The Bank Street BookFest, held at Bank Street College in upper Manhattan on October 24, offered a full day of incisive, humorous, and sometimes revelatory discussions. The speakers included middle-grade, YA, and picture book authors and illustrators, whose work spans multiple genres, and whose careers also involve reaching readers in the classroom.
The morning’s events launched with a discussion between authors and educators Elizabeth Bluemle (Tap Tap Boom Boom), and Adam Gidwitz (A Tale Dark and Grimm), and Cynthia Weill (director of the Bank Street Center for Children’s Literature) titled “Teachers as Writers.” Children’s literature historian Leonard S. Marcus, moderated the panel. He began by asking the authors to reflect on what elements of writing can be taught, and what cannot.
“You can’t teach someone to have an ear for cadence and rhythm,” Bluemle said. Because picture books feature a spare word count, each one carries tremendous weight and it’s critical that the words work harmoniously together when read aloud. Having “a poet’s brain more than a novelist’s brain” makes Bluemle more inclined toward writing in short, rhythmic forms.
Gidwitz agreed that, at least to a degree, writers are born with a strong proclivity towards the cadences of language. However, such natural tendencies only go so far. So much of becoming a writer has to do with early nurturing and hearing stories being read aloud. This bedrock can lead anyone to embrace writing and a lifelong love for reading. What makes a “professional writer,” though, is the “drive to never quit and the capacity to imagine day after day after day,” he said.
The panelists each grew up in creative families – though not necessarily among writers. For Weill, her mother was a children’s librarian, so her love for books was naturally fostered. Gidwitz grew up among musicians and actually pursued theater before he turned to writing, which he feels is not such a dramatic diversion. He senses that there are parallels between theater and writing in terms of their performative aspects. Writing for kids is a kind of “performative communication.” And, of course, teaching is its own kind of performance.
Marcus commented that he believes children’s books invite a particular kind of reader participation: “Children’s writing is meant to propel into experiences,” he suggested. He cited Margaret Wise Brown’s The Important Book, which he believes “encourages kids to talk back to the book.... She’s trying to pick a fight,” he said.
In Margaret Wise Brown fashion, Gidwitz jokingly said that when he’s teaching, “I’m constantly lying to children,” challenging them to challenge him. “Kids love to push back,” he said.
He uses this creative noodling when teaching storytelling. After telling a class a story about a princess’s cruel betrayal, he asked the students to offer their own endings, in terms of what they thought the princess’s punishment should be. Answers ranged from: “a timeout” to “her butt should be cut off!” and “she should have to wear diapers for 20 years!”
The panelists concluded by contemplating the sorts of innovative books that they would like to see in the hands of readers and any problematic trends in how and what children are reading.
As far as the kinds of books the panelists want to see more of, Weill (author of Opuestos: Mexican Folk Art Opposites in English and Spanish) sees a strong need for more bilingual books and lamented that, in the classroom, the curriculum often prevents teachers from introducing the types of books that children might most appreciate.
For Bluemle, it is multicultural books in which “race isn’t the driving factor.” She also shared some insights she had gleaned through watching children at Flying Pig Bookstore, where she is co-owner. Capable older readers will confidently read picture books. However, struggling readers will often be self-conscious about reading books that appear to be for younger children. Thick books with graspable language provide these types of readers with more confidence and, as such, she’d love to see more of these books being published.
Also, in terms of trends, Bluemle has observed what she calls a “slick sophistication seeping down” into children’s books, which she feels may be a result of media saturation. It manifests in a level of “snarkiness” that she believes is intended more for an adult audience. “Meeting kids where they are,” using the kind of language, humor, and heart understandable to them, is to Bluemle, more important than sneaking in such snarky quips.
The authors also noted the importance of free, unstructured creative time in a child’s life, away from screens, organized activities, a time in which content isn’t dictated to them, but rather, they are being asked to produce it themselves. Gidwitz is particularly concerned about the “over-budgeting of kids’ days.” We want kids to be “creating their own worlds, rather than having them handed down,” he said.
