On October 19, the Center for Children’s Literature at Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan hosted Book Fest @ Bank Street, an annual conference composed of authors, illustrators, scholars, and other children’s book professionals. The event featured an enriching day of discussions on seminal children’s literature topics, as well as a keynote address from author Joseph Bruchac.

After an introduction by Cynthia Weill, director of the Center for Children’s Literature, Bruchac shared a song on the Native American flute and then called the audience to stand, stating the importance of recognizing that “we are on Native land.” Bruchac closed the land acknowledgment by conveying greetings in the language of the Lenape, one of the Indigenous peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands.

The first panel of the day, “Illustrating Margaret Wise Brown, featured Greg Pizzoli (North, South, East, West; Two Little Trains), Sarah Jacoby (illustrator of The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett), and Jerry Pinkney (A Home in the Barn), alongside Lisa Von Drasek (a former Bank Street Book librarian, currently at University of Minnesota’s Kerlan Collection). It was moderated by Jenny Brown, senior editor at Shelf Awareness and a member of the Bank Street Children’s Book Committee.

Von Drasek kicked off the discussion by sharing some history on Lucy Sprague Mitchell, founder of Bank Street College of Education, and showed archival materials displaying Margaret Wise Brown’s drafting process for Goodnight Moon. Notably, Brown initially wanted to publish the story under the pseudonym Memory Ambrose, renaming Clement Hurd “Hurricane Jones.” Von Drasek also displayed color studies of the book, revealing that it was unusual in 1947 to see so much green, as all the ink of that color was being relegated to camouflage. Additionally, she pointed out that The Runaway Bunny, Brown and Hurd’s first picture book collaboration, is visible on the young bunny’s nightstand in Goodnight Moon.

Via video, Mac Barnett, author of The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown, then shared the salient points of Brown’s treatise “Writing for Five-Year-Olds,” as well as his feelings on the text. Barnett classified it as one of his favorite pieces of writing on children’s books, alongside Maurice Sendak’s essays. “But whereas Sendak was concerned mostly with form,” Barnett explained, “here Margaret Wise Brown is talking about the ethics of writing for kids.”

Barnett discussed how Brown focused on the responsibility that comes of writing for children, as well as the artistic practice of it. Upon reading this essay for the first time while researching his picture book biography of Brown, Barnett said he was brought to tears by Brown’s wisdom and intense sympathy for children, as well as the relatively unknown nature of the text. “I think sometimes in children’s books, we do a poor job of preserving and sharing the wisdom of our great practitioners,” he stated, thanking Bank Street for providing this piece to him and the audience. Barnett then closed by sharing one of the essay’s central tenets: “Writing for kids is like any other good piece of writing: it tells the truth about what it means to be a person in the world. But [Brown] recognizes that being a child is different from being an adult in that children and adults have different truths.... We need to talk to children as they are, and not as adults want them to be.”

Next, the moderator asked the group to touch on what attracted them to their respective Margaret Wise Brown projects. For Jacoby, it was the prospect of collaborating with Barnett, the trickiness of working on a picture book biography, and the opportunity to pay homage to Brown’s bunnies in her own illustrations.

Pizzoli was drawn to work on a picture book he’d originally read about in historian Leonard S. Marcus’s biography of Margaret Wise Brown. Brown had envisioned North, South, East, West (which remained unpublished until 2017) as being a multidirectional picture book, bound on each side with wire, but that proved unfeasible. Pizzoli attempted to silkscreen the art, then ended up doing digital illustrations that honored Brown’s original intention. For Two Little Trains, Pizzoli accepted the project on the condition that he have three years in order to attempt something completely different. Two Little Trains was originally published in 1949 and then re-released by Caldecott Medalists Leo and Diane Dillon in 2001. Pizzoli didn’t look at either of the earlier versions until after he submitted his draft; Pizzoli illustrated his rendition of Two Little Trains entirely with custom rubber stamps.

As for Pinkney, he loved that A Home in the Barn was presented as a finished text with certain elements—like the rhythm and sense of time—that he was granted permission to realign. His investment came from being able to reshape a treasure by someone so esteemed. Pinkney also referenced the challenge of getting two central characters, the wind and the barn, to communicate through his pencil and watercolor art. Pinkney shared his appreciation of Margaret Wise Brown’s ability to focus on minute details, inviting children’s curiosity; he stated that the project allowed him to speak about a sense of harmony.

