The 2023 BookFest at Bank Street, in partnership with KidLit TV, took place virtually on November 4, featuring conversations around culture, kindness, and history from celebrated authors.
The annual event kicked off with a greeting from Cynthia Weill, director of the Center for Children’s Literature at Bank Street College of Education. Weill noted that despite the return to many in-person events since the start of the pandemic, a virtual format allows BookFest to expand its reach. “We embrace the positives of a virtual BookFest, including allowing us to share the day with registrants from all over the world, and enabling us to amass a group of exceptional panelists who never would have been available on the same day if we had met in person.”
Sharing a Story
The morning’s first speaker was Emmy Award winner Sonia Manzano, a longtime performer and writer on Sesame Street as well as a children’s author. Manzano spoke about how her exposure to the history of Cuba influenced her 2022 YA book Coming Up Cuban.
After hearing a personal anecdote from a peer at a party about his immigration from Cuba, Manzano, fascinated by the heart-wrenching tale and the Cuban Revolution, brought the idea to her editor Andrea Pinkney. “That made me wonder what might have happened to kids who stayed in Cuba,” Manzano said. “I was curious about their lives.”
Coming Up Cuban (Scholastic Press, 2022) follows four young people whose lives have been irrevocably changed by the Cuban Revolution, as they grapple with coming of age during political tension.
The act of sharing another person’s story helped Manzano see clearly how storytelling was a tool for connecting people and creating compassion. She spoke of stories from her own life, such as bringing a too-big-for-the-oven suckling pig to the bakery for her family, watching over a pregnant aunt, and struggling to write her own “mini memoir” as a child.
Manzano went on to highlight notable books in her early reading experience such as Charlotte’s Web and Angela’s Ashes, and her mother’s own tales of childhood, which cemented her love for passing along stories.
“As a kid I loved to read sad stories because they would make me feel for the character,” Manzano said. “You feel part of humanity, part of the family of man. And I promised myself that I would protect my friends from mean people. It made me feel righteous.”
The relationship between literature and empathy-building is what makes book bans even more alarming, she said. Without access to books that show children how to relate to people of different circumstances, Manzano questions how society will teach children about history.
“Some people say we should ban books to protect children’s innocence,” Manzano said. “We can’t protect children from the environment that we’ve created.”
Manzano closed her keynote with an anecdote about the first time she discovered that reading wasn’t only a required school subject, but also a place for discovery. “While I looked at the ads over our heads [on the subway] and sounded out the words, suddenly everything fell into place,” Manzano said. “I could read! And because it was 1957, I read about how good smoking was for you and all about the hopes and dreams of Miss Subways, who always seem to live in Queens.”
Home Sweet Home
The next panel, titled “Tales of the Hearth,” featured a conversation between two-time Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall and Shelf Awareness senior editor Jenny Brown.
Blackall opened the discussion with a reading from her latest picture book, Farmhouse, which is based on the real-life Catskill Mountains farmhouse where Blackall holds a retreat for children’s book creators, called Milkwood.
Blackall talked about how despite her love of children’s literature focusing on houses, she was unsure of where her own book would fit in the landscape.
“I really did think at some point, do I need to make this book?” Blackall said. “Does the world need another book about a house? And then selfishly, I thought it did. Because some of my favorite books, when I was a kid, were about houses.”
The concept for Farmhouse struck Blackall while on a drive from Brooklyn to the Virginia Children’s Book Festival. When her car began to make strange noises, Blackall wanted to pull over but feared that stopping would leave her entirely stranded.
“And that is when I got the first line for this book,” Blackall said: “ ‘Over a hill/ at the end of a road/ by a glittering stream/ that twists and turns/ stands a house.’ But I had no way to write it down. So, I had to keep saying it over and over again!”
When it came to developing the characters of her story, Blackall found inspiration from her own hobby of collecting cabinet cards (a portrait photography style popular in the late 1800s). One of the cards featured a large family in front of a house, which became the template for the cast featured in the book.
“What I love about these photographs is [that] it’s this tiny, captured moment in time,” Blackall said. “I’m always thinking about what happened on either side of this, where’s the rest of the story. I wanted to start with that, because this is a story about the passing of time.”
In recreating the original farmhouse in her illustrations, Blackall included real details with hopes of capturing the essence of a home.
“I keep saying how immersed I felt in this book,” Blackall said. “I was also making it during the pandemic and alone. I’ve spoken to the projects that we were making [that] felt more intense in some ways, because we were in them. And I was so in this house. I was so invested in this family and these kids.”
The book’s ending offered Blackall the opportunity for collaboration, turning to studio mate Brian Floca for advice about retaining a truthful conclusion even if it wasn’t the happiest one. “As I say, the house doesn’t exist anymore, but the book does,” Blackall said. “And that’s what happens to all of our lives, and all of our stories and we move on. In any building that has existed for a while there are the stories of all of the people who came through it, and of those who are yet to come through.”
Reminiscing on Kindness
National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Meg Medina was joined by fellow author and childhood friend R.J. Palacio, for a conversation about the theme of kindness in their works. Maria Russo, editorial director of Minerva, an imprint of Astra Books for Young Readers, moderated the conversation.
