February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Why the Great Green Room is Green, Facing Censorship, and More from BookFest @ Bank Street

Bank Street_INformation_group

Jennifer M. Brown, Deborah Heiligman, Lindsey Wyckoff, Leonard S.   Marcus, Brian Pinkney, and Jason Chin. Photo: Cheryl Simon

Why is the bedroom in Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (Harper & Brothers, 1947) bright green? Where does a transgender teen find the strength to stay brave? How do illustrators grapple with complex concepts in books for young children? These were some of the questions addressed by authors and illustrators at the 2014 BookFest @ Bank Street last weekend. Hosted by the Bank Street Center for Children’s Literature at the Bank Street College of Education in New York on October 25, the BookFest also included author signings and breakout discussion sessions led by youth librarians and others.

Why the great green room is green

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Leonard Marcus and Lindsey Wyckoff Photo: Cheryl Simon

Leonard S. Marcus, children’s book scholar and author of Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon (Beacon Press, 1992), kicked off the day by discussing “The Making of Goodnight Moon” in conversation with Lindsey Wyckoff, archivist and special collections librarian at Bank Street.

Marcus said that Brown enrolled at Bank Street in the 1930s after failing to get her stories published in The New Yorker. She gave the Goodnight Moon manuscript to her friend and collaborator, artist Clement Hurd, after Hurd returned from World War II and was staying in Brown’s home in Greenwich Village.


‘Goodnight Moon’s great green room.

Discussing the vibrant color of the book’s central “great green room,” Marcus noted that Wise’s childhood bedroom was green, and it had tiles around a fireplace portraying scenes from fairy tales. The room in Goodnight Moon initially included a map on the wall, Marcus added, but editor Ursula Nordstrom asked that it be replaced with a bookcase because she thought that American children didn’t read enough.

Goodnight Moon is not a story, Marcus observed, because it does not have a story line; he added that the book was conceived to merge familiar elements of the everyday world and fantasy. The bright colors, Marcus noted, may have been chosen to elicit a sensory response and invite the child in. He added that Hurd, who had studied art in Paris with the painter Fernand Léger, was influenced by the Fauves, including Henri Matisse. He contrasted Hurd’s vibrant, folk-art like style, with pictures resembling stage sets, with that of contemporaries such as Robert McCloskey, a realist who studied with the American painter Thomas Hart Benton and was “going for the real thing.”

Marcus then read aloud from a letter that Hurd received from a woman who told the illustrator that said that her 18-month old literally tried to climb into the book before going to sleep and was distraught that he couldn’t. “That is how real the book is to my son,” she wrote.

Conceptualizing nonfiction picture books

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Jason Chin and Deborah Heiligman Photo: Cheryl Simon

Moving from the topic of fantasy to fact, the next panel, moderated by Jennifer M. Brown, director of Bank Street’s Center for Children’s Literature, explored “Presenting the Facts in Picture Books.” When creating Sit-in: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down (Little, Brown, 2010) with his wife, author Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrator Brian Pinkney wanted to feel “like a fly on the wall” on the day when four black college students sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, and asked to be served.

Seeking to portray the “pride and angst” felt by the main characters, Pinkney said that he also “envisioned the lunch counter as a character”—a metaphorical “roller coaster” evoked by his illustrations. The artist admitted that he mistakenly showed his characters ordering burgers and fries, and discovered late in the publishing process that they had in fact ordered donuts and coffee. “Since they never got served,” it turned out to be a nonissue, Pinkney said, to a roar of laughter in the room.

martinmahaliaPinkney spoke of another collaboration with his wife, Martin and Mahalia: His Words, Her Song (Little, Brown, 2013), about the relationship between Martin Luther King Jr. and gospel singer and civil rights activist Mahalia Jackson. Describing his color choices, Pinkney said that he portrayed King with “cool” colors—blues and greens—while he used reds and oranges when illustrating Jackson. When the two appear together in the book, the hues mix, forming purple.

“It never occurred to me not to put the facts in there,” author and illustrator Jason Chin commented about his illustrated nonfiction, including Gravity (Roaring Brook, 2014). Chin described how his wife first suggested he create a book about gravity in which things fall off the pages, and how that evolved into his final concept. Talking about his forthcoming title Water Is Water: A Book About the Water Cycle (Roaring Brook, May 2015), written by Miranda Paul, Chin explained how he illustrates characters who are “friends and family,” along with familiar objects and settings, such as an old iron stove in a family home, in order to “become emotionally connected” to a topic. He is currently in the research phase of a book about the Grand Canyon.

