Speakers Shawn Tan, Candace Fleming and Gennifer Choldenko at the GLiBA show.
The booksellers who gathered at the Renaissance Hotel in Cleveland this past weekend for the 20th annual Great Lakes Booksellers trade show reflected as much on the past as they did the present and the future, and the children’s book authors who spoke before approximately 140 booksellers at Sunday’s breakfast were no exception. The three authors—Gennifer Choldenko (Al Capone Shines My Shoes, Dial), Candace Fleming (Imogene’s Last Stand, Random, and The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of P.T. Barnum, Random), and Shaun Tan (Tales from Outer Suburbia, Scholastic/Levine)—each focused on the impact of the past upon themselves personally, as well as upon their work.
Choldenko kicked off the breakfast by recalling how her father regularly drove his family on three freeways for an hour, from Santa Monica, Calif. to Hollywood, just to visit his favorite bookstore, Pickwick. She was always allowed to pick one book on these trips, a memory she cherishes.
More recently, while cleaning out her mother’s home to sell it, Choldenko found a metal box hidden in a closet. Instead of containing the family jewels, the box contained hundreds of 3x5 notecards, upon which her now deceased father had meticulously recorded the bibliographic information for every book he owned.
“My father’s dream was to own a bookstore and to publish a book,” she told the GLiBA booksellers. “We are living his dream. You are so appreciated.”
Choldenko was inspired to write Al Capone Does My Shirts, about Al Capone’s stay on Alcatraz Island in the 1930s, after she read a story in the San Francisco Chonicle about children who lived on Alcatraz when it was a prison, as their fathers worked there. Disclosing that she worked as a docent for a year at Alcatraz to learn more about the history of the legendary maximum-security island prison situated in San Francisco Bay, she hit upon tying her tales to the notorious Depression-era Chicago gangster who spent seven years incarcerated there, as “there’s no one like Al Capone. He’s just larger than life in every way.” The audience definitely agreed with her after she regaled them with stories of Capone’s life before and during his incarceration at Alcatraz.
Candace Fleming, who has written more 20 children’s books with historical themes since 1995, informed her audience that P.T. Barnum left his mark on American society in many ways “that you don’t even realize.” Not only did he launch the “cult of celebrity” that’s still so prevalent in our world now, but he even coined the term “profit margin.
“I love the guy,” Fleming declared. “Why did no one write a biography of that man before?”
Like Choldenko before her, Fleming related some humorous anecdotes that emphasized how truly larger-than-life Barnum was and what a showman he was. And she laid to rest the legend that he was the first one to say, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” He never said it, she stated, but he did say something that Fleming called her favorite Barnum quote. “When entertaining the public, it’s best to have an elephant,” Fleming quoted Barnum as having once said, adding, “I wish I could have brought you all an elephant.”
Moving on to her other new release, Imogene’s Last Stand, Fleming more than implied that this children’s picture book about a history-loving girl who tries to preserve a historical building from demolition was semi-autobiographical. “Imogene and I have a lot in common,” Fleming said. “We must preserve our past. As Imogene would say, ‘Don’t let your past get smashed.’ ”
Giving a shout-out to the book's illustrator, Nancy Carpenter, Fleming pointed out the clever references to her previous biographies of historical characters hidden in Carpenter’s illustrations.
While reading from the text, Fleming got a big laugh from booksellers, when she read that Mayor Butts, who wanted to demolish the Liddleton Historical Society, “shook his cheeks.”
“Whoops,” she joked.
Fleming also pointed out that while Imogene’s Last Stand is entertaining, it’s also an educational experience, as the endpapers provide the proper context for every actual historical quotation Imogene repeats in her quest to save the Liddleton Historical Society from destruction—except for one altered quote, Imogene’s declaration, “Heck no, we won’t go.”
The final speaker, Shaun Tan, the critically acclaimed Australian author of the wordless graphic novel The Arrival, which broke him out in the United States, expressed his excitement at “being in such an exotic place as Cleveland.” Displaying illustrations from his sketchbook and photographs from his childhood growing up of Australian and Chinese parentage in Perth, Australia, Tan explained that “all of [his] work comes from [his] environment,” and although he hasn’t lived in that geographically isolated city for years, its desolate environment still inspires him.
“British culture is so at odds with the Australian landscape,” Tan said. “I feel like that world is a science-fiction world.”
“History is a science-fiction world,” he added. “I feel like the past is an alternate universe.”
Discussing the surreal images in Tales from Outer Suburbia, his latest graphic novel that explores the magical yet often strange details of suburban life, Tan pointed out, “Art is the lie that shows the truth, just as fiction is the lie that tells the truth.”
While his images are often otherwordly, with humans interacting with non-humans and strange buildings rising out of barren landscapes, Tan’s work really isn’t that strange to young readers. “Remember,” he pointed out, “Nothing is normal. For children, the world is a surreal place.”