Members of the children’s book community gathered on October 20 for the annual Bank Street Book Festival, held at Bank Street College in Manhattan. Writers, artists, librarians, teachers, and publishers took part in a full day of panel discussions and presentations about children’s literature and using stories to build compassion, literacy, and community.
The day’s first panel welcomed “collaborative couples” to discuss the children’s books they create together and how they define their respective creative roles. Panelists were Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson, founders of Just Us Books and editors of the new collection, We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices; Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, co-authors of And Tango Makes Three (Simon & Schuster); and author Candace Fleming and illustrator Eric Rohmann, creators of Strongheart: Wonder Dog of the Silver Screen (Random House/Schwartz & Wade). Shelley Diaz of School Library Journal moderated the discussion.
The Hudsons “have been collaborating together since we first met,” said Wade, adding that “our wedding vows were our first collaboration.” The couple launched their publishing house, Just Us Books, 30 years ago; since then, they have published dozens of children’s books written by black authors and featuring black characters. For their latest collaboration, the Hudsons sought out the help of others in the children’s literature community. Willis explained that We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, arose less from inspiration and more from a sense of obligation. As with many Americans, after seeing the results of the 2016 election, “we were frankly appalled. How can a person with that kind of character be a leader?”
Cheryl and Wade were particularly concerned about what adults might tell their children about the election of a man whose beliefs fly in the way of core principals of equity and civility. They posed another question to the children’s book community: “what do we tell our children?,” with the goal of compiling their responses in a book. The Hudsons reached out to Rita Williams-Garcia, who enthusiastically agreed; other collaborators were equally eager to take part. They had initially planned to publish the collection through Just Us Books, until Wade crossed paths with Phoebe Yeh of Crown Books. After she heard about the project, Yeh told him, “We need to talk.” By publishing the book through Crown, “We were able to get more national exposure,” said Wade. The book was well-timed: “Two years into Trump’s presidency, [the book] is even more relevant,” he said.
Next, Fleming and Rohmann spoke about their collaborative processes. Most often (with the exception of their picture book, Giant Squid), Fleming first writes the text and Rohmann creates the art in response to Fleming’s narratives. Fleming learned of Strongheart, the first dog in history to become a Hollywood star, while reading Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. In the book, Orlean references another dog who became an actor before Rin Tin Tinn rose to fame. In other words, “Rin Tin Tin was a copycat… or copy dog, in this case.” As she aims to do with many of her human subjects, she set out to “return Strongheart to his place in history.”
Fleming wasn’t initially certain that the book would feature illustrations. But, as the book is a piece of historical fiction in the era of silent films, she felt that it “would not be of its time unless it had illustrations.” There reached a point in the manuscript when she believed that “black and white film could take over.” Fleming’s editor didn’t have a clear sense of her vision, but Rohmann was quick to grasp the concept. For Rohmann, his collaborations with Fleming are fruitful and symbiotic, as “there is always room in [her] writing for visual language,” he said.
Parnell and Richardson next spoke about how they came to collaborate on And Tango Makes Three: “The fact that we’re a couple resulted in our being the ones to write the story about these penguins. We wouldn’t have written this if we were single,” said Richardson. He is a psychologist, and in the 1990s, much of his work was focused on gay and lesbian mental health issues. Parnell is a playwright and freelance writer, but had not written for children before And Tango Makes Three.
Because of Richardson’s expertise, New York City schools began reaching out to him for guidance about how best to speak to their students about HIV. Consulting with teachers atAT? an all-girls school, he suggested that teachers “talk to them about sexuality and sexual orientation before talking to them about HIV.” At that time, Richardsonreminded attendees, sexual orientation wasn’t discussed in classroom settings. As Parnell spoke more to teachers and to concerned parents, he learned that “they were very preoccupied with finding the right language to talk about sexual orientation” with their kids.
One day while at a coffee shop, the couple’s lives were forever changed. They came across a New York Times article “The Love that Dare Not Squeak Its Name.” The story introduced them to Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo—a couple who were given their own fertile egg by zookeepers. Roy and Silo cared for their chick (whom zoo attendants named Tango) until Tango came of age.