Deborah Heiligman, who wrote of the Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdős (Roaring Brook, 2013), based on the life of the eccentric Hungarian genius, admitted that after an intensive period of researching her subject, the “hardest part” is to “figure out how to carve that story out.” Heiligman described her collaboration with illustrator LeUyen Pham and the challenge of representing high-level math to young children. She showed slides revealing the how Pham stayed true to her photo research about Erdős’s family. Heiligman noted that the “Fraulein” nanny character, about whom little information could be found, was the only element that was visually fictionalized.

“You’re going to be stopped by the cops”

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Allie Jane Bruce and Robie Harris Photo: Cheryl Simon

The dynamic afternoon panel exploring “A Search for Understanding: Gender and Identity” was moderated by Bank Street children’s librarian Allie Jane Bruce. After updating the audience on the status of the growing WeNeedDiverseBooks (#WeNeedDiverseBooks) campaign, Bruce asked panelists about what drives them to write and how they deal with book challenges and censorship issues.

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Coe Booth Photo:Cheryl Simon

Robie Harris, author of It’s Perfectly Normal! A Book About Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health, illustrated by Michael Emberley (Candlewick, 1994), described working at one of the first Head start programs, at Bank Street, with teen mothers. She said that her goal with It’s Perfectly Normal! was to inform kids about important issues before they reached puberty. Discussing material in the book that people have objected to or suggested eliminating, she said, “If it’s in the best interest of the child, it’s going to stay in, and so be it.” Harris added that she “wanted to do an inclusive book where very kid could find themselves in an image or the text.”

Explaining her motivation as a writer, Coe Booth, author of Tyrell (Push, 2006) the forthcoming Kinda Like Brothers (Scholastic, 2014) talked about her background working with NAACP youth groups and group leaders’ messages to black boys and teens. It was, “You’re going to get stopped by the cops”—not “if you are stopped,” but “when,” Booth said. Booth has also worked with New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services examining sex abuse cases. She said that she wished that every educator could visit all children at home in order to truly understand them. “There may not even be a home,” she pointed out.

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Tim Federle Photo:Cheryl Simon

“The more specific your story is, the more universal it is to your readers,” noted Tim Federle, author of the middle grade novel Better Nate Than Ever (2013) and its sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate! (2014, both S. & S., 2014). “I didn’t want it to be an issue book,” he said of his first title, starring a boy who aspires to perform on Broadway. Instead, Federle, a professional actor who has performed on Broadway and worked with young actors in the musical Billy Elliott, wanted his story to bring hope. Federle grew up in San Francisco and Pittsburgh. “I only heard in Pittsburgh about [gay] kids who were killing themselves,” he said.

The motivation for Susan Kuklin, the author of Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out (Candlewick, 2014), was “to get kids to talk about what it’s like to go through transition.” Kuklin was joined on the panel by Christina, one of the teens featured in the book, who transitioned while in high school. Asked if she was worried about the response to Beyond Magenta, Christina said, “If I can get through an all-boys Catholic school dressed like a woman, I can get through anything.”

When Federle was asked what he does when his books are challenged, he said, “I call Rocco Staino from School Library Journal and say, ‘Rocco, do you want to write a piece about this?’”

Harris said that when there is objection to her book’s inclusion in a library, a representative from her publisher calls the librarian and asks, “What can I do to help?” Harris urged people aware of book challenges to contact the book’s publisher.

Booth noted that school representatives often tell her that they don’t buy her books because they think the children won’t relate to the characters. “And how many wizards do you have?” Federle quipped.

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Matt de la Peña  Photo: Cheryl Simon

In his closing keynote, Matt de la Peña, author of Mexican White Boy (Delacorte, 2008) and The Living (Random House, 2013) described the books and people that nourished him as he matured, from a kid who did not value reading, to the first member of his family to attend college, to a published writer. When a college professor handed de la Peña Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (HBJ, 1982), it “gave me an interior life—a secret place to feel,” he said.

Handing someone a book can give him or her a new path in life, de la Peña added in his moving speech. He described how his father, after losing his job at the San Diego Zoo, went on to get his GED and college degree. A man of few words, his father become a substitute teacher and an avid reader of James Joyce and Gabriel García Márquez. Now, he likes to read García Márquez aloud to his young students in Spanish.

Sarah Bayliss About Sarah Bayliss

Sarah Bayliss (sbayliss@mediasourceinc.com, @shbayliss) is associate editor, news and features, at School Library Journal.

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