February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Brooklyn Book Festival Fosters Creativity Among Young Readers and Writers

The bookish set eagerly turned out for the 10th anniversary of the Brooklyn Book Festival, the largest free literary event in New York City. This year also marked the first iteration of the renowned festival’s Children’s Day, held on September 19th, in the MetroTech Commons space of New York University’s School of Engineering. Highlights included hourly panels, workshops, and a steady roster of live performances of buzz-worthy books on the Picture Book Stage, including The Case for Loving by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls (Scholastic, 2015) and Mama’s Nightingale (Dial, 2015), read by author Edwidge Danticat.

111What a Character

From l.: Abbie Hanlon, Jon Scieszka, and Lenore Look.

The “What a Character!” panel featured notable chapter book authors Abbie Hanlon [Dory Fantasmagory (Dial, 2014)], Lenore Look [“Alvin Ho” (Random) and “Ruby Lu” (S. & S.)], and Jon Scieszka [“Frank Einstein” (Abrams)]. Moderator Anica Rissi [“Anna Banana” (S. & S.)], questioned the authors about humor, failure, and the journey to creating well-loved characters. Hanlon cited her children as major inspiration for Dory’s effusive, inquisitive nature, while Scieszka stated that characters are often our “better selves”: a mixture of people we know, and people we want to be. Hanlon also emphasized the importance of brainstorming and flexibility for strong character construction: “You need to see [them] in many different situations in order to test their personality.” Look and Scieszka credited the educational component of their books, or what Look wryly called the “spinach in the chocolate cake,” with sculpting their characters. Both incorporated nonfiction elements into their early chapter books, and utilized big personalities to help make the topics of science and history more engaging. The panel ended with advice for young storytellers, as Look advised the audience to keep a writer’s notebook and to always ask questions. Hanlon dispensed similar advice: “Start with the problem, then make the problem bigger,” while Scieszka stated, “Half of your job [as a writer] is reading..so read everything you can.”

The “Readers Theatre of Magic” proved a a particularly well-attended panel, featuring authors Chris Grabenstein [The Island of Dr. Libris (Random)], Tracey Baptiste [The Jumbies (Algonquin)], Emily Jenkins, and Sarah Mlyinowski [Upside Down Magic (Scholastic)]. The Grimm Conclusion (Dutton, all 2015) author Adam Gidwitz led the group through an exciting “readers theatre” using scripted samples of each work, followed by a discussion of childhood fears, (the tale of Little Red Riding Hood was a common response, while one pint-sized audience participant suggested the Smurfs), creative inspiration, and an enlightening step-by-step overview of the writing and publishing process simplified for a young audience. The panel drew a large crowd and a variety of questions, and again the theme of writing advice surfaced. Grabenstein echoed earlier panelists: “Ask a ‘what if?’ question? ‘And then…and then…’ That’s how you build a story.”

111We Dig Worms

Kevin McCloskey shows the crowd some live worms.

The daylong event boasted a variety of concurrent workshops for younger attendees and tactile learners, including a pop-up book making class, musical story time, and even a youth financial literacy program held by Candi Sparks on her book Lemonade Sold Out (Sparks Fly, 2015). We Dig Worms! (TOON Bks., 2015) author Kevin McCloskey led a half hour read along on the small yet fascinating world of worms, before unveiling some live specimens for a worm “race.” While the worms proved to be on their most sedentary behavior, they nevertheless drew a number of enthusiastic “ew!”s from the crowd.


111Illustrators in Action 2 (2)

The Illustrators in Action event drew a large crowd.

Rounding out the abundant offerings was the hourlong Illustrators in Action, a live drawing competition in which children’s book illustrators playfully battled to fulfill audience prompts in record time. Emcee Ayun Halliday [Peanut, (Random, 2012)], skillfully engaged young watchers with brief chats, and a few dance numbers, while the equally energetic artists Kevin Sherry [Monsters on the Run (Scholastic, 2015)], Raúl Colón [Draw! (S. & S., 2014)], George O’Connor [If I Had a Triceratops (Candlewick, 2015)], Aimee Sicuro [Bright Sky, Starry City (Groundwood, 2015)], Frank Morrison [Little Melba and her Big Trombone (Lee & Low, 2014)], and Kazu Kibuishi [“Amulet” (Scholastic)] tag-teamed and speed-sketched their way through directives such as, “Draw an octopus with each tentacle holding something starting with the letter ‘A'” and, “Draw a mermaid on her birthday using technology.” The pieces were distributed to a lucky few audience members after the show.