Spending time at coffee shops is now mostly a thing of the past, as Parnell and Richardson are raising their own daughter—a whole new collaboration for the couple, and an opportunity to “bring more children’s literature into our lives,” said Parnell.
In closing, the panelists discussed how to navigate difficulties that sometimes arise in collaborating creatively with their partners. Rohmann particularly appreciates the way he and Fleming can work separately and then come together—a sort of “cross-collaboration.” Hudson discussed the importance of finding intermediaries who can provide outside perspectives on creative work—important for any artist or writer—but even more so for collaborators who both work and live together. For Wade, he feels it’s crucial for collaborating couples to clearly “identify responsibilities” (he also admits to “giving Cheryl 80% of the house”).
Ultimately, whatever their creative processes, the panelists value the synergy that they achieve working alongside their partners—and the discoveries that they can make in the process: “Do I ever get a book back [from Rohmann] looking exactly as I’d seen in my mind? Absolutely not,” said Fleming. “Is that disappointing? Absolutely not. It’s all about trust.”
Panelists Adam Gidwitz, Rita Williams-Garcia, Stephen Savage, and Kat Yeh next spoke about the role that school visits play in the lives of children’s book creators. The discussion was moderated by children’s book author Emma Otheguy, who asked the contributors to discuss their own memories of school.
Gidwitz shared that he was a child who was kicked out of his Montessori school (“I wasn’t Montessori material”), and as a result, he feels that he is highly attune to “the needs of children with no desire to be in a classroom.” For Williams-Garcia, as an “army brat,” she found herself attending multiple schools for varying amounts of time, rarely staying long enough to form deep attachments. Certain memories stand out, including the shark cadaver in a sixth grade classroom that became the stuff of legend, and the murder of a seventh grader on the playground in New York City. Williams-Garcia recalls being highly motivated to write about the incident. While not all of her experiences in those many schools were positive, in their way, “each and every one served me well.”
Yeh spoke about attending a Quaker school in Pennsylvania, where she was frequently self-conscious about not knowing how to pronounce words on the pages of books. As such, her early relationship with reading was influenced by the anxiety-provoking, highly structured nature of classroom read-alouds. Today, when visiting schools as author, Yeh often sees a marked difference in the way that classrooms approach reading—one far less likely to intimidate and possibly squelch an early love of reading. She likes to see classrooms where “kids are slumped on the floors reading,” and readers are invited to “just discover” in relaxed, non-judgmental environments.
Williams-Garcia is also moved by the manner in which “every classroom I enter, I see books being used in different ways.” She recently visited a social justice and robotics class, in which the students were reading her novel One Crazy Summer. Ideally, all classrooms “have the freedom to tap into what kids are interested in. I like to step back and be amazed,” she said.
Savage observed how “much more visually savvy” classrooms are today. He often creates art along with students during his classroom visits. Being within those creative learning environments, Savage frequently ends up “drawing the best thing I’d done all week.” He said he continues to be delighted each time he sees kids creating stories based on his own characters: “It’s a huge, wonderful surprise.”
The panelists often take interdisciplinary approaches to teaching about their books that work in tandem with what the classes are already engaged with. When Yeh visits classrooms in which students are reading her novel The Truth About Twinkie Pie, she has . them bring in food to share. She also has explored having students set scenes from the book to music. For Yeh, she feels it’s particularly powerful when she is able to see “students taking their own reading experience and expressing it in different ways.” Speaking of music, Williams-Garcia mentioned that she had always wanted a student to adapt her book Jump into an opera. She is also particularly intrigued to see students “deconstruct” her characters through visual, musical, or other mediums.
In closing, the authors spoke about especially memorable classroom visits and how they have resonated through their writing. Williams-Garcia recalled a visit to a school in which a student who clearly admired her was quietly handcuffed by police and removed from the classroom. Though she saw what was happening at the back of the room, she pretended not to notice—she could tell how desperately the boy was hoping that she had not seen. For Williams-Garcia, it was a living example of “how badly someone wanted to change their stars, change their narrative.” That experience provided her with new emotional insight into ideas about “redemption and human frailty,” which she has since worked into her writing: “He gave me a whole lot more than he realized.”
