A few picture books we’ve read recently started me thinking about the theme of families. Once I started making a list, one book quickly led to another – and this is not an exhaustive list! Many of these books include grandparents and extended family; a couple include foster parents (Just Like A Mama and A Family Is A Family Is A Family); one explains “what makes a baby” in a way that includes all kinds of families; and many are multicultural and inter-generational.
I have a separate list of books about when new siblings are added to a family, which I’ll share in a future post.
How families get started…
What Makes A Baby by Corey Silverberg, illus. Fiona Smyth
Nine Months by Miranda Paul, illus. Jason Chin
Grandma’s Tiny House by JaNay Brown-Wood, illus. Priscilla Burris
Maud and Grand-Maud by Sara O’Leary, illus. Kenard Pak
Between Us and Abuela by Mitali Perkins, illus. Sara Palacios
I Dream of Popo by Livia Blackburne, illus. Julia Kuo
A Morning with Grandpa by Sylvia Liu, illus. Christina Forshay
Drawn Together by Minh Lȇ, illus. Dan Santat
Mango, Abuela, and Me by Meg Medina, illus. Angela Dominguez
Just in Case by Yuyi Morales
Yoko’s Paper Cranes by Rosemary Wells
The Button Box by Margarette S. Reid, illus. Sarah Chamberlain
Saturday by Oge Mora
Pecan Pie Baby by Jacqueline Woodson, illus. Sophie Blackall
City Moon by Rachael Cole, illus. Blanca Gomez
Me & Mama by Cozbi A. Cabrera
Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall
Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry, illus. Vashti Harrison
The Blue House by Phoebe Wahl
A Family Is A Family Is A Family by Sara O’Leary, illus. Qin Leng
Home Is In Between by Mitali Perkins, illus. Lavanya Naidu
When We Are Kind by Monique Gray Smith, illus. Nicole Neidhardt
Just Like A Mama by Alice Faye Duncan, illus. Charnelle Pinkney Barlow
All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins, illus. Paul O. Zelinsky
Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang, illus. Charlene Chua
A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams (1983 Caldecott Honor)
Early readers/beginning chapter books
Meet Yasmin by Saadia Faruqi, illus. Hatem Ali
Charlie & Mouse & Grumpy by Laurel Snyder, illus. Emily Hughes
I hope you discover something new on this list that you come to love and share. And please, feel free to add your favorite family books in the comments!
I just listened to the lovely Emily St. John Mandel in conversation with NEPM’s Jill Kaufman discussing Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven, which was chosen for the NEA Big Read in 2019 (before the COVID-19 pandemic). It was a very different discussion than it would have been a year and a half ago, because Station Eleven has, at its center, a lethal pandemic that kills off most of the world’s human population. (Mandel said reassuringly that, in fact, a pandemic that virulent is scientifically implausible and would burn itself out.)
Although COVID-19 isn’t as virulent as the “Georgia flu” in Mandel’s novel, the idea of how quickly disease can spread in our globalized world stayed with me; in a way, Station Eleven prepared me for 2020 better than anything else, although it wasn’t meant to be a how-to guide. Rather, it’s a tremendously compelling book in its premise, characters, structure, ideas, and language. Part of its allure is that while, as Mandel said, it’s billed as a post-apocalyptic novel, only half the story takes place during the spread of the flu and society’s collapse; the other half is about the civilization that has emerged twenty years later. In the “two worlds” of the book, the “overwhelming majority” of people are happier and do better in the present (i.e. pre-COVID), but “for some people it might be the opposite…[they] might be more fulfilled in a completely different world.” The character of Jeevan finds purpose; Clark finds peace.
Mandel said that what she wanted to suggest in Station Eleven is the randomness of what survives, both people and cultural artifacts. She acknowledged that pandemics take an uneven toll: “There is a terrible randomness to illness….There’s also NOT a randomness to illness.” The characters who survived in Station Eleven were just in the right place at the right time, and there was a “certain randomness” to cultural artifacts too: “You hope that the things that you personally value the most would survive….It’s a matter of luck for both people and things.” In the novel, Shakespeare and Beethoven survive – and so do a couple of copies of a hand-drawn comic book authored by one of the characters.
Kaufman asked if Mandel would have written the book differently now, specifically referencing the quote on the side of the wagon, “Because survival is insufficient.” Mandel replied, “You just can’t predict what random line from a television show will stick in your head forever,” but went on to say that humans are never satisfied with survival, and always strive for more. And also, that pandemic is not, as she had thought, a binary state, i.e. you’re in one or you’re not: “That in-between was something I hadn’t anticipated.” She talked about being in New York and hearing about the virus spreading in other countries, while daily life (subway rides, handshakes) continued here. “We knew it was coming but we didn’t quite believe it…it was a mass failure of imagination.” (Meanwhile, precisely because of reading Station Eleven, I was imagining it, and buying extra rice, lentils, beans, peanut butter, jarred fruit, and soap.)