Sunday held its own share of exciting events for young readers at the Youth Stage in the Brooklyn Heights Public Library. “A Question of Identity” packed the house, with notable fiction writers Alex Gino [George (Scholastic, 2015)], I.W. Gregorio [None of the Above (HarperCollins, 2015)], Adam Silvera [More Happy Than Not (Soho Teen, 2015)], and moderator David Levithan [Another Day (Knopf, 2015)]. The graphic novel program “One Crazy Summer” followed, featuring comics authors Mariko Tamaki [This One Summer (First Second, 2014)], Maggie Thrash [Honor Girl (Candlewick, 2015)], and Owen King [Intro to an Alien Invasion (Scribner, 2015)], moderated by Laura Weinstein [Girl Stories (Holt, 2006)].

The three shared a unique thread in their creative histories as exclusively prose writers, citing various coincidences that led them recently to the graphic genre. Thrash had no art background, but was struggling greatly with her personal prose, and realized “I could express myself more honestly through graphic memoir.” The discussion then turned to the flexibility graphic memoirs allow in terms of experience versus effort; while all had varying levels of familiarity with the genre, they agreed that an enormous amount of work is required to create the finished product. Two out of the three authors spoke on the benefits and limitations of collaboration, with Tamaki appreciating the “freedom to have two people telling the story,” while King spoke on ego-checking and compromise. Though none of the authors explicitly label their works YA, the trio theorized that penning teenage characters and their segmented lives (semesters, school breaks, etc.) naturally fit the structure of the graphic memoir, which tends to capture finite blocks of time and highlight the ordinary. When posed the question of tackling a “sprawling” graphic novel, Thrash countered, “What are you doing it for, if not to capture a moment?”

“High School Confidential” was the final youth panel of the day, and another that packed the library

The High School Confidential panel

Many teens attended the High School Confidential panel.

auditorium, this time with teens. Moderated by the charming Paul Rudnick [Gorgeous (Scholastic, 2013)], Leila Sales [This Song Will Save Your Life (Farrar, 2013)], Renee Watson [This Side of Home (Bloomsbury, 2015)], and Tavi Gevinson [“The Rookie Yearbook” (Penguin)], spoke on the difficulties of navigating identity and friendships as a teen, relatability, and the peril of being pigeonholed as women writers of YA literature.

Nineteen-year-old Gevinson stood out as the youngest member of the panel, and as an insightful, contemplative voice on writing for teenagers when your own circumstances are exceptional. The blogger, actress, and editor emphasized that it’s often emotions that allow readers to connect to a piece over specific experiences, and also argued the risk of diluting one’s voice to blandness when pandering to widespread relatability. Watson brought in a unique perspective as an author who spends ample time teaching writing in the classroom, mentioning that she brings unfinished pieces to her students both as a workshop exercise for herself, and as a means of showing children what a writer in progress looks like. Regarding the issue of criticism versus censorship that is particularly relevant to young adult literature, Gevinson stated, “I’m interested in feedback from teenagers…you can’t control the way people react to what you do,” while Sales offered, “There’s no book that everybody likes.” But the marginalization that often comes along with writing for young, predominantly female audiences is something all three women have experienced, despite Sales’s argument that fiction is “exactly the platform” for expanding connection and understanding beyond one’s personal experience. Whether it’s in high school or on the bookshelf, Watson observed, “[Our society] is very much about, ‘Where do you fit?” and shared an anecdote in which a white teen was discouraged from buying Watson’s book because her mother said she “couldn’t relate,” presumably to the novel’s black protagonist. With such drawbacks in mind, Sales, Watson, and Gevinson remained staunchly positive about the category: “[YA] tends to be affirmative,” said Sales, while Watson agreed that while she doesn’t hold back from tough topics and gritty scenes, she aims to leave her readers filled with hope.

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