Monday, July 19, 2010

Wallowing in Kid-Lit Decadence

This past week I was lucky enough to attend the BYU Symposium on Books for Young Readers held a few mountain peaks south of me at the majestic Provo library in Provo UT.
For kid-lit nerds it is two days of pure full-fledged geekdom. Each year the good people of BYU and the Provo library coerce (this may not be the most accurate verb as I believe other compensation is meted out) a selection of Children’s writers and illustrators to come to Utah and share their talents, wisdom, and glorious presence with us land-locked groupies. This year’s offerings were particularly exhilarating - the equivalence of a Nemoy sighting at a Trekky convention.
The first day began with no less a living legend to naughty boys, fairies, and pirates than David Shannon. Mr. Shannon regaled us with tales from his childhood up through his stint as Vice- Ambassador to Jon Scieszka. I particularly enjoyed his dissection of his David books. As most people who would be reading this blog would know, No, David came about as a result of a book he wrote when he, the real David was five-years-old. It encompassed the only two words the young author could spell at the time. He said the premise of the books were that David does nothing that every child on the planet has either done or wanted to do. I gave birth to my own David and was able to get a copy of his namesake signed for him complete with an original graphic. Apparently Mr. Shannon, who had a signing line which rivaled the opening of Utah’s first In and Out Burger, was drawing pictures in every book that fell under his pen.

David Shannon Fun Fact: He began his carrier as a journalist illustrator, mostly doing Political art. The hardest part of the switch to children’s books for him was the knowledge that sitting presidents and other weighty people were not seeing his work every day. Let’s hope the existing President, who happens to live with members of Shannon’s current audience, gets glimpses of his most recent work from time to time.

Our next superstar was the entrancing and energetic Elizabeth Partridge. Her enthusiasm filled the room as she related her search for primary sources. She is relentless in her quest for excellence and is just as awed by the people she writes about as we are by her writing. She gave us a great illustration of what it feels like for her once she has collected her sources and is ready to begin sorting and organizing. She compared herself to the cat with the hat balancing the fish and dish and cake and the rake, etc. She says it is like having all this great stuff but is afraid to put it down as it may come crashing about her ears.
She told a breathtaking story of a candlelight ceremony that took place on a recent November evening standing around listen to Amelia Boynton, a 93-year-old woman who had been beaten by police on Bloody Sunday in long-ago Selma, Alabama. As Mrs. Boynton’s listeners were gathered in a close circle about her a voice called out that Obama had just taken Pennsylvania. Which meant that the country where Amelia Boynton was beaten for fighting to get Black people the right to vote a mere 40-something years ago was just about to elect its first African-American President. I KNOW! I just got chills again writing about it.
Another incredible thing that I learned is that Elizabeth Partridge’s godmother was Dorothea Lange. I’m sure most of you were aware of this fact as Elizabeth has written a pretty awesome book on Lange, which I am now the proud owner of a signed copy. She ended her presentation with two pretty incredible slide shows of which she confessed to loving as much as we did.

Elizabeth Partridge Fun Fact: Both she and I were winners in this year’s SLJ's Battle of the Kid’s Books. OK, so her Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children , and Don’t You Grow Weary won the entire kit-and-kabootal and all I got was a t-shirt. But now I can say I own a t-shirt signed by the 2010 Champion. She suggested I send it around and get all the contestants to sign it. I’m considering it.

Our last presenter of the afternoon was our own Brandon Mull. I’m beginning to feel like his stalker. In this past year he visited my school, and just a month ago I attended a writer’s conference where he was one of the instructors. Seeing him and Rick Walton in the halls felt like old times and I’m sure was making him a little nervous. I can personally attest to the fact that Mr. Mull is one of the world nicest people. When he came to my school I coerced him to stop by the library and give my 6th-grade assistants, AKA free labor, the thrill of their lives. As I was pressing him to sign book marks for each of them, I commented that he must get tired of all the signing. His reply was so lovely. He said that he could be laying asphalt for a living and the fact that people value his signature is in no way a burden. His presentation was entirely enjoyable. He showed how his childhood and geography helped form his Fablehavan and other books, AKA the emptiest shelf in my library at any given time.

Brandon Mull Fun Fact: He said his best day of elementary school was when he did a full frontal dive into a gigantic mud puddle his invisible- imaginary friend had dared him to jump over. His teacher would not allow his mud-spattered self back in the school and his mother could not be reached to clean him up. He spent the rest of the day outside the school circling a tree with one hand wrapped about the trunk, absorbed in the stories in his head.

