More than 100,000 people, many of them families with kids, turned out for the 17th annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on the village-like campus of USC on April 21 and 22.
The atmosphere in the children’s area, arguably the most popular place to be at the festival, was colorful, energetic, and mobbed on both days. Between the Target stage, the YA stage, and the Hoy area, which is the dedicated Hispanic portion of the festival, there were continuous sources of kids’ entertainment, author readings, music, and games. Scooby-Doo made several appearances, and Judy Blume, David Shannon, Julie Andrews, and Marc Brown were among the most sought-after authors at book signings. Children’s booksellers Once Upon a Time and Mrs. Nelson’s did a brisk business on both days, topping their 2011 festival sales. (See our extensive photo essay for a look at many of the weekend’s highlights.)
With more than 20 panels devoted to children’s and YA books, it was apparent that interest in this genre shows no sign of slowing down. At the “Children’s Books: Painting the Picture” panel on Saturday, moderator Allyn Johnston, publisher of Beach Lane Books, brought out the best in panelists Bob Staake, Kadir Nelson, and Marla Frazee in the sold-out auditorium. Staake, who lives in Chatham, Mass,, flew in for the festival and said he was pleased to be back on the campus of his alma mater.
Johnston first queried the trio about the current form of the picture book. Frazee, creator of such books as The Boss Baby and All the World (with Liz Garton Scanlon) said the form is challenging for her because of the myriad ways she can approach a book. “At least half of a story has to be told in the pictures,” she said. “I also have to decide which parts of a story should be told in words, and which in pictures.” Frazee said she is at the point in her career now where she can decline to illustrate a manuscript. “The writing may be good,” she said, “but sometimes the resonance is off.”
Staake was selected this year to create the logo and illustrations for the Festival of Books marketing graphics. He told the audience that he is often commissioned to illustrate books that are written by others. “If the story is written by someone else, my job is to make that story better with my illustrations,” he noted. “When I’m working on my own books there’s no answer to the question, ‘what comes first – the pictures or the words?’ ” When Staake conceived of his popular The Red Lemon, for instance, the title came to him first without any knowledge of what the book would be; that appeared much later.
Kadir Nelson is known for his books about African-Americans and their history and culture. Because he worked in film early in his career, he thinks of the picture book form as a silent film. “I think like a director, working in wide-angle shots and close-ups,” he said. “Each image should stand alone and work together with the other images in a cinematic way.” Nelson appreciates the freedom to both write and illustrate. “But if a manuscript isn’t relevant to where I am spiritually and professionally, I won’t do it.”
The panelists all work in different art forms. For Frazee a sketch comes first, followed by soaking a blank piece of Strathmore 500-series paper in a bathtub. She then stretches the paper on a piece of wood and begins to paint with a water-based paint such as gouache. Next she paints layers on top of each other to create a wash, which “builds up the color really slowly.” In his downtown Los Angeles studio, Nelson works in oil on canvas or wood. His paintings can be up to eight feet long, so his photographer then shoots them digitally and reduces the size. With the exception of background art, which he paints and then scans, Staake’s work is composed on a computer; he draws digitally with a mouse and works in Photoshop 3.0, one of the oldest versions around. “I make lots of circles,” Staake said with a laugh.
Regardless of the medium it’s clear that Frazee, Staake, and Nelson are all inspired by children and the idea of childhood. “When I sit down to work,” Staake said, “I try to conjure up the images that would have excited six-year old Bobby.” Frazee is always being mindful of the child, and how well children read pictures. “I think about that in a humbling way,” she says. Responding to a question from the audience about where his ideas come from, Nelson said, “All creative expression comes from the same place. Maintain your vision, and be honest.”
Sunday’s “In the Middle: Tweenage Fantasy” panel was moderated by Aaron Hartzler, author of the forthcoming YA memoir Rapture Practice. Held outdoors on the festival’s YA stage, panelists Cornelia Funke (Ghost Night), Alyson Noël (Whisper), and former television writer John Stephens (The Emerald Atlas) each read a few pages from their respective books to the large audience; the children sitting on the grass in front of the stage were especially awestruck by Funke’s dramatic rendering.
The panelists first discussed what part of themselves they bring to their characters, and Noël, who told the audience she lost five close friends in three months during the same year her husband was diagnosed with leukemia, said, “I wrote The Immortals while I was grieving. I poured my grief into the character of Eve, and it was an amazing experience. As I got better, so did she.” Stephens said that the sibling rivalries in his book are similar to those he experienced in his family. “My siblings were always testing me, and yet I knew I could depend on them if I really needed them. This shows up in my characters and in the story.” Funke said that her characters are always surprising her. “I feel like I’m constantly in wrestling matches with them, especially when one wants more attention than I want to give to that character.”
An audience member asked the panelists what books they read when they were young. Funke, who is German and grew up in that country, mentioned Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Princess Bride as being among her favorites “when I wasn’t reading obscure German books.” Noel favored the Little House on the Prairie books (“I was Half-Pint!”) and every Judy Blume novel she could get her hands on, even though her sixth-grade teacher referred to them as “trash.” Stephens read books “that gave me the sense that magic was right next door,” such as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Tarzan.
An earnest young man wanted to know if it was difficult to capture the essence of adolescence in YA fiction. “You know,” Funke told her, “we’re all everywhere at the same time – very young, teenaged, and I suspect you already have a sense of the old man in you.” The panel concluded with Noël’s words. “No matter who the character may be, the core journey never changes in adolescence,” she said. “Hang on to that.”
At the “Young Adult Fiction” panel on Saturday, panelists Maureen Johnson, Jacqueline Woodson, Maggie Stiefvater, and Lauren Myracle agreed that nothing is off the table when it comes to themes and topic matter for their books. With moderator Susan Carpenter, staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, at the helm, the panelists did not hold back during their discussion of sexuality and violence in YA writing, how race and class are presented, and their reasons for writing for the YA market. “I don’t know how to write a good sex scene,” said Woodson, author of Beneath a Meth Moon and If You Come Softly; I don’t find sex literary.” Stiefvater, who wrote The Scorpio Races and Shiver, added, “But sex scenes can be so hilarious when you read them.” There is sex in Myracle’s Later Gater, and several of her books appear on national Banned Books lists. “Be very careful with the use of the F word,” she cautioned the audience. Woodson won’t write gratuitous violence into her books; Stiefvater said she learned about violence by reading about it.
“The issues of race and class seem untouched in YA writing,” Carpenter said, and Woodson, who is black, suggested that it might be because not a lot of people of color are writing in the genre. “Also,” she added, “for authors it doesn’t show up on the page until you have that experience.” The panelists tried to explain the difficulty in the descriptive process when writing about non-white characters. Johnson, author of The Name of the Star, is uncomfortable labeling black characters. “It shouldn’t matter,” she said. Woodson thinks otherwise. “The reader shouldn’t assume all the characters are white unless stated as black. If a character has depth, all that stuff comes out,” she said.
Johnson, who attended an all-girls’ Catholic school in a convent despite the fact that she wasn’t Catholic, said that she wrote her first YA novel on a bet with another student. “I planned my escape from there for four years,” she said of her experience as an adolescent. That particular period of time seems to have been noteworthy for Woodson as well. “Adolescence is the age you’re stuck in, from eight to 15. I was crippled as a young girl,” she told the audience, “but through my writing and my characters I can fix that stuff.”