Librarians attended School Library Journal’s eighth annual Day of Dialog in record numbers, sharing in conversation, interaction with celebrity authors, and a celebration of children’s and YA lit. Traditionally held in New York City, the event made its debut in the Windy City on May 11 at the University of Illinois.
“All fiction is historical fiction before the ink is dry.”
Acclaimed children’s and YA author Richard Peck opened the event with a stirring keynote heralding the importance of stories and education. With a wit that rivaled Mark Twain’s, his admitted inspiration, Peck confessed, “I am a writer because of a teacher. Any writer would tell you that.” He shared with the crowd what moved him to write his latest, The Best Man (Dial; Sept. 2016). “The book was born on the day that same-sex marriage was instituted in this state,” said the Illinois native. It’s a family story about a boy who is coming of age at the same time his favorite uncle is marrying his favorite teacher. “Those who would question the right to discuss same-sex marriage are denying the stories of their own families,” said Peck. He went on to praise educators who place the right book in kids’ hands, historical fiction, and the art of telling stories. “A story is always about how history repeats in every human heart,” added Peck, whose speech received a standing ovation.
Some Nonfiction! Dynamic informational books for young readers
In a panel moderated by Deborah Stevenson, director for children’s books at GSLIS, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and editor of the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, authors and illustrators of informational texts regaled the audience with the details behind their latest works.
Melissa Sweet, whose latest is Some Writer!:The Story of E. B. White (HMH), shared how her research informed the design of this rich, illustrated biography of the beloved author of Charlotte’s Web. As a creator of informational books for children, she often has to “decide, which means cut off,” when the story has to end because the abundance of research could create endless content.
Husband-wife team Eric Rohmann and Candace Fleming chatted about their first nonfiction together, and Fleming’s first piece of nonfiction science—Giant Squid (Roaring Brook). Rohmann began creating illustrations for the picture book on the sea creature on a napkin and then handed them to his wife, saying, “Here are some pictures. You’re a nonfiction writer. Add some words.” While the pair have worked on children’s books together in the past, this was the first time that Fleming had to create words to accompany images. But she did so with the same creativity and intent as any other project. “I’m a storyteller, not a fact-teller. I wanted the work to sound as a beautiful as it looked. And, for the first time, I could tell the illustrator, ‘I don’t like this picture. Can you do something else?”
Julia Kuo, a freelance illustrator who often creates editorial images for magazines in addition to illustrating children’s books, found that The Sound of Silence (Little, Brown), set in Tokyo, was an opportunity to combine the two art styles. “There’s usually an editorial divide—cute illustrations for picture books and complex visual language for editorial work (usually reserved for adults). This story was a unique opportunity to combine and cross boundaries.” Silence follows a boy looking for peace and quiet, away from the bustling downtown of the busy city.
The author of Around America To Win the Vote (Candlewick), Mara Rockliff, discussed her passion for history, especially the little-known stories of amazing women. Around America details the adventures of two suffragettes who traveled the United States fighting for the right to vote. Another title by Rockliff this year, Anything but Ordinary Addie: The True Story of Adelaide Herrmann, Queen of Magic, focuses on a historical figure who was admired by Harry Houdini yet is not often mentioned. “My approach to nonfiction is that I’m a big believer in the idea of a usable past. We have histories that we can use today. Boys and girls really need to know that there have always been amazing women doing amazing things. They weren’t unknown at the time, but somehow Harry Houdini made it into the history books while Addie didn’t.”
The book creators went on to discuss the sometimes blurry lines between fiction and nonfiction. “I feel a great responsibility to tell the truth,” said Rockliff. Jane Sutcliffe, author of Will’s Words (Charlesbridge), believes that, often, nonfiction and fiction in informational picture books “are friendly neighbors borrowing from each other, like how science fiction and historical fiction borrow from science and history. However, we have to be honest with children. Kids can get confused. I have read books and felt cheated because the author’s note revealed something that completely recasted the work.”
The illustrators on the panel talked about how art can also help tell these true stories but can be part-fiction as well. Kuo shared, “You can’t separate artistry and history. It’s combined. If a creator is working on a book about a true story based on her memory, it’s created from a nonfiction event, but from the writer’s memory of it. Even with the best intent, illustrations can’t be purely nonfiction. When creating the images of Tokyo, I used the Google street view of the city, but my view of Tokyo will never be the same as a native or the author. It will always be my interpretation.” Rohmann approached his images of the giant squid with caution because there is still no conclusive evidence of what the creature looks like—scientists still debate its color, shape, and general appearance. This is why in the book, the animal is presented in flashes and bits and pieces, and not even named until halfway through the work.