A surprising fact to many might be that Medina and Palacio share more than just their success within publishing. The pair both grew up in Queens, N.Y., only blocks away from one another, and spent much of their childhood sharing the same classes.
“We were best friends, and Raquel and I often did lots of sleepovers,” Medina said. “We read lots of Greek mythology together. We did lots of school projects together. We were Girl Scouts together. And our families were very entwined.”
The pair then moved on to discussing how the idea of kindness became a pillar in their works. “One of the things that inspired me to write Wonder was the fact that as a parent, I was always trying to raise kids who had kindness as a priority in the way they dealt with the world,” Palacio said. “I thought that for kindness to work, everybody’s got to practice it. It’s something that is such an essential, easy thing to do and to inspire in kids.”
Medina spoke about how acts of kindness can sometimes be mistranslated when cultural differences are at play, making it even more important to be attentive to one another. “The tricky part, I think, is that depending on the community, kindness can look different ways,” Medina said. “In some communities, the idea of being soft or exposing yourself could be dangerous. So how do we talk across all of our experiences about being respectful to each other, making space, making it so that you can feel safe to be yourself?”
Medina’s Merci Suárez books, the first of which won the Newbery Medal in 2019, centers on Merci, a middle school student grappling with the myriad of changes that come with growing up, including shifts in friendships and family. To Medina, growing up is “a process of figuring out how to be human and humane.”
Palacio discussed her graphic novel White Bird, which has a film adaptation tentatively scheduled for the first quarter of 2024, and deals with the idea of hope and kindness during the Holocaust. Palacio shared why this period of history is such an important one to study in order to not see history repeat itself.
“Whether I’m Jewish or not Jewish, I think we need to talk about these things as the next generation comes into power and takes over governance of our countries and our world,” she said. “[So] that we teach them, [and] so that future generations don’t ever have to reexperience those horrors of genocide. And we only do that through education, we only do that through exposing our kids to it in a gentle and age-appropriate way.”
Palacio and Medina closed their conversation with a walk down memory lane, celebrating the many teachers who helped make them both feel supported as young students, and applauding them for their often underappreciated ability to be kind and students feel seen.
“That’s the thing about teaching, right? It’s exhausting,” Medina said. “It forces us to be patient during really hard moments and deal with a lot of stressors. But it is this career that has this immense potential for shaping people.”
Nevertheless, She Persisted
The final panel of the festival highlighted Chelsea Clinton’s children’s book series She Persisted, which shines a light on various women across history who have made contributions to society across several industries and movements.
Children’s book consultant Gillian Engberg welcomed Clinton, alongside Traci Sorell, Kelly Starling Lyons, and Kekla Magoon, authors of books in the series.
Clinton began by sharing the incident that inspired her to write about powerful women. In 2017, Sen. Elizabeth Warren faced interruptions while reading a quote from Coretta Scott King during the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Later on, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said of Warren, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
“As if that were a bad thing,” Clinton said. “As if we haven’t always had to look to persistence, often, particularly from women in our country, to help move us forward on not only women’s rights, but also civil rights and human rights broadly, and in sports and arts and science, and every dimension of life.That was kind of the beginning of this series. And I’m now so grateful that there are so many chapter books in this series for children who are now my kids’ age.”
Each author spoke about the subjects of their She Persisted books: Traci Sorrell discussed Wilma Mankiller, the last female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation; Kelly Starling Lyons talked about Dorothy Height, an activist who championed voting rights; and Kekla Magoon highlighted Olympian and world champion Simone Biles and civil rights activist Ruby Bridges.
Sorell then discussed the importance of humanizing these influential figures, to help children see the similarities between themselves and their role models.
“Oftentimes, these people who have done very noteworthy things are almost given like a hero status,” Sorell said. “Yet, they start out being born and growing up. For our young readers, so many kids are curious about that. And if you just skip to those accomplishments, you’ve undercut the ability for anyone to really understand that trajectory of life experiences.”
The series spotlights both historical and contemporary women who are making change, something Magoon believes holds an impactful message for a young audience. “I think a young reader can see this is only part of someone’s story,” Magoon said. “Someone’s still out there doing cool things. I think it opens your mind as a reader to what’s possible. History is expansive, and our present is extensive. And our potential is extensive.”
When asked what the phrase “she persisted,” meant to her, Lyons cited a Langston Hughes poem called “Mother to Son” that she believed aptly describes the series’ thesis. “There’s all these different forces, whether it’s sexism, or racism, and all these things that are happening,” Lyons said. “And in spite of that, you’re continuing to push and continuing to love and nurture and create, change, and give.”
The authors then spoke about the opportunities they’ve had to share their books in person, including Lyons getting to visit the center where her subject began her activism with students, Sorell’s involvement in the forthcoming opening of theWilma Mankiller Park at a reservation, and Magoon’s discussions with young people about activism.
“You can see the gears turning in their minds and see that they start to believe that they might have potential to change some things around them, too,” Magoon said. “Hopefully, that’s what’s happening.”