The moderator then shared her favorite quote from “Writing for Five Year Olds”: “Let the grown-up writer for children equal or better them if he can.” She asked the illustrators how they addressed and channeled that respect for children in their work. Jacoby stated that Barnett asks some sincere, genuine questions of the audience in the text, and Margaret Wise Brown’s interest in her audience is very pure and true, which comes across in her texts as a stoking of the imagination. “When I try to knit the words and pictures together and try to leave room for that listening or that space for curiosity to open up, it usually comes across quite literally in the details,” Jacoby explained. “You try to layer the image to invite second readings. I think you can build into pictures all five senses to harness complexity in a very beautiful way.”

Pizzoli stated that the illustrators’ reverence for the text “comes from [Margaret Wise Brown’s] respect for her audience.” What he loved about the texts he worked with was the lack of pedantry or didacticism. Regarding how he channels respect for children in his work, Pizzoli referenced his interest in nuance, “questionable” endings, and characters who aren’t always heroic.

Answering a query from Pizzoli about what he changed in A Home in the Barn, Pinkney clarified that he rearranged some of the words, saying the allure of the project was “that [Margaret Wise Brown] was heading somewhere, and I was able to take it over that bridge.” Pinkney continued by addressing the moderator’s question, saying that he doesn’t really consider the audience beforehand. For him, the text provides clues on the audience’s identity, and his process is about honestly and respectfully following those textual clues and respecting children. He drew parallels between children’s book creators and children themselves—they both invent and imagine. “That’s the magic of Margaret Wise Brown and any great text,” Pinkney concluded. “You don’t have to plot out the audience; it’s there within the text.”

Native Representation

The next panelists took to the stage for “Native Voices in Our Time,” moderated by University of Texas at Austin professor Loriene Roy. Linda Kukuk (Wilma’s Way Home: The Life of Wilma Mankiller) began by recalling how Disney-Hyperion contacted her through her website, asking her to illustrate the biography on Wilma Mankiller. With prayer and familial encouragement, Kukuk decided to take on the project, realizing that she and Mankiller shared a lot of similarities: they are the same age, and both have Cherokee and Irish roots. Kukuk then recounted a striking tale about the last pages of the picture book. Her editor had made suggestions on the illustrations, but Kukuk stood firm, as she felt the image—Mankiller alone, wrapped in the Cherokee flag, in front of a natural landscape with a sunset on the horizon—was given to her by God in a dream. Later, Kukuk ran into Mankiller’s husband, Charlie Soap, who revealed that one of his sons called him after seeing the picture book. The son had dreamed the same scene presented on the last page.

Yvonne Wakim Dennis (Children of Native America Today, Charlesbridge) then spoke about Native stereotypes and history, and how working on the book with Arlene B. Hirschfelder reshaped her perspective on the notion of expertise. She realized that she and Hirschfelder were the experts and had insight the editors might not. Dennis went on to share that it was important for them to represent Native people diversely, to normalize instead of exoticize all manner of Native identities; thus, they featured Native golfers, equestrians, and urbanites, as well as Native Hawaiians. Their goal for the book was to represent Native people’s past and their resiliency, sourcing images from diverse groups both big and small.

Next, Kevin Noble Maillard (Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story, Roaring Brook) relayed his journey to publication. In 2012, he was searching for Native books for his son and could only find five or six titles. Deciding to write his own, he focused on fry bread, a Native food traditionally made by the older women of his family, and penned a draft that featured a grandmother making fry bread with her grandchild. Maillard then met with Connie Hsu from Roaring Brook, who advised him to take a more abstract and universal approach. Maillard went back to the drawing board, attempting to write a book in which a variety of contemporary Native children could see themselves on the page. Referencing the many different recipes for fry bread, Maillard told the audience, “Food is communal because everyone can agree that everyone else is wrong.”He then revealed how he reshaped the book, using fry bread as an allegory for the diversity of Native people. To reflect their vision of a contemporary Native story, he and his illustrator included a page depicting a wall, and endpapers that feature a list of tribes, both federally and state recognized, as well as those who were denied. It says, Maillard concluded, that “we are still here.”

