Lovers of children’s picture books and early literacy advocates—including a pediatrician, a jazz singer, and numerous published authors and illustrators—gathered earlier this month in New York City for “Literature for Early Childhood: What Do You Need to Know?” a day conference sponsored by the Bank Street Writers Lab. The event brought together child development experts, educators, and creators of children’s literature.
Keynote speaker Dr. Perri Klass, a pediatrician, opened the event with text from Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown—who was an early member of the Writers Lab—to the delight of attendees and staffers such as Bank Street Center for Children’s Literature interim director Jennifer Brown.
Klass also shared insights about her training of doctors for the Reach Out and Read literacy partnership, where she serves as medical director. The organization’s mission is to work with doctors who in turn give new books to their patients along with advice on the importance of reading aloud to children. The goal of these efforts is to eventually reduce the socio-economic reading divide.
In her training of physicians, Klass says she emphasizes brain developmental stages and things that should be observed both with the child and parent. For example, when a six month old babbles, he or she is requesting interaction—and parents should respond by reading aloud. By this simple act, a child’s imagination is stimulated, language is developed, and a love of books is fostered, she says. Klass also notes that “rich kids hear more words” and a gap in vocabulary begins at 18 months.
The conference turned from the scientific to the creative during “Creating Books for Early Childhood,” a panel discussion between Amy Hest, author of Charley’s First Night (Candlewick, 2012); Robie H. Harris, author of Who Has What? (Candlewick, 2011); Jean Marzollo, author of I Spy School Days (Cartwheel, 1995); and Nina Crews, author of The Neighborhood Mother Goose (Greenwillow, 2003).
The group discussed the creative processes involved in writing a book for children, and how it is unique and particular to each individual. According to the authors, Amy Hest brings herself back to childhood when she writes and never tests any of her books with children before publication, although Jean Marzollo reads funny passages aloud with kids to see which get laughs. And for her part, Robie Harris said she depends upon her illustrator to provide the humor.
Attendees were then treated to a musical interlude: a jazz rendition by Louise Rogers of Chris Raschka’s Charlie Parker Played Be Pop (Scholastic, 1997). Rogers and storyteller Susan Milligan then went on to demonstrate how to combine music and reading for kids in their presentation, “Jazz Mosaic: Ideas to Help You Bring Music into Your Classroom Every Day.” One idea that really resonated with the crowd: playing a blues instrumental as background muisc while reading Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (Atheneum, 1987) with kids.
After some autographing for attendees, the day culminated with closing keynote speaker Laura Vaccaro Seeger, a Caldecott Honor recipient for Green (Roaring Brook, 2012) and First the Egg (Roaring Brook, 2007). First the Egg was also named a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book
Seeger spoke about the craft of her writing as well as the distinctive use of die cuts in her artwork. She also noted how that technique forces the reader to see an image one way and then another.
The inaugural event was a success, according to Brown, who tells School Library Journal that she hopes it will be the first of many such events for the Writers Lab. “We could not have been more pleased,” she says. “The event stressed the essential need for books in early childhood literacy and development.”
The Bank Street Writer’s Lab was created in 1937 to encourage quality writing for children. Its membership has included authors Margaret Wise Brown and Edith Thacher Hurd.