Author Katherine Paterson, author-illustrator Marla Frazee and illustrator E.B. Lewis formed the award-winning lineup of featured speakers at last Friday’s Fall Festival of Children’s Books in Pittsburgh. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Lecture Hall provided the backdrop for the 46th annual program, which has established a tradition of providing local librarians, teachers and students with access to esteemed creators of children’s books.
Frazee kicked off the morning by expressing her love for the picture book format—and criticizing (with much support) the recent New York Times article about the genre’s supposed fall from favor. “The reporter should have talked to teachers and librarians who are in the trenches with kids,” she said. “They understand that picture books are crucial rungs on the ladder to literacy.” As far as children’s appreciation for the form, she noted, “Children read pictures from an early age. They are visually literate by nature—and they notice everything.”
Frazee recalled how a young fan astutely pointed out a tiny error in one of her drawings in The Toy Expert. She also recounted the childhood favorite that convinced her she wanted to be a children’s book illustrator: “It’s the scene in Where the Wild Things Are where Max gets a piece of cake with his dinner. That idea is only in the art and not mentioned in the text.” Next came a slideshow of Frazee’s work on the Newbery Honor titles All the World and A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever—projects she worked on in her beloved cozy studio beneath an avocado tree.
Taking the stage for his presentation, Newbery Honor and Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award-winner Lewis jokingly apologized to those in the audience who may have come to the event looking for E.B. White. He recounted his childhood learning difficulties and fondly recalled how a favorite uncle “helped me discover my passion” by taking him to Saturday morning art classes every week for six years. From his college art studies, Lewis went on to teach art in public schools, and he spoke of the impact that teachers can have on young people’s lives and self-esteem. “Kids don’t really care what you know until they know that you care,” he said. And once kids experience that attention, he notes, their world can change. Through a series of slides, Lewis revealed his work process of staging photographs of real people (sometimes friends and family, sometimes local students) to use as models for his art.
Paterson, two-time recipient of the Newbery Medal, and current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, challenged the audience to rethink the concept of “the hero.” She related a favorite anecdote about “the most unlikely hero in my life,” a fellow fourth-grader named Eugene Hammett. “Raise your hand if you haven’t heard me talk about Eugene,” she said. “Good! I promised myself that I’d continue to tell this story if at least one hand in the audience goes up.” Eugene’s journey from being “the other weird kid” in Paterson’s fourth-grade class to fulfilling his dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer and teacher formed the cornerstone for the author’s passionate words about what it takes to truly be a hero. “The courage of a hero is not fearlessness,” she said. “Those of you who teach, who are parents, all who work for the children of the world, you are fighting the long defeat.” She added, “We’re making common cause with children. They are the powerless, the losers in the tragic world their elders have made.” On their behalf, she urged, “We must not surrender to despair and cynicism.”
Following their presentations, the three speakers entertained questions from the audience, which included further comment on the picture books issue, as well as the perceived encroachment of technology on books and reading. “It’s so sad to underestimate the need of children for beauty,” Paterson said at the thought of picture books not being an important part of their lives. Frazee added, “We still see wooden blocks in kindergarten classrooms; it’s the best way to learn to build. I don’t think there’s a better way to learn to read. I’m holding on to that.” And Lewis noted, “Parents’ vanity is what has gotten us here. Picture books can be appreciated from birth to age 90, or however long one lives. They’re not baby books.”