professionals.”
The conference, which is supported in part by the Claude Moore Charitable Foundation, also provides continuing education credits for educators. It pairs with the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute (ISI) for educators, enabling ISI fellows to attend and learn. And, courses are offered at the conference that satisfy credit for Shenandoah’s Master of Science in Literacy Education.
Turner-Pryor said she looks forward to returning to the conference; she also reflected some of Lin’s comments in her own, when expressing the importance of children’s literature. “Children’s literature is meaningful because it transcends time and place. It also connects people across diverse cultures and communities. Reading is the core of all learning. My love for reading has been a conduit for me to discover things about myself and have experiences that I would not have had otherwise.”
As Lin said, the best children’s books are both mirrors and windows.
Photos of Mac Barnett and Jon Scieszka at “Rockin’ the Library” and Grace Lin by Damon Mackin