Rockliff added though she isn’t an illustrator, she enjoys creating nonfiction works about the past that are later infused with lots of color. “We tend to think of the past in gray and black and white. But people in the past lived in color. For kids to be able to see that past in living color is really powerful.”
Truth Be Told: Big questions in middle grade fiction
SLJ’s “Fuse #8” blogger Betsy Bird, collection development manager at the Evanston (IL) Public Library, moderated the panel on middle grade fiction, which featured Kelly Barnhill, The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Workman); Adam Gidwitz, The Inquisitor’s Tale (Dutton); Jennifer Holm, Full of Beans (Random); Jason Reynolds, As Brave As You (S. & S.); and Raina Telgemeier, Ghosts (Scholastic). The authors spoke about their upcoming works and what inspired them to write their own slant of truth for the middle grade audience. Reynolds’s middle grade debut is inspired by his own childhood summers visiting his grandparents in Virginia. Gidwitz’s work is based on his wife’s doctoral research on medieval saints and features a miraculous dog who was killed by his former owners. Barnhill’s dark fantasy centers on a town that sacrifices a baby every year to pacify a supposedly evil witch, who ends up adopting one of the babies as her own. Holm’s companion to Turtle in Paradise was suggested by her son after he wrote a report on her acclaimed book. He wanted to know more about Beans, so she set out to write a prequel in Full of Beans. Telgemeier follows up her graphic memoirs with her first ever fiction tale, about two sisters who move to a town milling with ghosts. While one embraces their new environs because she’s interested in what comes after death (she has a fatal disease), the older sister isn’t as comfortable with the blurry lines. The authors discussed how middle grade fiction and children’s books in general allow children to get in touch with the truth of life in a safe space, and authors have a great responsibility to share that truth with them. “Art has strange universality of truth if the creator is truthful,” said Reynolds.
“Everything is wonder”
YA fantasy writer Laini Taylor regaled the audience with her “imaginary research” on the importance of genre fiction and stories. Always a genre fiction fan, Taylor was seduced away from fantasy during high school in her attempt to impress older baristas at the local café with her knowledge of Flaubert and other classics. She was brought back to her roots by J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books. Her own books, including Daughter of Smoke and Bone, don’t quite fit into a specific genre, because she believes, “genres should be allowed to marry and have mutant babies.” Her upcoming Strange the Dreamer (Little, Brown) is about a dreamy librarian with a nose broken by a tome of fairy tales—“Literally shaped by stories,” shared Taylor. She also thinks that we all have a “myth-hole” ready to be filled by stories. The author concluded her after-lunch “dissertation” with, “Take THAT, pervasive cultural dismissal of genre fiction!” to the laughter of the audience.
Mind-Bending Women of YA
Janice Del Negro, associate professor and Follett Chair at Dominican University in River Forest, IL, led a rousing discussion about the expectations of female writers, “strong female protagonists,” and sexuality in YA. The panelists included luncheon speaker Taylor, Sharon Cameron, The Forgetting (Scholastic), Roshani Chokshi, The Star-Touched Queen (St. Martin’s Griffin), S.J. Kincaid, The Diabolic (Simon & Schuster), and 2016 Printz winner Laura Ruby, Bone Gap (HarperCollins). All writers within the speculative fiction arena, these mind-bending authors had lots to say about the pervasive sexism in YA.
Kincaid celebrated that we are currently “in an aftermath of the time when women were cast as roles of damsels of distress. People are sensitive to female characters being depicted as weak or timid. Unfortunately, there’s more criticism of female characters because of that sensibility.” Kincaid feels that she often has to take the exact opposite approach and have her characters learn about their vulnerabilities. Taylor adds that often there’s a pressure to write a “Katniss-y” protagonist. “Anyone who doesn’t have this prowess is found to be somehow wanting. In my new book I didn’t want to create fighters. There are other ways to be strong and to fight. We don’t all have to be Katniss.”
Cameron agreed, adding that “even if it’s an agenda I agree with and I love writing strong female characters, there’s something in me that backs off trying to write to an agenda. I want to write human characters. Are you telling an incredible human story about this character?” That is what she asked herself while writing The Forgetting. Her protagonist in this book is a quiet rebel. “If I hadn’t rejected that agenda, then I wouldn’t have been able to write a female character who is able to rebel internally, which requires as much courage.”
Ruby, a professor at Hamline University’s MFA program, made a bold request. “I would like to retire the word strong; we never talk about a strong male character. I don’t need to be able to throw a punch in order to be human.” She called for a celebration of feminine power and seeing cooking and taking care of bees as badass. “We don’t have to borrow necessarily from things that men do in order to have agency in our lives.”
