Patricia Becker-Sabik has attended Shenandoah University’s Children’s Literature Conference every year that she’s been a librarian at a middle school in Loudoun County, Virginia. She tells her students about what she learns from the authors and illustrators, both demystifying the writers and artists and inspiring her students to read their works.
“It’s my mecca,” she said of the conference, which is also where she picks up autographed books she often gives to younger family members as gifts. Becker-Sabik was one of the 260 teachers and librarians attending the conference.
“The amount students read in and out of school cannot be overemphasized,” Professor of Education, Director of the Children’s Literature Program and Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Karen Huff, Ed.D. “It affects fluency, vocabulary, general knowledge of the world and academic achievement. So, we must have teachers who have knowledge of a wide array of children’s books so they can introduce children to books that will engage and inspire them to read.
“I am very grateful for the teachers and the librarians that return to the conference year after year, and I am also pleased that approximately one-half of the participants each year are attending for the first time,” Dr. Huff said.
“My hope each year is always the same. I want teachers and librarians to return to their schools inspired by the authors’ presentations, equipped with new ideas for using the books in their libraries and classrooms and determined to lead other teachers in creating a school environment where students love to read.” – Shenandoah University Professor of Education, Director of the Children’s Literature Program and Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Karen Huff, Ed.D.
This year’s conference, held from June 26 to June 28, carried the theme, “For the Love of an Author,” and included presentations from some of the brightest stars in the world of young people’s literature such as Kevin Henkes, Kwame Alexander, Dashka Slater, Adam Gidwitz, Yuyi Morales, Aisha Saeed, Adam Rex, and Ben Hatke, an author known for his “Zita the Spacegirl” and “Mighty Jack” graphic novels, and who lives within easy driving distance of the conference, which is now in its 34th year.
Built By Books
The word “love” in this year’s theme accurately reflected retired Loudoun County middle/elementary school librarian Martie Smith’s connection with juvenile literature, which she said she still enjoys and often finds more engaging than work written for adults. It’s an affection she acquired honestly, from her mother, who was also a librarian.
“The best spot in the house was under my mother’s arm, reading a book.” – Martie Smith, retired Loudoun County school librarian
Newbery Medal winning-author Kwame Alexander, who spoke on the opening day of the conference held in Halpin-Harrison Hall, noted that a book by the day’s first speaker, author and Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Kevin Henkes, “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse,” was a favorite of his younger daughter’s (she’s now 10 year old) when she was a small child.
“I am built by books, and I am a builder of books,” said Henkes, who has only ever been an author/illustrator, after having started his career at age 19. He noted that his middle-grade novels “are nearest and dearest to my heart,” because he likes writing about adolescence, which he calls “a time rich with exquisite human mysteries.” However, Henkes is also extremely well-known for his picture books and early readers, such as his “Penny” series. The fourth “Penny” book, “Penny and Her Sled,” will be published later this year. With each new installment in the series, he said has increased the book length by a chapter.
Henkes said that as he began writing books for early readers, he remembered his children when they were beginning readers, and their joy as they finished any book chapter, no matter how long or short. When he writes books for early readers, he said he pays great attention to repetition, rhythm, clarity, line lengths and the balance of art and text. Some days, writing the books feels like doing a crossword puzzle, or like learning to read again, he said.
A Concert With Information
“This is the most unconventional keynote in the history of keynotes,” said Kwame Alexander as he stood in front of the crowd in Stimpson Auditorium, with retired teacher Randy Preston seated nearby. Preston played guitar to accompany Alexander’s poetry from works like “Booked” and the Newbery Medal-winning “The Crossover,” and occasionally sang Alexander’s lines.
“Poetry, is a quick, sure-fire way to get your students excited about what’s possible,” said Alexander, who called his keynote “a concert with information.” He expressed his preschool love for Dr. Seuss’s “Fox in Socks” and shared how poetry could capture the attention of even the most boisterous students during school visits.
He also talked about his friendship with iconic poet Nikki Giovanni, who was one of his teachers at Virginia Tech. Although he earned “C” grades in her classes, which inspired him to write and stage a one-act play about all his complaints about her, they grew close in the years after his graduation, with Alexander’s guilt building about that old play all the while. Later, when he finally apologized for it, as he helped Giovanni both celebrate and mourn her mother, she didn’t recall having had any problems with him as a student. Instead, she said that whatever she said or did was designed to keep him in the classroom and help him become who he needed to be. Her words alluded to earlier comments he had made about how the only way children can learn is if they’re in the room, engaged.
“You all are in the business of intelligence, of shaping intelligence,” he said to the audience filled with teachers and librarians. “Maybe there’s some intelligent entertainment that we can be a part of,” that can inspire kids, he said. One never knows, a future Newbery Medalist could be in one of their classes, he added.
“Reading felt like the process of assembling myself,” said Dashka Slater, journalist and author of the teen true crime book, “The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives.”
Slater, who began reading at a young age and mostly attended alternative schools (she loved Lewis Carroll’s classic “Alice” books because Alice was courageous in dealing with what she didn’t know or understand), said she received multiple lessons over the years about ignorance and its power, culminating in how her career truly began.
While an avid writer and reader from childhood, she didn’t decide to try out journalism until she humbled herself and took a class in feature writing taught by the editor of the East Bay Express alternative newspaper. She finished the course by writing a 6,000-word feature story that was published by the paper, which took her on as a reporter. But, she felt she was unqualified for the job, and that in her ignorance, she had to work harder. “So I learned a great deal. . . .It’s only by embracing our ignorance can we begin to learn.”
