On October 15, BookFest, an annual event dedicated to honoring children and teen literature, was held virtually in collaboration with Bank Street College of Education. The morning featured a lineup of virtual pre-recorded panels, including a speech from keynoter and 2022 Newbery and Pura Belpré winner Donna Barba Higuera.

Remembering Late Illustrator Jerry Pinkney

The event opened with a conversation between Andrea Davis Pinkney, Gloria Pinkney, Brian Pinkney, and Charnelle Pinkney Barlow, commemorating the life of their late relative, beloved illustrator and Caldecott Medalist Jerry Pinkney.

The conversation opened with an emotional recounting from granddaughter Charnelle Pinkney Barlow, who shared memories of going into Jerry’s studio, her favorite aspects of his books, and their upcoming project Walk in the Woods, written by Nikki Grimes, and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney and herself.

Moderator Troy Ragsdale Pinkney said “there are so many opportunities that [he took to] collaborate with others in his family. It is a tight circle, which is quite unique. And that’s what we’re hoping we share here with you today.”

Jerry Pinkney’s connection to his family was shared further by author and “daughter in love” Andrea Davis Pinkney. “The simple kindness of being acknowledged by my name made the world a good place to live in. And that’s exactly what you did.” Davis Pinkney said. “You made the world a good place to live in so that we could all dive into the beautiful expanse of your pages.”

As an author and illustrator of more than 100 books, Jerry Pinkney’s personal struggle with dyslexia was an inspiration to his family and readers. “It’s interesting because his dyslexia is something that has sprouted on our family tree. And the children and grandchildren who have inherited that legacy of learning now have the gift of self-acceptance,” Davis Pinkney said.

Author and son Brian Pinkney shared, “I also struggled with reading, and I think what my dad showed me was that you can always read the pictures.”

The session closed with words from Jerry’s wife, author Gloria Pinkney, who remembered meeting Jerry for the first time when the two were in high school, describing him as “always drawing, always creating.”

Jerry Pinkney’s legacy will live on in his work with projects still in the works for readers to look forward to. His memoir Just Jerry is set to release early next year from Little, Brown and two picture books, The Tiniest Drop and Walk in the Woods, are also forthcoming.

Complex Characters in Complex Times

Characters, craft, and navigating nuanced subject matter in books for young readers was the focus of the next panel, hosted by Dr. Carla España, a professor at Brooklyn College.

España welcomed speakers Meg Medina, Margarita Engle, and Pam Muñoz Ryan for their conversation, which kicked off on the topic of joy, with the authors sharing how they’ve managed to find pockets of joy in their lives during the pandemic.

“I will confess that I’m also kind of living a fantasy life like a teenager would, imagining how life will be someday,” Engle said, “as if I haven’t grown up yet and found that freedom to travel and do things independently. So that’s a very strange thing that I’m experiencing, and yet it is hope when you daydream.”

The writers moved onto their writing process and how that can look vastly different for any writer, especially when it comes to teaching.

“I wish that I had first established some sort of system [where] students can have an escape hatch, when they reach a part in their project where they’re stuck or dissatisfied,” Medina said regarding teaching students about the writing process vs. the reality of her own process. “But that’s not really how we do it.”

The conversation then turned to authors tackling difficult subjects and taking care of themselves when revisiting difficult scenes for extended periods.

“Telling the truth is really hard. And going back to the instances in your own life that inform your knowledge of that, your own experiences of that, can be brutal.” Medina said.

Muñoz Ryan chimed in to note that researching the truth of history can also be a painful experience for a writer. “The research can be a black hole you go into,” she said. “I think there is that goal on our part to want to present things in a truthful and honest manner so that history doesn’t repeat itself. But also to present it in a way where there’s some sort of resolution that gives our readers and our character hope.”

The panel shifted to tackle the subject of banned books. Engle believes “we’re at a point where we need to ask ourselves, do we want to be like these repressive regimes? Do we want a law 349 [referring to Cuba’s restrictive artists law] that says no art that protests censorship of art? Or do we want our First Amendment that we have the right to?”

Delicious Reads

Next on the BookFest lineup was a food-centric panel featuring picture book authors and illustrators Andrea Wang, Jason Chin, Raúl the Third, June Jo Lee, and Winsome Bingham, moderated by Gillian Engberg, a children’s books and media consultant.

The focus of the discussion was on picture books about culture-specific food, the intimacy of experiencing and sharing food, and the cultural ties and connection food brings across generations and cultures.

To Bingham, author of Soul Food Sunday, food is both specific and universal. “I can guarantee I can say to anyone anywhere in the world, what is something that when you eat it, you just feel loved, you feel comfort? Whatever that food is, that’s the soul food for that culture,” Bingham shared.

For Wang, author of the Caldecott-winning picture book Watercress, when crafting a book that depicts food so personally connected to family, “food can be a bridge.” It was a spot-on statement, as the panelists began to talk about foods they cook within their own cultures, surprised to find that there were many similarities, namely cabbage.