The evening of the first day there is always a banquet featuring a heavyweight keynote speaker. This year’s pièce de résistance was none other than the maven of historical fiction and/or issue based YA brilliance Laurie Halse Anderson.

Upon hearing a few months ago that I would be within fawning distance of the author of Speak my 18-year-old daughter stated that of course I would be taking her along. I looked into it and found that I could indeed, for an added fee, take along a guest. Plans were made. (This next part of the story is where I need to be careful least I sound too whiny.) My oldest son, who has from birth been abundantly aware of my musical preferences, gave myself and my husband tickets to see James Taylor and Carol King, AKA the biggest concert event since the Rolling Stones toured with The Beatles (What’s that you say? Those two never toured together. Well then, the world has never seen it’s equal.)
Unfortunately the dream team of concerts happened to be occurring the same night as - you guessed it, my chance to share air with Laurie Halse Anderson. It was a brutal choice but in the end I sacrificed my ticket to the 18-year-old and spent the night ringside with living legends. Somewhere during the evening a message sounding something like this showed up in our inbox:
I just met the coolest person in the world. She said I was a walking piece of art, and took my picture. (The girl tends to decorate her flesh and jeans with an ever present supply of sharpies) She has a son my age and is going to tell him all about me. And now we are best friends. I love you Mommy and will clean your bathroom for life, for giving me this opportunity.” (OK, so I added the last line, but I’m sure it was understood.)
The next day I was able to do a little catching up with the dynamic LHA during the meet and greet held in the afternoon. This is a chance for smaller groups to bombard the authors with questions. The woman fills up a room with the force of her personality. The passion she puts into her writing shows when she speaks of her audience. It is reassuring that our teens are in such caring and capable hands when they open her books.
Laurie Halse Anderson Fun Fact: Both she and Jim Murphy were terrified of the other when they found out that they had each written books about the same influenza outbreak within a year of each other, Fever 1793 and An American Plauge:  The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. Once Murphy discovered Laurie’s book was fiction, and Laurie checked that Murphy had no further sources than she, all was sunshine and rainbows.
The second day began with the unequaled talent of Kadir Nelson. His presentation was breathtaking. That boy has a work ethic that would rival Michelangelo. He holds himself to such a standard of perfection it is no wonder masterpiece and his name show up in the same sentences. He bases the motivation for his work on the theme of Ntozake Shange’s Ellington was not a Street, which Nelson Illustrated: Take something terrible and turn it into something beautiful. While working on the illustrations for We are the Ship he wanted to do more than simply copy existing photographs. To get the stances and physicality of his subjects he took pictures of himself in different poses, using a tripod. He then merged the photos of himself and the subject to get original paintings.

Kadir Nelson Fun Fact: He lost a commission to rabid Yankees fan Billy Crystal when he painted the home team on the wrong side of the stadium.

By now I’m sure you are thinking that the conference must have exhausted Provo’s capacity for Kid-lit magnificence. But hold on to your hats boys and girls because our final speaker was none other than Newbery Medalist Patricia MacLauchlan. A good day in my book is a day I can wake up and listen to the delightful Patricia for a paragraph or two, or perhaps a short novella. Everything she said was either funny or profound, often both at the same time. She speaks warmly of her craft and her family and dogs with utter satisfaction. Listening to her you understand why her characters are lively, thoughtful and quirky.

The person responsible for me being at the conference is my indefatigable Principal, who as we speak in Uganda building houses. Patricia MacLauchlan is her favorite author. As I sat listening to her speak I so wished my Mrs. Bagley could be there as well. MacLauchlan’s son’s family has been in Africa for the past few years, where he was working as a photographer for the Jane Goodall project. Having this tie is but one of many that convinced me that these two compassionate, lively women were kindred spirits.

Patricia MacLauchlan Fun Facts:
  • She admitted to being impressed with the writing ability of her characters in her new book Word after Word after Word, then she remembered who actually gave them their words.
  • She confessed to dying her hair its stunning silvery white, otherwise it would be a boring jet black.
  • She sits on a committee with Katherine Patterson and Lois Lowry who like to remind her that they have each won two Newberys.
 That wraps everything up. I'm not sure what the powers in charge could possible do to top this next year but I will be waiting to see the attempt.