Traci Sorell (We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga) also wrote her picture book to address representation issues she saw as a parent. She wanted to show contemporary Cherokee people wearing modern clothing and just going about their lives. Sorell uses picture books to foster intellectual curiosity; the focus of her writing is to bring what’s invisible into the light. She brought up the dearth of Native picture books set in post-1900, as well as the lack of Native history that is taught in mainstream school systems. Native writers, Sorell said, “will be busy the rest of our lives fulfilling those needs, because there’s so much that’s been published already that is super problematic.”

Cynthia Leitich Smith (Hearts Unbroken, Candlewick) built upon what Sorell said, disclosing that a number of the Native panelists have legal training. “There is a reason we send our children to law school; that is because our battles are ongoing and that is often where they do take place.” Smith went on to say that next year is the 20th anniversary of her first picture book; between then and now, there have been struggles, but there has also been prosperity and an increased effort to center Native children. Smith referred to Bruchac as an inspiration, saying that he showed her there was a space for Native heroes in children’s literature. More recently, Smith has written contemporary realist Native stories; in Hearts Unbroken, two young reporters are trying to figure out themselves and each other and their relationship in a world that often doesn’t make sense. She spoke about how the book engages both Native and general societal issues, such as erasure in education, microaggressions, and whether anyone can separate the artist from the art.

Adventures in Audio

After a short break, Mary Burkey (Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature) delivered an intriguing presentation called “Listening to Literature: The Power of Audiobooks.” Burkey began by sharing that audiobooks are “publishing’s fastest growing format.” The power of audiobooks is the power of the human voice, the ability to convey voice, mood, tone, dialogue, and semantics. We live in an era of “transliteracy,” Burkey explained, where “literacy is the interplay of text, aural, and visual communication.” Since listening comprehension exceeds reading comprehension in early grades, Burkey said, audiobooks assist young readers in gaining listening stamina and focusing on a deeper comprehension level. Audiobooks address the word gap and word poverty by allowing young readers to access rich vocabulary used properly, and also give unique access to students who require increased accessibility. Across all ages, listeners consume more books.

Additionally, audio publishers give special attention to casting authentic voices, allowing for true #OwnVoices opportunities. And audiobooks are transforming graphic novels. Burkey went on to offer professional resources, lists of audio awards to acquaint the audience with excellence in audio, and school and library resources. Notably, she shared, Epic! provides a free educator subscription for e-books, audiobooks, and classroom management tools. Additionally, NASA provides several audiobooks narrated by astronauts. Burkey closed with a quote from Hazel Rochman: “Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but most importantly it finds homes for us everywhere.”

Following were small group discussion sessions led by authors, educators, librarians, and children’s book professionals. Participants were able to pre-select from 10 options: “The Revolution in Non-Fiction for Children Today,” “Native American Picture Books,” “2020 Caldecott Contenders? To Mock or Not to Mock,” “Graphic Novels for All!,” “What Makes a Book ‘Good’: Mock Newbery and Responses from Educators and Kids,” “Learning to Read,” “Opening Doors to STEM Through Picture Books,” “Over the Rainbow: Picture Books that Explore Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity,” “Breaking the Silence: YA Featuring Women Rising Above the Times,” and “Delicious Reads: New Picture Books about Our Diverse Food Cultures.” Following a syllabus distributed beforehand, each group discussed a selection of children’s books relating to their respective topics for around an hour. Meanwhile, KidLit TV interviewed authors and illustrators in the auditorium.

Lunchtime provided attendees the opportunity to purchase books, courtesy of Bank Street Bookstore, and interact with authors and illustrators in the first of two autographing sessions. Another autographing session concluded the day.

Subversion and Comics

The final panel of the day was “Graphic Novels and Comics as Information Texts,” which featured Jerry Craft (New Kid, HarperCollins); Nadja Spiegelman (the Zig and Wikki series, Toon); Dave Roman, the editor of Science Comics; and Alex Graudins (Science Comics – The Brain: The Ultimate Thinking Machine, First Second) in a discussion moderated by Mahnaz Dar, a staff editor at School Library Journal.