She approaches each story with humility, curiosity, a blank notebook and a list of questions. That’s how she started “57 Bus,” which explores an incident that occurred in her Oakland, California, neighborhood. An agender teen, asleep in bus, had their skirt set on fire by another teen who was charged with two felonies with hate crime enhancements. As a professional journalist “and professional ignoramus,” she said she asked, “How did this happen?”
She found out. But, when it came to assembling the book, she worked from a place of ignorance again, because there were so few templates for teen non-fiction. So, her book not only includes interviews and research, it also features poetry, text from Tumblr pages, and text message exchanges.
She encouraged others to use their ignorance to learn, exhorting them to seek out the stories of other people by doing things like talking to their Lyft driver. By just asking people about what they do outside of driving, she’s had heart-to-heart conversations about child rearing, learned about a guy who had his underwear stolen by a celebrity, met aspiring actors, and more. Slater, who has also authored picture books, is now moving into another new territory: middle-grade fiction. She’s currently working on a middle-grade fantasy called “The Book of Fatal Errors.”
Sketching Ideas, Panning For Gold
Ben Hatke, author and illustrator of picture books and graphic novels, often lives with characters and ideas for years before he turns them into stories. However, his ideas always have a place to stay as they grow: in notebooks and sketchbooks.
“The fundamental thing to everything, to all the books, is keeping notebooks and sketchbooks,” said Hatke, known for his “Zita the Spacegirl” and “Mighty Jack” books, as well as “Little Robot.” He carries a Moleskine notebook to catch text ideas and prefers Strathmore 9×13 sketchbooks for illustrations because they’re inexpensive and he doesn’t have to worry about messing them up as all the ideas – good and bad – fall out of his brain and fuse to paper. He said a great deal of the creative process is about working through bad versions of stories – a thought echoed by “Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great” author/illustrator Bob Shea, who took time during the conference to explore some of his unsuccessful, yet very funny ideas – and about how once the bad ideas have been excised, “then you’re sort of panning for gold.”
Hatke often assembles his graphic novels using cinematic thinking, breaking down scenes and then creating panels for them. He knows a story is good when his basic outline can keep listeners engaged. Sometimes, those listeners are his five daughters.
He added that comics are also great for developing visual language, because good illustrations can catch gestures well. He said he thinks about body language a great deal as he creates, and while he admits experiencing comics and films can feel similar, the reader ultimately has the majority of the control when reading a comic.
Taboo Subjects & Different Perspectives
Adam Gidwitz, like Hatke, said he often lives with his characters for years before giving them a home in a book. Gidwitz is known as the co-author of titles in the “Unicorn Rescue Society” series, as well as the author of “A Tale Dark and Grimm” and its two sequels, all three of which put a new spin on the original, dark versions of popular fairy tales. He also wrote the Newbery Honor Book “The Inquisitor’s Tale.” The unicorn series skews toward elementary students while the Grimm books and “The Inquisitor’s Tale,” are more for middle-grade readers.
Like many of the other authors, he said he also sees the value in working through all ideas, good and bad. Gidwitz quit his full-time job as a teacher to write a children’s book about Ancient Egypt – a book that ultimately went nowhere, but still continues to provide plot ideas for his current work.
Although that first book wasn’t what he hoped it would be, during the time he worked on it, he hit upon a concept he liked during a stint as a substitute librarian. He read the original version of a fairy tale to a group of second-graders, adding his own humorous asides to the stories to make them more palatable to his young audience. When he finished a little girl walked up to him and said, “‘That was good. You should make that into a book.’” That was the beginning of “A Tale Dark and Grimm.”
His stories frequently retain their bloody, often disturbing original storylines. “Fairy tales turn tears into blood,” Gidwitz said. Children understand that in life, when there’s a wound, the blood eventually clots and the cut heals; when someone’s hungry, the food eventually comes; and that salty tears do dry. “I want to make kids laugh and squeal and wince,” he said. He wants to transform tears into something new. If kids want to read such stories, he asked the audience of teachers and librarians to think about why kids find them interesting.
His keynote also addressed introducing taboo topics to children. “Children know what they need,” he said. If a child finds a book upsetting, they’ll set it aside. If they instead want or need that information, they’ll re-read it, or have their parents re-read it. Children, he said, much more than adults, are in tune with their developmental needs.
He said he thinks that in his books, he’s talking about what kids think about. For example, in “The Inquisitor’s Tale,” he has his protagonists (a peasant Christian girl, a young monk in training, and a Jewish boy) talk about the nature of God. The book was influenced by his wife’s work as a medieval historian, his Jewish heritage, and his interest in exploring different ideologies and viewpoints in the book. The illustrations in the book, created by an artist who is Muslim, also comment on the text, just like the illustrations in a medival illuminated manuscript.
The “Unicorn Rescue Society” books also reflect varying viewpoints, with the co-authors representing the cultures explored by the protagonists in the stories. He’s now writing a murder mystery that also delves into the causes of segregation. It, like most of his other books, lived as ideas in notebooks for years before he put pen to paper.
The CLC, which can also provide continuing education and graduate-level credits for teachers and other education professionals, receives support by the Claude Moore Charitable Foundation.