Savage’s experience in classrooms skews to a much younger crowd: “They are working on really basic things, like sitting up.” But through the pre-K kids he interacts with during those visits, “I learn a lot about what it is to be a baby,” he said. He is also frequently moved by the realization that he is sometimes “the first person to read a book to them.”
Yeh was left with a lasting impression of a particular school visit in the form of a belatedly delivered message. She’d asked students to write down their goals and give them to her. After removing all of the papers from her bag, she later discovered that she’d forgotten one. The note said: “write something meaningful.” The idea of pursuing meaning, both as a writer and a reader, felt especially resonant at the moment she discovered the note: “I just want my books to have meaning,” she said.
Next to speak was Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the children’s literature archive at the University of Minnesota’s Kerlan Collection. She is also the former children’s librarian of the Bank Street College of Education and director of Bank Street’s Center for Children’s Literature. She emphasized the importance of creating supportive, non-critical spaces for students to work on their writing; spaces that emphasize that all good writing first “starts as a mess.” When working with kids, Von Drasek presents a “bill of writes,” for her students, which includes affirming statements like: “I write to please myself,” and “I spell the way I can; I learn to spell as I write.” She aims to create a learning environment devoid of judgement, and which advocates for free exploration. She shared several project ideas and methods for helping readers and writers to become content, self-guided readers and writers.
Some tweaks to a learning space are ingeniously simple: for example, giving kids smaller pieces of paper can help reduce anxiety. She also provides kids with “writing boxes,” which include hands-on supplies for readers to take ownership over their own writing process. Von Drasek encourages kids to respond to mentor texts in manners that are creative and enhance their understanding (for example, by making a newspaper, drawing a map, or creating a recipe). For Von Drasek, libraries need not always be quiet places. In fact, “it is noisy, and I’m all for that.” She always leaves time for students to share, “but not everyone has to share.” Above all, she aims to “stop perfectionism. After all, they who make no mistakes, make nothing,” she said.
The Real World
The final panel discussion of the day, “Bringing the Real World to Life! Illustration in Informational Books,” featured authors and illustrators Maira Kalman, John Parra, Roxie Munro, Melissa Sweet, and Zeke Peña. Children’s literature consultant Gillian Engberg moderated. The panelists discussed recent projects, their creative processes, finding subject matter, and pairing nonfictional content with illustrations. Munro generally envisions a book visually before she creates the text. For her book Rodent Rascals (Holiday House), she first began creating sketches of the rodents that would be in the book. And, while it is a work of nonfiction, “I began to fall in love with the characters,” she said.
Parra spoke about illustrating Monica Brown’s Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos (NorthSouth) explaining that he was initially reluctant to do so. In part, he was intimidated by the subject, saying, “Her art is so meaningful and inspirational to me.” He also had trepidation concerning the many books on Frida Kahlo; he wondered what approach he would take. But as he researched the artist, he observed that the she is often presented “like a deity.” He decided to instead focus on Kahlo’s down-to-earth nature, love of animals, and her “refusal to be defined by disabilities” (Kahlo contracted polio and was in a vehicle accident at age 18).
Senator Kristen Gillibrand’s picture book, Bold and Brave: Ten Heroes Who Won Women the Right to Vote (Knopf), illustrated by Maira Kalman, explores the history of women’s suffrage, focusing on particular figures of great influence. While researching the women featured in the book in order to illustrate them, Kalman was deeply moved. “It’s very emotional, what these women were up against: going to jail, marching, defying their husbands and society,” she said. Kalman wanted to show the women’s fierce devotion to the cause of suffrage, while also representing their vitality as individuals “with full lives.” One of her favorite figures in the book is organizer and activist Inez Milholland, who rode a white horse in a suffragist parade, while dressed like Joan of Arc. Kalman believes there is something to be learned from Milholland’s tenacity and creativity: “What do you do when things seem dire? You get on a horse!”