A listener/viewer asked, “How did you research what the world would look like after 20 years of neglect?” Mandel replied, “A lot of it is just imagining.” She added, “When people stop going to work, everything falls apart within days.” (For those who are curious, though, I suggest The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.) Another listener/viewer asked, “Is a break from the past necessary to move forward?” Mandel answered by quoting “Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but added that if you’re thinking about the task of moving forward, probably the people who could remember the least would have the easiest time in the new world. “I do believe there’s value in understanding history and understanding the past. But sometimes it’s easier if we don’t.” She mentioned her young daughter, who has few memories from before COVID, which is heartbreaking, but easier in a way than if she was older and remembered more.
The questions shifted to the writing process. Mandel does not outline, and said her rough drafts are messy: “I just kind of wing it, to be honest.” She starts with a premise or a scene. The actor who plays King Lear dying onstage during Act IV, for example, is a setup that brings in more characters; surely someone from the audience will jump up and try to help. She writes from one character’s POV, then another’s, and once the draft is finished, she begins revising, first fixing “massive problems…then the problems get smaller the more you revise.” Of Station Eleven, she said, “I wasn’t interested in writing about a disaster,” but she was interested in writing about a post-technological world. How to get from A to B? A pandemic seemed the most efficient way to do it. “Part of the human experience is surviving these things.” Mandel observed that most post-apocalyptic books fit into the horror genre; for her, it was more interesting to think, “What’s the world that comes next?”
Kaufman observed that the arts feature prominently in the novel. “We love narrative as a species,” said Mandel, and theater – such as the traveling Shakespeare/music company in Station Eleven – is low-tech and portable. She mentioned that, throughout the current pandemic, people have turned to stories in many forms, from books to TV and movies (speaking of which, an adaptation of Station Eleven is currently filming, and Mandel herself is working on a screenplay for her newest novel, The Glass Hotel). And speaking of The Glass Hotel, did Mandel know that Miranda would be a crossover character? Yes: “I became so attached to Miranda as I was writing Station Eleven, I knew I wanted to use her again.” So Mandel laid the groundwork for the idea of parallel universes; The Glass Hotel takes place not before Station Eleven, but parallel to it.
Thank you to Emily St. John Mandel, Jill Kaufman and NEPM, the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Libraries in the Woods, the Springfield Public Forum, All Hamptons Read, Tilton Library, The Care Center and the NEA.
Recently, a friend asked in a group text for books on helping kids identify and name feelings. We came up with several titles in our group, and I reached out to a couple of librarian friends for more suggestions of social-emotional learning (SEL) books. Kids experience all kinds of Big Feelings, and being able to identify and name them is an important skill. Books in the first category below cover a broad range of feelings; books in the second category focus particularly on feelings that can be overwhelming, like fear, anger, and sadness, and many offer strategies to manage these strong emotions. Finally, there are a couple of nonfiction titles. If there’s a book you think belongs on one of these lists, please add it in the comments!
A range of feelings
Happy Hippo, Angry Duck: A Book of Moods by Sandra Boynton: This simple board book is great for babies and up – really exaggerate your facial expressions and tone of voice as you read.
The Way I Feel by Janan Cain: This also comes in board book format; it identifies and describes a number of key feelings
The Feelings Book by Todd Parr: Feelings are always changing – share them with someone you love.
The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld: When a child’s magnificent tower of blocks collapses, they don’t want to talk about it, or ruin someone else’s, or rebuild it just the same – they just want to be listened to.
I Feel Teal by Lauren Rille and Aimée Sicuro: A girl’s moods are rendered in different colors over the course of the day; the text encourages readers to let all their feelings through – “they’re the palette that makes you YOU.” (A librarian friend recommends My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss and The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh by Supriya Kelkar, both of which likewise pair colors and feelings.)
The Color Monster by Anna Llenas: A little girl takes a monster by the hand and helps it identify its feelings, leading to a feeling of contentment.
In My Heart: A Book of Feelings by Jo Witek: Readers enter a little girl’s heart through these heart-shaped die-cut pages, where each page turn reveals a different emotion inside.
Wild Feelings by David Milgrim: “Do you ever feel _____? …Of course you do. Everyone does.” Both kids and grown-ups experience the whole spectrum of feelings.