Books as Mentors
Next up were Christopher Myers (H.O.R.S.E.), Shadra Strickland (Please, Louise), Raúl Colón (Draw! ); and Sara Varon (Robot Dreams), speaking on a panel called “Artists and Mentors: Book Making 101.” The speakers touched on topics including how children’s literature serves and helps to shape readers’ lives and their own early experiences with reading and writing. Joe Rogers, Jr., founder and facilitator of the organization Total Equity Now, moderated.
Rogers, who said he grew up poor in Maine and did not always have access to books, noted how, through his work and personal life, he has come to see books as “tools for overcoming difficult situations.” He asked the authors to discuss the role that children’s books play in terms of serving as life mentors.
For Myers, he sees books as providing “frameworks for kids” as they encounter new situations. While they might not offer concrete solutions, they do give equip readers with guidelines and tools to take into the world.
Sometimes the most important impact a book can have on a reader is in providing them with the urge to create art or stories themselves. Colón, who believes that, as authors “we didn’t grow up. We know how a child feels in many instances,” based Draw! on a period of his childhood when he was very sick. As a result of being stuck indoors with little to do, Colón’s “imagination had a chance to fly.” He agreed that children’s books can be tools, but he also resists subscribing to formulas, allowing each book to unfold in its own way.
Varon, who finds it liberating to use non-human characters, believing it enables more readers to potentially relate to them, also subverts expectations with her books. In the case of Robot Dreams, she decided to avoid creating a happy ending, which she feels is sometimes expected. Instead, she made the story about a “betrayal” between friends, albeit an accidental one.
“There is no accidental betrayal!” joked Myers.
Children’s Book Diversity: Then and Now
Speaking to the timely issue of diversity in children’s books, the speakers thought back to their own early days of reading and whether it felt as though there were books that spoke directly to them. Colón, saying that he was a voracious reader as far back as he can recall, used to read his older sister’s books. One of his favorites was The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: “I didn’t think of these men as white or black; I just enjoyed the stories,” he said.
Rogers recalled that he was not bothered by not seeing characters that looked like him in books when he was a child, though this changed significantly as he grew older and more aware of inequity and prejudice.
Strickland feels that it is critically “important for all of us to see different versions of ourselves” within literature. As a child and adolescent, she explained, “I never saw myself reflected back in art.” As a result, she believes that it took some time before she found work that truly spoke to her and enabled her to discover her own artistic style.
While acknowledging the tremendous importance of having children of all ethnicities see themselves in books, Myers also questioned relying too heavily on this “relateability model.” He suggested that books can serve as portals to vicariously experience the lives of individuals who look nothing like us or who come from backgrounds nothing like our own. When he was a child, reading, for example, Greek myths, it was not a concern for him that the characters in the book did not resemble him. Myers also suggests that as writers, publishers, and educators continue to address the need for more diverse books, that the definition of diversity itself expand to also include “different modes of storytelling,” in terms of narrative structure, idea content, and innovative use of language, and images.
As an illustrator, Varon feels that storytelling through images represents a kind of diversity in narrative. Particularly for readers who are more visual learners, such books “tell kids that there are different ways to tell stories.”
The panelists concluded the conversation by discussing ways to get kids to become lifelong readers, whether through showing them relatable characters, introducing fantasy realms, or urging them to see themselves as potential contributors to the world’s cornucopia of stories. Myers recalled how, when he once visited a prison to speak to a group of young men, they were very interested in finding out from him what kind of car he drove, what kind of house he had, what kind of watch he wore. Myers realized that, for these incarcerated men, what they were really asking him is what kind of power he has. He had the men look around the room, explaining how everything around them came about through someone first envisioning it and making a design, sketching it out. Whatever power he may have, he explained, comes through the use of a single, very powerful tool: “I’m ridiculous with a pen,” he told them.
