“I love books,” says Kevin Henkes, award-winning author of nearly 50 children’s titles and the opening keynote speaker at SLJ’s annual Day of Dialog (DoD). “I am built by books.” During the daylong program, held Wednesday at Columbia University’s Faculty House in New York City, children’s librarians, publishers, and more than 20 popular authors and illustrators discussed the latest releases and trends in children’s literature ahead of this weekend’s BookExpo America. Authors and illustrators also hosted signing sessions and offered free books and ARCs to all attendees.
Built by Books
After a brief welcome by Rebecca Miller, School Library Journal editor-in-chief, who encouraged attendees to tweet their feedback (#SLJDOD13), Henkes was introduced by Luann Toth, managing editor of SLJ’s Book Review, with effusive praise. The modest Henkes addressed the crowd of about 250 librarians, sharing anecdotes about his family’s relationship to books, and the ways in which he encouraged his own children to become passionate readers, starting with the move of his large personal collection of picture books to the family bookshelf.
“I knew their condition would take a nosedive,” he admitted, to lots of chuckles from the audience. “But it was worth it…it helped my children to be built by books.” His efforts also included reading aloud to his children very often and for many years, which he called “something I did right.” He said giving kids access to books and simply “letting the enchantment take over” is “something librarians have always known” how to do—getting the right book to the right kid and letting it “work its wonders.”
Henkes also addressed the hot topic of gender, noting, “Boys do in fact enjoy books about girls, even if they say they don’t…a good story is a good story regardless of the gender of the protagonist.”
Henkes then treated attendees to a read-aloud from his new middle-grade novel, The Year of Billy Miller, which was enthusiastically received by the crowd.
Spotlight on Authors
The day’s programming then launched into a diverse nonfiction panel, “Informational Picture Books,” which featured author/illustrator Jim Arnosky, author Jennifer Berne, author/illustrator Elisha Cooper, illustrator Thomas Gonzalez, and author Jonah Winter, moderated by Kathleen T. Isaacs, author of Picturing The World: Informational Picture Books For Children (ALA, 2013).
The panelists discussed the inspirations for their books; their creative processes; voice and point of view; their thoughts on the audiences they write for; the ethics of historical and scientific accuracy in children’s nonfiction; and the difficult task of editing away extraneous details in order to craft a tight narrative for their books—even when it comes to the illustrations.
“It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup,” Arnosky said.
Next up was a discussion of middle-grade fiction and graphic novels, “Middle School Drama and Trauma,” moderated by Caroline Ward, head of youth services at Ferguson Library, Stamford, CT. The panelists were Ayun Halliday, Josh Farrar, Gordon Korman, Holly Sloan, and Linda Urban.
The discussion began with each author naming why they are drawn to writing for this particular grade level—“it’s the past and the future right there stacked on top of a complicated now,” Urban noted—and then touched on the role of humor in their books; voice and point of view; and the marketing of tween books, which called back to the keynote in an intriguing exchange about gender appeal.
“After the Nobel Peace prize, there is no greater thing than a librarian saying your book is the go-to book for a reluctant boy,” Korman said, but he stressed, “that doesn’t necessarily speak to the girls who are finding that book on their own. It’s a good lesson to take a step back from our preconceived notions of what a girl and boy book are.” It was a sentiment that resonated with the crowd.
The authors also cited John Green as an inspiration in the field of inspiring cross-gender appeal for his books and characters, and for harnessing the power of social media, which led to a discussion among panelists of the appropriate ways to use the Internet in promoting to the middle-grade level.
Taming the Monsters
At midday, the crowd was excited to hear from luncheon speaker Holly Black, the bestselling author of contemporary fantasy novels for teens and children.
In a hilarious presentation that featured a slideshow of resources, references, and candid photos, Black spoke about the ways that her upbringing—growing up in a 100-year-old house, with a mom who liked to tell ghost stories—has influenced her writing; the inspiration for her latest book, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown (Little, Brown), a young adult vampire tale that debuts in September; and the human race’s fascinating—and complicated—relationship with monsters.
“We absorb what we’re scared of and find ways of making it harmless to us,” Black said, revealing that, as a child, she transformed some of her Barbie dolls into “good” vampires in order to protect her from the “bad” vampires. Black also highlighted for the audience some classics and out-of-print gems of vampire fiction that were among her favorite teen reads, and read aloud a poem about vampires that she had written in seventh grade, to the delight of the crowd.
Coldest Girl is the first book Black has written that features vampires, even though her fascination with the iconic characters goes back to childhood. “I didn’t know if I had anything to add to the conversation,” she noted. It was only after contributing, on request, a short story to a recent vampire anthology, that “it turned out I had all these thoughts and feelings and memories” on the subject, she explained. “I had forgotten all the things I told you about today.”
Added Black, “in our domesticated hearts is a yearning to get close to death and escape…and maybe watch others get close and not escape. We are fascinated by extremes of human behavior and our own monstrousness. Imagine how much weirder and worse it could get.”
Her latest novel aims to do just that. “What might seem glamorous from a distance is pretty horrific close up,” Black said of some of the key plot points in Coldest Girl. “It’s also about a girl like me who grew up on scary bedtime stories. Her story is my story.”
During a Q&A session immediately following her talk, Black revealed that she is halfway through writing a new YA faerie book that she’s calling The Darkest Part of the Forest; that a sequel to Doll Bones is not in the cards at the moment—“I don’t have an idea about what that would be that wouldn’t be a little bit sad, and by a little bit sad I mean really sad,” she said; and that the secret to the famed hidden library in her Massachusetts home can be found at www.hiddendoors.com.
“You, too, can have a secret anything,” she joked.
From Darkness to Light
During the afternoon, attendees experienced two panels seemingly at opposite ends of the spectrum: “Real-World Horror in YA” and “Visual Storytelling.”
SLJ blogger Karyn Silverman, high school librarian and educational technology department chair of the Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School, got things going as moderator of “Real-World Horror.” Panelists were Julie Berry, Adele Griffin, Elizabeth Scott, Matthew Quick, and Elizabeth Wein.
In an intense discussion, each author shared titles of some of the books they read as teens as well as the reasons they now write for teens, the sometimes very personal inspirations behind their most compelling and acclaimed books, and the role of such themes as hope and friendship in such dark, real-world stories. The authors also shared some of their greatest fears in life.
Rounding out the day was the compelling “Visual Storytelling” panel, featuring author/illustrators Lizi Boyd, Oliver Jeffers, Matt Phelan, Chris Raschka, and David Wiesner. It was moderated by Rita Auerbach, children’s literature specialist and storyteller, who told the crowd, “we have five of the finest artists in the world for you, truly a distinguished panel.”
Each artist explained in depth the extent of their creative processes and discussed pacing, economy of word choice, variations in storytelling formats (including near-wordless books and graphic novels), conventions of the genre and ways to break them. Attendees were treated to visual examples of the artists’ most popular work and previews of their newest titles, truly a highlight of the day.
As Wiesner put it, “Everyone here, we work dramatically differently, but it’s an amazing art form and an amazing world to be a part of.”
Added Auerbach, “Explore their books further and find all sorts of wonders!”