Chokshi also brought attention to the fact that, although female writers are creating groundbreaking work, there has been a big deficiency of female names on awards lists. “Female writers often feel pressure to not toot their own horn.”
The panelists all shared their appreciation for the steamy romance aspect of YA fiction. Cameron confessed, “I’m so Austen about this stuff; I love the tension and the process leading to and not quite getting there. That’s the way my stories tend to go.” Taylor agreed and admitted to enjoying writing smoldering prose, but also appreciates realistic depictions of sex in contemporary fiction. “There’s two different kinds of sex scenes, and they belong in different types of books. I think realistic depiction of sex in books is necessary. YA books in which everything about sex is amazing make me uncomfortable. Realistic sex in a teen book makes it useful. I love writing the dreamy aspects of romance in fantasy, but I like giving shout-outs to book’s like Laura’s Bone Gap, which had a sensuous, beautiful, realistic but not explicit scene.”
Kincaid also argued that the amount of romance in a book also depends on the comfort level of the writer and whether it’s true to the characters’ experience. “A big part of culture tells us that two characters meet and have to have sex right away, but in YA novels, it’s a lot more thoughtful than that. Authors show respect for their characters and their emotional development.”
On the topic of “boy books” vs. “girl books,” Chokshi posited that stories are the only treasure that belongs to everyone: “How dare you tell someone they can’t have it because of who they are? Reading choices don’t emasculate you. They strengthen you.” Taylor shared that she truly appreciates when an effort is made to make gender neutral covers, so that boys won’t be shamed for reading YA fantasy.
Creativity at Play in Today’s Picture Books
Elisa Gall, librarian and department cochair at the Latin School of Chicago, deftly moderated the last panel of the day, which explored the collaboration needed in the art of creating picture books. There were a mix of author/illustrators and teams of authors and illustrators, making this the largest number of speakers on a single Day of Dialog panel, ever. They included Kate Beaton, King Baby (Scholastic); Michelle Cuevas and Erin Stead, Uncorker of Ocean Bottles (Dial); Richard Jackson and Jerry Pinkney, In Plain Sight (Roaring Brook); Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston, A Child of Books (Candlewick); and Brendan Wenzel, They All Saw a Cat (Chronicle).
Longtime publisher and editor Jackson makes his picture book debut with In Plain Sight, an intergenerational tale about a grandfather and his granddaughter. Pinkney felt honored to be paired with “a special guy who thinks visually and literally with concept.” Jeffers shared that he and Winston both wrote and illustrated the book. “In this one, the words are the pictures to a degree. The characters that I had created are interacting with typographical landscapes that Sam has created.”
Cuevas was inspired to write her picture book debut by a strange historical fact. Elizabeth I, for fear of people reading notes thrown in the sea by spies, actually created an official position to thwart that possibility—the Uncorker of Ocean Bottles.Cuevas wrote the text, and Stead illustrated the work afterwards. Cuevas didn’t see the artwork until it was done. “It’s the way I usually work. I say no most times because I live with an author (Philip Stead) who is pretty talented. I received the manuscript and read it on my phone. I was on a beach, and this story is about being on a beach. As soon as I read it, I saw the image of this one-man band.”
Wenzel was inspired to write They All Saw a Cat after two years of living abroad. He began to look at the world around him with fresh eyes. “Everything we [he and his wife] thought about the world was chopped into pieces and turned on its head, which was overwhelming.” He also shared that he’s always been fascinated with animals, and while creating this book, he tried to empathize with every animal involved and think about the interaction among animals.
Beaton, comics artist and now picture book creator, was inspired to write and illustrate this tale about a despot baby while working on comics at a café. “I zoned out and started staring at a baby, and I realized that nothing else in the café mattered to the baby. It was just trying to put its foot in its mouth. There are no babies for a long time in your life, and then all of a sudden your Facebook feed gets filled with images. Babies change people. They destroy you,” she said laughingly.
Jeffers and Winston worked for five years on this project, and both agreed that it was only possible because they left their egos at the door. On collaboration, Stead added, “I don’t think you can make a picture book without collaborating with the author, even if you don’t communicate. I look at a manuscript to see if there was room for my storytelling. I would approach the story with as much respect as possible.” In regard to pacing, she said, “If there’s an emotional point in a story that relates to another point in the story, I try to illustrate them in the same manner. I don’t worry about kids noticing pacing; kids are better at that than adults.”
Sponsoring publishers presented on which upcoming titles they were excited about throughout the day. The program’s conclusion was followed by a small reception, complete with giveaways and author signings by panelists, as well as other authors and illustrators.
Check out more scenes from SLJ‘s 2016 Day of Dialog below:
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