Mermaids at the Wheel
Taking the stage for a panel discussion titled “Young Women in the (Plot) Driver’s Seat” were Laura Amy Schlitz (The Hired Girl); Jeanne Birdsall (The Penderwicks in Spring); Kat Yeh (The Truth About Twinkie Pie); and Liz Kessler (the Emily Windsnap series). Moderating the conversation about writing books featuring primarily female protagonists was Monica Edinger, a teacher at New York City’s Dalton School. The authors discussed their bodies of work, each describing how they personally came to create their characters and the worlds they inhabit.
Kessler’s Emily Windsnap series, about the life of a young mermaid, came about through her desire to create a narrative that offers a “combination of the magical and real” that would resonate with readers who would see that fantasy realms can coexist with the regular world. For Schlitz, each of her books come to fruition on its own organic terms and as she comes to know her characters. Sometimes one book will influence another. For example, after finishing Splendors and Glooms, which has a Dickensian cast of characters, Schlitz was determined to simplify her structure. “Splendors and Glooms was so hard, I decided the next book would have one character who wants one thing,” she said. However, she slowly realized that her character, in fact, “wants everything,” and like the author, is very much “a wanter.”
For Yeh, the seeds for Twinkie Pie began with an idea of hers to create a screenplay with her sister involving food. While that project didn’t happen, she still had an interest in writing a narrative that focused tangentially and symbolically on food. Mulling over ideas, she began to hear a voice: “a young girl, who started to sound kind of Southern, and it looks like her mother’s not around anymore.” Yeh intersperses recipes throughout the book that mirror her protagonist’s emotional states.
While best known for her Emily Windsnap stories, Kessler shared that the first novel she ever wrote, 15 years ago, was published this year. Read Me Like a Book, which was rejected “by everybody,” is about a girl who comes out. It’s a very personal story for Kessler. She explained that she came out about a year before the book was published. After a beat, she said: “And I’ve just come out to a room of American teachers.... I wasn’t planning on that. I’m shaking,” she said.
After the revelation, Birdsall responded with: “Well, how do I follow that?”
Kessler said: “Tell us a secret.”
The authors went on to discuss the particular gratification they gain from writing for middle-grade readers. Yeh expressed her love for writing middle-grade readers, because she sees the middle-grade years as “so tumultuous, when children are soaking up knowledge and craving independence,” while still being very much kids. Speaking of the pull between independence and security, the authors touched on writing about parents. Birdsall commended Yeh and Schlitz for their books being “courageous in showing really bad parents.” Schlitz joked, “Yeah, but you show really good parents, which is unchartered territory.”
Finally, they talked about the process of researching and formulating the concept for each book. When writing The Penderwicks in Spring, in which her character Batty discovers her talent for singing, Birdsall immersed herself in music. For each of Kessler’s books, she has to visit a location that embodies the story’s essence: “I must experience one moment of feeling I’m in the right place for the book, otherwise I feel I’m making it up... which I guess I am.” When writing the Emily Windsnap books, she often snorkels and, upon returning to shore, jots down ideas about what she observed under the waves. She anticipates new challenges when researching her next book, which is historically based. When writing about “mermaids, fairies, and time travel, no one can tell you you’ve got it wrong,” she said.
In researching her books over the years, Schlitz has learned that when she needs to verify a historical detail or answer an obscure question, “there’s always someone who knows, and the more obscure the information, the more anxious they are to tell you,” she said.
Schlitz also has a rather method-like approach to writing. When writing The Hired Girl, she sought inspiration from the 1908 Sears Roebuck catalogue, which helped her to gain a sense for the minutiae of the era. She even thought about “washing the floor with newspaper and vinegar,” but decided it wasn’t necessary.
The afternoon’s final panel featured authors Tim Wynne-Jones (The Emperor of Any Place), Beth Kephart (One Thing Stolen), and Daniel José Older (Shadowshaper), who gathered to talk about, among other topics, cultural appropriation, developing character’s voices, and writing elements of the uncanny.
For Older, the impetus behind his supernatural fantasy was a desire to write honestly “about living in Brooklyn, and being a female in Brooklyn.” The cultural identity of Older’s main character, Sierra Santiago, and her use of vernacular is of great significance in the book and it was important to Older that this “code-switching” between standard English and vernacular be maintained in the text.