When working on Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White (HMH), Sweet indulged in “the pleasure of research and discovery.” For any biographer, choices need to be made about which aspects of an individual’s life becomes the narrative focus. Illustrated biographies present additional challenges and opportunities to “tell a story visually,” said Sweet. She chose to illustrate the book in a collage style, integrating images of White’s typewriters. (White is known to have said: “I fell in love with the sound of an early typewriter and have been stuck with it ever since.”) As Sweet created the art, she thought of the work as being “like a puzzle,” fitting together different component parts of White’s life. She also kept in mind another line from White about the creative process: “Writing is rewriting.” Incidentally, Sweet shared, White didn’t actually introduce the character of Fern until the final drafts of Charlotte’s Web.
Beginning by thanking the teachers in the audience, calling them “keepers of culture, protectors of everything we value,” Peña spoke about how he came to illustrate the graphic biography, Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide by Isabel Quintero (Getty Publications). Peña, whose background is in community organizing, initially became familiar with the photographer while on a road trip through Mexico. When he and Quintero teamed up for the project, he made the decision to draw less from historical context, and more from Iturbide’s photographs themselves. However, he didn’t want his illustrations to be replicas of Iturbide’s images, but to instead express a similar “visual language.” As Iturbide often captured in her photographs, he hoped to distill something of the “in-between space,” or the moments that occur after laughter subsides, or artifice falls away. Throughout his process, he remained cognizant of the tricky line between “fact and imagination,” and how much leeway an author and artist have when creating a story of a person’s life.
Invariably, and often beautifully, “all art is an abstraction,” Sweet said. For illustrators of nonfiction books, “the challenge is to make it true.” Munro similarly expressed how writing nonfiction is an act of “filtering content,” and the telling of a “true, real topic through a device.”
In closing, the panelists discussed the impact of sharing their art with students, and the significance of teaching the arts in schools. For Munro, the fact that “40-60% of kids are visual learners” speaks to the value of using images in classrooms. Peña believes that creating and teaching art is about more than making pictures, but “embracing different ways of thinking.” Parra agrees, saying it’s important to express to kids that learning about art isn’t just about growing up to be an artist, but is a way of creative problem-solving: “right now, we could use a lot of problem-solving.”
Bringing Hard Truths into the Light
Finally, Adam Gidwitz delivered a sensitive and stirringly honest keynote address. He spoke about his years as a teacher, which directly led to his development as an author. Early in his career as an educator, he learned that the way to get his kids to listen “was to tell them stories.” Gidwitz began writing stories at night at the request of his students who were eager to learn what happened next. After a few creative missteps, incarnations of these stories eventually made it into Gidwitz’s first published book, A Tale Dark and Grimm (Dutton). Though he left teaching, Gidwitz often returns to classrooms as a visiting author. These visits have also led to a new venture—a podcast called “Grimm, Grimmer, and Grimmest,” in which Gidwitz records his interactions with kids as he tells them classic fairy tales—in all their weirdness and wonder.
Unfiltered and unsanitized fairy tales are filled with darkness, uncertainty, and flawed characters. And Gidwitz is the first to admit that he is flawed himself. He spoke about the problem of unconscious bias and the importance of bringing it into the light, using his own biases as an example: “I am racist. I am sexist,” he declared. He explained that he “detests” these truths about himself, but that they are “woven into the fabric of my thought.” He went on to explain how his privilege, paired with the deeply ingrained racist and sexist assumptions and stereotypes that go unchallenged within society, have led to his own blind spots. These realizations have been hard-hitting and powerful for Gidwitz—and as a result, he is resolved to doing better moving forward.
But he knew that “white authors writing diverse characters wasn’t going to solve very much.” So he sought out a non-white illustrator for the Unicorn Rescue Society series, finding Hatem Aly. He is also pairing up with numerous authors from diverse backgrounds for the subsequent books. As the characters investigate fantastical creatures, his coauthors bring a level of respect and cultural verisimilitude to the stories that Gidwitz could not have reached independently. His first coauthors are Joseph Bruchac for Sasquatch and the Muckleshoot, which publishes this fall; and Emma Otheguy, for an upcoming book in the series about the mythical Cuban creatures madre de aguas.
Gidwitz reiterated that “I am a racist and a sexist... but I am a racist and sexist in recovery.” He encouraged audience members to be similarly willing to confront the biases that they may not yet know they hold. He quoted Bruchac, in saying, “We should listen twice as much as we speak.” With this in mind, “Now I’m going to shut up,” Gidwitz said.