Rain Taxi, the Twin Cities-based literary nonprofit organization that publishes Rain Taxi Review and hosts the Twin Cities Book Festival, took the 20th annual event online this year due to the pandemic. Instead of a one-day festival at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in St. Paul that always included a Children’s Pavilion for storytelling and activities, Rain Taxi held a three-day virtual event October 15–17 with plenty of children’s authors on hand.
TCBF kicked off last Thursday morning with a keynote featuring Naomi Shihab Nye in conversation with poet Kaveh Akbar and reading from her latest collection of poems for children, Everything Comes Next.
Opening day also included two children’s author panels, “Magic Middle Grade” featuring Chantel Acevedo, Victoria Bond, and David A. Robertson; and “Friendship and Family” with Eric Gansworth, Lamar Giles, and Justin A. Reynolds. The day concluded with the 45th annual Kerlan Award recognizing an author or illustrator with “singular attainments” in children’s literature. The ceremony usually takes place in person on the University of Minnesota campus, but this year it was folded into TCBF.
The 2020 award winner was Jon Scieszka, the first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, who claimed he was aboard a rocket ship in outer space as he engaged in conversation with Kerlan Collection curator Lisa Von Drasek. As the conversation began, Von Drasek noted that Scieszka, who has donated his papers to the Kerlan Collection, “kept every scrap of paper” he ever scribbled on while drafting his books.
As the two discussed Scieszka’s body of work, Von Drasek pointed out that he may have been the first author of picture books with an “unreliable” narrator. Noting that he grew up in a “raucous” household that included five brothers who were all bored by Dick and Jane stories, Scieszka recalled being turned onto reading by his mother, who read aloud such classics as Go, Dog. Go!, The Carrot Seed, and Dr. Seuss.
“I don’t think the dogs in Go, Dog. Go! were particularly reliable narrators,” he said. “Dogs driving cars. That was the evolution of the beginning of the Scieszka whatever.” He was inspired to write for children after teaching first and second grade, as young readers “are much funnier, they pay attention better, and they reread stuff.”
Scieszka recalled receiving rejections for his first children’s book, The Stinky Cheese Man, because publishers thought his work was “too weird.” After he partnered with illustrator Lane Smith, however, Regina Hayes at Viking took a chance on them and published the book in 1992. “And then we were off and running.”
Scieszka’s latest project is with his son-in-law, illustrator Steven Weinberg. Their collaboration, AstroNuts: Mission One: The Plant Planet, is a middle grade graphic novel about animals delegated to find another home planet for humans after they have ruined Earth. The series, Scieszka says, was inspired by Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dog Man, and the Magic Tree House series. “Why don’t we do a graphic novel, that’d be fun,” he recalled telling Weinberg. “And I don’t have to do all the work as usual.” The two decided to focus on a book about climate change. “What is more critical than climate change? How do we make it understandable and seriously, scientifically accurate but funny?”
“The best part of this book besides Steven’s art work: the narrator is Earth,” Scieszka said. “It’s the best idea, because Earth is not happy, she is really pissed. ‘You have completely messed me up. Find another planet. Good luck.’ ”
Thinking back on his career, Scieszka noted that writing for children is “an extension of” being a teacher or librarian. “You are engaging kids with lifelong literacy. It’s not because you’re winning points, it’s because you chose to write.”
DiCamillo on the Writer’s Life
The second day of TCBF featured a smorgasbord of panels for children of all ages: “Picture Book Playtime” with Sophie Blackall, Djenane Saint Juste, Jonathan Stutzman, and Kao Kalia Yang; “Beyond Imagination: Middle Grade Graphic Novels” with Tim Probert, Kathleen Gros, and David Bowles; and “Shattered Childhoods: Realistic Violence and YA Fiction” with Tiffany D. Jackson, Kim Johnson, and Bryan Bliss.
The day concluded with a conversation between Kate DiCamillo and Jennifer Brown, senior editor at Shelf Awareness, marking the 20th anniversary of DiCamillo’s debut novel, Because of Winn-Dixie, as well as the release of her most recent book, a book for early readers, Stella Endicott and the Anything Is Possible Poem.