Dar first invited the panelists to show some of their work. Presenting pages from New Kid, Craft spoke on how the graphic novel is loosely based on his experience attending Fieldston, a private school in Riverdale, N.Y., where he was one of the few students of color, and his sons’ experience attending a school with similar makeup in New Canaan, Conn. Craft revealed that he suffered some culture shock, as he hadn’t really spent time around white people before. In writing New Kid, he didn’t want to play into stereotypes, including ones about wealth; he wanted to portray the diversity of the black family experience, showing Jordan’s upbringing in Washington Heights. Craft continued by stating his intention to use humor as a vehicle for more serious commentary, showing several panels from New Kid that compare the “mainstream books” versus “African-American books” on offer. Instead of recommendations like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, Craft said, “escapist entertainment for African-Americans is usually, escape from gang life, escape from slavery, escape from poverty, escape from prison. There’s a really big difference in the books that a lot of teachers and librarians give to kids.”

Roman showed panels from Science Comics, the 30-book series he edits. Graudins explained that the format of the series helps teach kids with learning disabilities or mental illness that “you’re not broken, you’re just wired differently.” Each Science Comic has an underlying narrative; the visuals provide an opportunity to follow the characters if children don’t want to jump directly into the science. “Every page is a paragraph and every panel is a sentence, visually,” Graudins stated.

Spiegelman introduced herself next, speaking about how her parents influenced her entry into comics. Her father is Art Spiegelman, the legendary creator of Maus, and her mother is Françoise Mouly, the New Yorker art editor, and publisher of Raw Books and Toon Books. After meeting in the 1970s, the duo wanted to promote comics for adults, which they did by starting the comic anthology Raw in 1980. They realized after having children that there were not that many options for younger readers. Spiegelman related her interest in comics’ ability to play with time and space and tell a story visually. She made sure that in her Zig and Wikki series facts were integrated into the narrative and not delivered didactically. Spiegelman also showed the newsprint Resist! Comic anthology she created with her mother after the Trump election; donations allowed the duo to print 65,000 copies of the comic and distribute it nationwide.

Dar then directed the conversation to common adult concerns about the legitimacy of comics as “real” literature. Craft spoke about how his comics were often confiscated by teachers; for him, this translated to a belief that reading for fun was illicit, and reading for school was painful. He raised his sons with the belief that “anything that is reading is reading,” and he believes that has made them avid readers.

Spiegelman shared that there seems to be a prejudice against images, which seems strange in a world where we are constantly bombarded by them. “Visual literacy seems to me crucial, equally as much as ‘regular’ literacy,” she said. Roman agreed, referencing comics’ participatory nature. There’s a false assumption that reading comics is lazier, he said, but there shouldn’t be, because children are still engaging their imaginations in the experience. “I often find that most of the people who are against comics haven’t read them,” he said.

Graudins added, “[Comics] stimulate the brain in a different way.” She shared that if a kid is really into something, you shouldn’t squash their passion, especially since comics are just another format to encourage reading. “It’s good that we have so many options for so many different brains right now.”

When asked to speak on comics’ political power, Spiegelman delved more deeply into Resist! She found it interesting that men were sending in caricatures of Trump, whereas women were sending in comics about themselves, about their bodies. Spiegelman cited the power in drawing the world as they wished it were, as well as the ability of an image to ask a question that you have to provide an answer for. Meanwhile, Craft said that he consciously used the visuals in New Kid to soften the narrative, especially because he intends it to be for black boys: “If it were a prose book, it might have been misconstrued as angry.”

Roman described the goal of Science Comics: not trying to replace textbooks, but providing complements to other types of books available. The Science Comics series is about giving kids alternate experiences, exploring different types of intelligence, and helping them feel more included. He concluded by saying that comics provide a more universal experience because you can place yourself in illustrations more than photographs.

Closing out the day’s events, Joseph Bruchac, author of more than 160 books, most recently the forthcoming Two Roads, delivered an informative and emotionally resonant keynote. He began playing “Wayfaring Stranger” on the Native American flute, and then briefly shared a few Native stories.

Bruchac relayed the wisdom he believes is crucial to “your job as writers, as teachers, as parents, as grandparents, as human beings”: to listen, to observe, to remember, and to share. He then discussed the tension between Native and American culture. After sharing some potent moments from history, Bruchac impressed upon the audience the importance of recognizing that everyone has “something to share.” Before playing a last song on the flute, Bruchac relayed four questions for self-reflection that a Seneca medicine woman once shared with him:

  1. How do you feel about what you’re doing right now?
  2. What am I doing that is adding to the confusion?
  3. What can I do to bring peace and balance?
  4. How will I be remembered after I’m gone?