“There’s this commonality that you think you’re the only one doing it. And now I’m like, wait, what? Y’all do that too!” Winsome said with a laugh over the different preparations panelists had for the same vegetable.

The panelists spoke on the experience of fearing what peers would think of the cultural dishes they’d bring into school when they were younger, often citing how the fragrance of their meals often had negative connotations, a scenario the world has yet to outgrow.

“I think, what a tragedy, right? To be ashamed of your family because of an experience at school,” said Jason Chin, illustrator of Watercress. “I hope this book goes some way to making any kid who might have a similar experience not feel ashamed and helps them to be proud of who they are and their heritage and their food.”

Raúl the Third chimed in with a positive spin on the specific scents of cultural foods, stating, “If I walk into a house and it’s stinky with a smell of spices and food, I know I’m going in for a good meal. So, here’s to stinkiness!”

On what young readers could take away from their books, panelists shared sentiments on teaching children to always have empathy.

“There’s not a lot of picture books that I can think of that talk about shame,” Wang said. “But it’s something that we’ve all experienced, being embarrassed by our parents or ashamed of our families, for whatever reason. And I really hope that this book inspires kids to have empathy for each other.”

The panel closed with each panelist sharing about their upcoming projects: for Chin, a new picture book The Universe in You out in November, for Wang a picture book biography about a Chinese Civil War soldier due out in 2024. Raúl the Third awaits the release of Stuntboy Volume Two next year with Jason Reynolds, Bingham is set to release a set of chapter books later this year, and Lee is currently working on the Food Heroes series.

Donna Barba Higuera: What It Means to Be a Storyteller

BookFest closed with a keynote address from Donna Barba Higuera. Higuera is the 2022 Newbery and Pura Belpré winner for her YA novel The Last Cuentista. Higuera discussed the history of storytelling in her family, and how stories passed down from generation to generation shaped her into the writer she’s become.

“I didn’t start out thinking that I was going to be a writer per se.” Higuera said. “I thought I was a storyteller; I would make things up and tell stories to anybody who would listen to them.”

For Higuera, storytelling was a “learned behavior,” one influenced heavily by growing up with her family in Central Valley California. In the predominantly rural area without much else to do around her, Higuera often found herself making up stories and expanding her imagination.

The first branch of storytelling in Higuera’s memory begins with her paternal grandmother, who often told stories at her job at a hotel in order to make friends with older coworkers. Following her grandmother’s loss of her husband, her storytelling abilities allowed her to create community in what was a “desolate” area at the time.

For Higuera’s mother, storytelling was a way to access a past she no longer had access to, having moved from Oklahoma to California after the Dust Bowl era to find work in oil. Referring to a photo showing Higuera’s mother smiling, Higuera highlighted how this was around the time her parents met. Coming from two different cultures, the couple were considered taboo at the time. Higuera reminisced about her own childhood, growing up in a culturally diverse household, and how the stories she was told at that age inspired her to write for middle graders.

“The memories of that age are so vivid, and high school feels a little bit like a blur. And so often, this is the time where my imagination goes,” she said.

Diving into the tales told by her mother, Higuera first shared about the “Oklahoma spook light,” whose backstory has several variations but according to her mother was about young Native lovers whose parents wouldn’t allow them to marry. The couple then ran away together and jumped off a bridge and into the river. Despite its tragic ending, for Higuera this story remained a fixture in her mind because “it wasn’t just a ghost tale. It was the story, the tragedy of it. But also in those tragedies, sometimes the feelings of love and yearning.”

El Cucuy was another standout story of Higuera’s childhood, passed along to her by her grandmother. The dark creature with glowing fangs and claws was lovingly used as a scare tactic by her grandmother to get Higuera to get to bed on time.

The impact of her family’s storytelling would later spark inspiration for her own work. While working on a writing prompt to transform a childhood nightmare into something adorable, that same childhood boogeyman became the central character of her picture book El Cucuy Is Scared Too! Illustrator Juliana Perdomo was able to connect with Higuera on their childhood fear of El Cucuy, making for a more connected working relationship and understanding of the subject matter.

“I just think the power of her to have the shared experience with me and then create this beautiful picture book where you take this horrifying creature and then make him into something as adorable as this little El Cucuy is really powerful,” Higuera said.

Illustration is a powerful tool in Higuera’s works, which is apparent in The Last Cuentista as well. In the novel, the protagonist’s grandmother is a storyteller sharing with her granddaughter the tale of a damning comet. Noting how the cadence, tone, and pacing were specific helped illustrator Raxenne Maniquiz depict the lore of the protagonist’s home before she must abandon it.

“Raxenne Maniquiz read that and just created the front of the book. I am so grateful for that illustration that really, I feel, enhances the book and the story.” Higuera said.

Higuera closed by stating that any form of storytelling, whether it be poetry, prose, illustration, or something else, preserves and honors the livelihoods of generations before, while artists make their own unique additions.

“I would encourage if you’re not a writer or illustrator, maybe you’re a storyteller and you can pass along stories to your children and grandchildren, or friends or family, much like my parents and grandmother did for me,” Higuera said. “And I’m so grateful for that.”