Indianapolis in winter may not be much of a travel destination, but this past January 24, neither snow nor sleet nor wintry mix could keep 350 teachers, librarians and writers from attending the 14th annual Butler University Children's Literature Conference to see the likes of Pam Muñoz Ryan, Rosemary Wells, Susan Jeffers, Coleen Salley and editor Neal Porter. Professionals weren't the only ones to benefit from the presence of these notables in the field—the children and parents of Indianapolis did, too.
The seed for the conference was planted as Butler's writer-in-residence and children's book author Valiska Gregory (Shirley's Wonderful Baby) signed books in Shirley Mullin's children's bookstore in Indianapolis, Kids Ink, one day in early 1990, while lamenting that there was little opportunity for lovers of children's books to gather in their area. Gregory recalled, "I had spoken at conferences for librarians where the talk was all about what makes a book good. And I had spoken at conferences for teachers where the talk was all about how to use a book in the classroom. Then I had spoken at writers' conferences where the talk was, 'Who will publish my book?' I thought these groups could learn from each other."
Mullin, meanwhile, had attended the Ohio Literature Conference, held at Ohio State University in Columbus, where her friend Sally Oddi at Cover to Cover provides the books. Mullin thought this conference could serve as a useful model for bringing these different audiences together in Indianapolis.
Gregory and Mullin's next step was to approach Christine Cairo, director of project development and services at the Indianapolis—Marion County Public Library. These three formed the triumvirate that spearheaded the first conference in 1991 (and still form the core today) and worked in partnership with Butler University to make their dream a reality.
A Community Effort
All three founders felt that a key component of the conference, from its inception, should be the involvement of the community. Thus the Friday night gala was born, featuring a keynote speaker plus an autographing that includes all the authors and artists appearing at the Saturday conference. This year, Pam Muñoz Ryan spoke on Friday night to a capacity crowd of more than 500 parents and children, who clustered on the floor of the Glendale branch library at Ryan's feet. They listened to her read excerpts from her books and watched a slide show of the California grape fields where the author grew up and which served as backdrop to her novel Esperanza Rising. After the presentation, children lined up to get their books autographed, not only by Ryan but also by Rosemary Wells, Susan Jeffers and Coleen Salley.
Gregory said that in years past, the conference has also included other civic groups. When David Diaz appeared at the conference one year, the children's museum hosted an exhibit of Diaz's paintings. The year Sandy Asher spoke, one of her plays was performed at the Jewish Community Center, and another year the Asante Children's Theater mounted an original production of a Will Hillenbrand book, creating sets modeled on his artwork. Gregory said they attempt to book authors and artists up to three years in advance, in order to foster these kinds of partnerships.
It's a win-win situation all around. The authors enjoy it because at other conferences they are usually scheduled opposite one another; as Ryan put it, "This was the first conference where I could actually hear all of the other authors and artists." One large room at Butler University accommodates all of the attendees, where each of the authors and/or artists spoke in turn; Mullin and her team set up tables of books for sale at the back of that large room (these included books for autographing plus many of the "New Books Too Good to Miss" featured in Mullin's popular breakout session of the best new titles of the year, as well as many books by local authors).
For Cairo, the conference is invaluable for the 60 children's librarians in the 23 branches of her county's public library system. "I think all the public librarians are looking for professional growth," she said. Mullin pointed out, "Financially, it helps us through the winter, and it raises awareness about the bookstore. The time I put into the conference reaps the profit from the book sales."
For all three of the conference's pioneers, the greatest goal has been realized: it has forged new ties within Indianapolis. "Because we try to reach not only the constituency for the conference but also reach out into the community, it's brought a lot of people together who wouldn't have come together otherwise," said Gregory.
A Word from the Wise
For those who may wish to embark on a similar enterprise, Gregory, Mullin and Cairo offered this advice: find a partner who can provide the space and the environment you want. Their goal was to encourage mixing among the participants and to keep breakout rooms within close proximity of the main stage for the speakers. Butler University makes the ideal partner for them.
The organizers also stressed the importance of choosing the initial committee of people who come up with the ideas for speakers and themes at the conference. "We spent a while just figuring out our goals," Gregory recalled. "You also have to have people willing to put in the time, and it does take time to get all of this done."
"The support for the conference has to come out of the fees for the attendees," Mullin cautioned. "There's no cost except for your own time." She knows a bookseller who tried to start a conference by investing her own money, and the conference did not work. Mullin stressed the importance of selling the books close to where the authors and artists are speaking, not only because the books are visible, but so "those working get to hear everyone—[my staff] loves to attend."
Mullin said that she relies on other booksellers as references for successful speakers. "We like to bring fresh new faces to Indiana, and also highlight different cultural experiences," she said. "I'll call Tina Moore or Sally Oddi and ask them, 'Have you heard this person? Would they be good to have?' "
Cairo, whose greatest concern initially was attracting talent to speak at the conference, had this advice: "Treat your authors well. Don't overwork them when they're here. They go back and tell other authors, and that's how we generate interest in coming to Indianapolis."
Given the roster they've been able to attract over the years, this conference, which has grown from 100 to 350 with a waiting list, seems successful indeed. According to Gregory, attendees have heard Ashley Bryan "chant his books," Jack Gantos made people "laugh off their chairs," and shortly after September 11, 2001, Katherine Paterson's moving speech brought people to tears.
Next year for the 15th anniversary, Newbery-winning author Richard Peck will be the keynote speaker. --Jennifer M. Brown