Kephart’s story of a girl who is suffering from a rare condition that results in her losing her ability to use language was partially drawn from Kephart’s experience with her mother after she suffered a stroke. Among the themes in the book, is that of “theft” and “desecration.” For, as Kephart said, “What is disease but theft?” Nadya, her protagonist, is also stealing found objects of antiquity throughout the story.
These themes also appear in Older’s and Wynne-Jones’s work, suggested Smith, asking the authors to comment.
Shadowshaper focuses both on the gentrification of Brooklyn as well as “the troubled past of anthropology,” through cultural appropriation, Older said. The main villain in the story is himself an anthropologist, who possesses a “complicated humanity,” and whose intentions may be pure, but are nevertheless destructive.
Wynne-Jones’s The Emperor of Any Place, which involves multiple narratives, ghosts, and takes place in part on an island, also speaks to the appropriation of stories. When working on early drafts of the book, Wynne-Jones personally wrestled with deciding whose story he would be telling. He initially set out to write about WWII, specifically channeling his father’s experience. However, he realized that “I couldn’t write his war.” Once he stepped away from writing his father’s war story, he felt he had a “fresh canvas,” which gave him the freedom to create a layered fantasy without trepidation.
Finally, the authors shared their insights on the uncanny content in their books. Wynne-Jones, who had never written fantasy before The Emperor of Any Place, expressed that he had developed an “obsession with what an island can be,” in a metaphysical and symbolic sense. However, he wanted the island in the story to be serve as both “a construct and something real,” so that readers would not have to “suspend disbelief.” So the supernatural content does not outweigh the story’s serious focus on the meaning of war.
Sierra’s Brooklyn is filled with ghosts, which for Older, speaks to the different ways that cultures approach death. His goal in writing the book was to both embrace the genre of fantasy/supernatural fiction, while also creating “a counter-narrative” that would challenge more “Western concepts of ghosts.” For Sierra and for Older himself, “our ancestors are more present in our lives,” than they are within western culture. Growing up, he loved fantasy stories but did struggle with always people of color represented as “the bad guys in books. How do you love a genre that doesn’t love you back?” Shadowshaper, in its way, was Older’s way of reclaiming fantasy books and ghost stories.
For Kephart, writing a narrative about a character who is “losing names and ideas, and spiraling away” from herself, resulted in storytelling that organically took on an otherworldly tone. As a writer, it’s also a space that she frequently visits herself. “The writing process is a fantastical process,” she said. “You go to that fantastical creative place.”
Finishing out the day’s events was keynote speaker Rita Williams-Garcia, who discussed her creative process, particularly when she was writing the trilogy that began with the Newbery Honor-winning One Crazy Summer. Williams-Garcia explained that she had always had an interest in writing about the Black Panthers, introducing the content both in a novel and in the context of a classroom.
Researching the movement and deciding what to convey in the story presented her with several challenges. Most significantly, the more material that she uncovered through her research, the broader the potential scope of the book became. She was particularly fascinated by the roles that women played in the Black Panther movement. But ultimately, that was not what her story was about. Eventually, she had to revert from the role of researcher back to that of artist, which meant making choices based on what best served the story she was trying to tell. The “artist” in her acknowledged such difficult topics as the “black machismo” that she felt was undeniably present. In the book, “the artist allowed it to loom large and dangerously... in the background.”
Ultimately, in writing about an era marked by powerful changing tides, it became necessary to “keep an eye on the prize – the children of the movement,” and more specifically, her protagonist, Delphine. As Delphine confronts “change, struggle, and uncertainty” around her, relating to civil rights and the women’s liberation movement, Williams-Garcia realized that these issues would not and should not be front and center. She discovered that her character’s concerns are more about fears of her own family falling apart. In the end, “this character’s true desire is to cry over a boy band” (specifically, the Jackson Five), rather than focus on political or social issues – though these issues are there in the text, nevertheless. For, Williams-Garcia, the writing process is about “sloughing away, lopping off, and pruning,” while always respecting the internal artist to find the best path for the story and its characters. “Restraint,” she said, “is akin to mastery.”