Noting that children ask her repeatedly during her school visits, “What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?” DiCamillo said that she can never respond, “because I feel like I’ve been so lucky that I found what I am supposed to do and I get to do it. I can’t think of anything I want to do except for this.”
Calling herself an introvert, DiCamillo said that to her surprise, she misses interactions with people during the pandemic. Unlike other writers she knows, she said she has been able to concentrate and write, describing it as “a lifeline,” but she sees “subcurrents” of the current situation in the story she is working on now. DiCamillo said she writes two pages every day. “I’d like to say to all the doubters out there, two pages a day is a novel in a year’s time if you show up every day.”
DiCamillo recommended that any child wanting to write should check out Jason Reynolds’s writing prompts, adding, “Those prompts are amazing. Those prompts open doors.”
Before she’d ever tried to write a book of her own, DiCamillo recalled a passage in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist that made her committed to write a novel herself someday. At about that time, she also typed out the entire text of The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis so she would know what it felt like. “That is the book that changed my life,” she said. “It was the first middle grade novel I’d read since I was a kid. I wanted to write something that made someone feel the way this book made me feel.”
As the pandemic forced a national lockdown this past spring, DiCamillo, who said she rarely rereads books, admitted to finding comfort in revisiting books that she had not read in years. “I found what I wanted in these books. Because of being a poetry reader, I know every time you read something, it’s like you can’t step into the same river twice. I’m different, so what I bring to the story is different. Reading has made me realize what you take from it is where you are on your personal journey.”
During the conversation, DiCamillo gave “a huge shout out to all the teachers who help kids see the world through story” by reading out loud to their students. “Now more than ever, that act of reading aloud is a life-changer. It literally saves lives.”
Speaking of her philosophy of writing children’s books that address painful subjects amid humor, DiCamillo insisted, “Stories deliver the bad news and they reconcile us to it. Stories help us see the world and they help us bear the sorrow because they make you a part of everything.” As a writer, she added, “You have to tell the truth but you also have to offer hope. A great gift of storytelling is that it helps you breathe. It’s true for the person telling the story as well as the one reading.”
Although DiCamillo wrote Stella Endicott and the Anything Is Possible Poem before the pandemic, she noted its relevance to the real world in a scene in which the main characters are locked inadvertently in a janitorial supply closet. “This book came out after everything started,” she noted, “but it’s odd how relevant that is, because all we’ve got right now is each other. We’re confined and what we have to do is reach out for each other’s hands and take comfort in each other.”
DiCamillo mentioned the themes that recur throughout her writing: forgiveness, family, and friendship. “These themes seemingly have preoccupied and, if I’m lucky, will preoccupy me for the rest of my life,” she said. “I will keep on working and turning them over in stories.”
Muhammad Ali Through Writers’ Eyes
The celebration continued on Saturday, the festival’s last day, with Kwame Alexander and James Patterson discussing their collaboration, an illustrated book for middle grade readers, Becoming Muhammad Ali, with Red Balloon Bookshop owner Holly Weinkauf. The day also included a panel “Growing Up Graphic” with Jerry Craft, Hope Larson, and Ursula Murray Husted.
Recalling how he and Patterson came to partner on this book, Alexander said that he knew of Patterson before they met due to Patterson’s celebrity as a bestselling author. “But more importantly,” Alexander said, “bookseller bonuses. Providing scholarships to educators and librarians. It’s one thing to be a big-time author who sells a ton of books. It’s another thing to put your money where your mouth is and change the world, change people’s lives.”
In response to Weinkauf’s question as to what they hope children will take away from this book about the legendary boxer, Patterson said that he hopes 30 years from now, this book will still be taught in schools. “I think kids are going to feel that they know this character, that they’re right in these scenes. I think that’s vital.” As for Alexander, he responded to Weinkauf’s query by saying, “Be kind. Be humble. Be confident. Be great.”