The 2009 NBA nominees for Young People's Literature: (l. to r.) Phillip Hoose, Laini Taylor, Deborah Heiligman, Rita Williams-Garcia, and
David Small. Photo: Joe Pacheco.

During his introductory speech at the 12th annual National Book Foundation’s Teen Press Conference, held this past Tuesday, host Jon Scieszka noted that the “crazy collection of writers and illustrators” that make up this year’s National Book Award finalists in the Young People’s Literature category offered “absolutely something for everyone,” be it social activism, history, or “lots of kissing.” In addition to the usual readings and Q&A sections of the event, this year’s gathering featured a surprise guest: civil rights pioneer Claudette Colvin, the subject of Phillip Hoose’s nominated biography, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (FSG/Kroupa).

Labeling this year’s nominees as a “crazy collection” isn’t too far off. The nominees consist of two books about three teenage girls—Laini Taylor’s trio of fantasy stories, Lips Touch: Three Times (Scholastic/Levine), and Rita Williams-Garcia’s novel Jumped (HarperTeen)—and three works of nonfiction, with Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt) and David Small’s graphic novel memoir Stitches (Norton) joining Hoose’s work.

New York City students listened to the authors read, before asking questions of their own. Photo: Joe Pacheco.

Taking the stage in turn in the Celeste Bartos Forum at the main branch of the New York Public Library, each author spoke about and read from his/her book. There was no missing Laini Taylor’s bright pink hair; her multimedia presentation showcased the artwork of her husband, Jim Di Bartolo, which appears in Lips Touch. (Di Bartolo was also in attendance, tending to the couple’s baby daughter.) Taylor copped to the fact that her book was the one with “lots of kissing,” but added that the kisses in her stories have “supernatural consequences for the kissers’ souls.”

Taylor was followed by Deborah Heiligman, who admitted to falling in love with dead people (she has also written High Hopes, a biography of John F. Kennedy), and said that Charles and Emma Darwin “are worthy of falling in love with.” Heiligman read from the opening chapter of Charles and Emma, in which Charles Darwin creates a list of pros and cons about whether or not he should marry. The chapter’s title, “Better than a Dog,” takes its name from an item in the “pro” column.

Host Jon Scieszka presided over the
Q&A portion of the event.

Since Stitches is a graphic novel, David Small also used the big screen to show his artwork from the book, which explores his childhood in Detroit and the discovery that his physician father inadvertently gave him cancer through X-ray treatments. While his slideshow was being set up, he said “I am probably the last person who should get up and talk about this book. It’s such a personal, personal story.” Small also noted that his answer to the frequent question of why he didn’t use color in Stitches is that, “Some stories are better in black and white,” adding that specific colors provoke specific emotional reactions. “If you drop in red, yellow, or green, you get that emotional response.”

Confessing to some nervousness and excitement about the day’s event, Rita Williams-Garcia ably switched between three different voices for the characters in Jumped (four, if you count Leticia’s high school French teacher). The girls’ distinctive qualities—from Trini’s bubbly self-confidence to Dominique’s granitelike demeanor—were abundantly evident in Williams-Garcia’s enthusiastic reading.

Phillip Hoose with Claudette Colvin, who made a surprise appearance.
Photo: Joe Pacheco.

When his turn came, Phillip Hoose joked about being “the anti-David Small” (he was wearing a bright sweater striped in several colors). “I want you to feel every emotion all at once.” At that point, emotions were running a bit high, as audience members began to murmur about the woman accompanying Hoose to the stage: it was Claudette Colvin, the subject of his book, who was arrested as a teenager for refusing to give up her bus seat in segregated Montgomery, Alabama—months before Rosa Parks. (She was introduced to thunderous applause and a partial standing ovation.) Hoose asked attendees to consider how influential teenagers have been in history—a quarter of those who sailed with Christopher Columbus were teenagers, and the average age of the Taino natives they encountered was 15. He said he spent years trying to meet with Colvin, who repeatedly turned down his requests to meet with her until after she retired.

This marked the first year that the press conference was held under the dramatic dome of the NYPL's Celeste Bartos Forum. Photo: Joe Pacheco.

Hoose then turned the microphone over to Colvin, who now lives in New York City. Despite having kept her identity quiet for years, Colvin said that whenever she is asked why she didn’t give up her bus seat that day in 1955, she answers, “I couldn’t move because history had me glued to the seat.” To younger generations who question the value of the civil rights movement, she says, “We didn’t get any money, we didn’t get our forty acres and a mule, but we did clear the way for the Voting Rights Act.”

Colvin said she was heartened by the election of President Obama last year, but also acknowledged that she has “seen a lot of unpleasant things, seen defeatistism in our youth.” She closed with a message of encouragement for the audience: “I want you, the youth of today, to stand up and fight for your rights in any way you can. Get out there, study hard to reach your fullest potential. I saw it happen. You can do it again.”

During the Q&A, Hoose was asked what he thought of Colvin’s story. “I was intrigued,” he said. “I thought ‘I’ve never heard this story.’ I thought Rosa Parks started everything and I thought Dr. King ended everything. I didn’t know that a 15-year-old girl risked her life [for the civil rights movement].”

Taylor, Williams-Garcia, and Heiligman all spoke to the origins of their respective projects (the words “monster, music, and real life” for Lips Touch; Williams-Garcia’s daughter’s “blow-by-blow” account of a vicious school fight). For Heiligman, it was the contrast between Emma’s religious devotion and Charles’s controversial studies that proved irresistible. “Not only was Emma religious, they had a very close marriage and loved each other very much. She worried he was going to hell and they would be separated for all eternity.”

Small disclosed that he got his voice back by screaming, which was a way to strengthen his remaining vocal cord. When asked if he forgave his parents, he said, “I think that giving a blanket forgiveness is rather meaningless. The only way to forgive them is to understand them as human beings. That’s why I wrote this book, to find out why they were the way they were.” He also said that the book ended up repairing his relationship with his estranged brother. “If nothing else happens with this book, then it will have been worth it.”