When We Are Kind by Monique Gray Smith: On each page spread, the author shows a different act, and how it makes the people involved feel. The text includes questions, encouraging discussion.
Random House Book of Poetry for Children, edited by Jack Prelutsky: Sometimes poems use fewer words to say more. This collection has plenty of funny, goofy, nonsense poems, but covers most feelings too.
Grumpy Pants by Claire Messer: A grumpy penguin figures out how to wash away a persistent case of the grumps. (For a slightly longer picture book on the same topic, try Sophy Henn’s Pom Pom Panda Gets the Grumps.)
The Bad Mood and the Stick by Lemony Snicket: Illustrates how a bad mood can move from one person to another through the way that people treat each other.
Swarm of Bees by Lemony Snicket: The swarm of bees represent anger; a beekeeper calms them down.
Ruby Finds A Worry by Tom Percival: The worry starts out as a little scribble, but as Ruby ignores it, it grows. It’s only when she sees another kid with their own worry and they talk about them that their worries shrink.
The Worrysaurus by Rachel Bright: A little worrysaurus goes into a worry spiral until he remembers his mom’s good advice and uses good coping tools to restore his equilibrium.
When Sadness Is At Your Door by Eva Eland: When a child opens the door to a large, amorphous, seafoam-green creature, it begins to follow them around. “Try not to be afraid of sadness. Give it a name. Listen to it. Ask where it comes from and what it needs.”
Dear Substitute by Audrey Vernick and Liz Garton Scanlon: A student is taken aback by the unexpected presence of a substitute teacher; throughout the day, she slowly adjusts to the change.
When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry by Molly Bangs: Sophie does get really angry, her anger rendered in intense bright colors – but she takes herself out of the situation and calms down by herself, without help, before returning, demonstrating that it’s possible to feel Big Feelings and recover.
The Big Angry Roar by Jonny Lambert: A lion cub needs to let his anger out, but none of the other animals’ suggestions work at first. Finally, the strategy of taking deep breaths, counting to ten, and making funny faces puts the lion cub in a calmer frame of mind.
The Angry Little Puffin by Timothy Young: In this comical story, a puffin stuck in the penguin exhibit at the zoo is deeply annoyed – until a little girl spots him and tells her dad all about puffins, and how they are different from penguins. Just being seen and understood changes his mood completely.
Llama Llama Mad at Mama by Anna Dewdney: Mama Llama displays calm and patience in the face of Llama Llama’s drama. Her most powerful tool? Empathy. (She doesn’t want to do the grocery shopping, either!)
How Do Dinosaurs Say I’m Mad? by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague: The comically oversize dinosaurs offer young readers a chance to critique and learn from their behavior.
Tiger vs. Nightmare by Emily Tetri: This is a graphic novel for young readers about facing fears, with support and on their own.
How Do You Feel? by Lizzy Rockwell: After an initial spread showing several kids on a playground, the subsequent pages zoom in on each child’s expression and identify their emotion; the final endpaper shows expressions labeled with their emotion.
What Are Feelings? by Katie Daynes: This short, lift-the-flap book from Usborne lets readers explore happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and worry
All About Feelings by Felicity Brooks: This Usborne title goes a bit more in depth, explaining how to recognize, manage, and talk about feelings; it also includes a note for grown-ups.
It’s been a little while since I wrote about middle grade novels, which I continue to inhale because they are so good. Middle grade characters are at an age where they’ve got a little bit of independence, they’re figuring out their identities and their friendships and their feelings. They’re making mistakes, they’re learning, they’re having ideas, they’re testing boundaries. In short, middle grade is absolutely fascinating, and although publishing is still overwhelmingly white, it’s getting more diverse (and therefore more interesting) by the year. Reading fiction has always been one of my favorite ways to learn about history and about other cultures; I read nonfiction too, but it tends to be the stories in novels that stay with me. Here are a few recent (2019-2021) middle grade novels I’d love for more people to read:
Wash your hands and grab your aprons…
A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan: Pakistani-American Sara’s mom runs a cooking club at school, and that’s where Sara meets Elizabeth, who’s Jewish, and whose mother is also studying for the U.S. citizenship exam. The girls orchestrate a study group of two for their mothers, and become friends in the process.
Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu: In this graphic novel, twelve-year-old Cici, who has just moved from Taiwan to Seattle, enters a cooking competition, but is unsure if she can win by cooking Taiwanese food.
From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks: After receiving a letter on her birthday from her father in prison, Zoe strikes up a secret correspondence with him, enabled by her grandmother, and decides she must clear his name – all while winning a baking competition, and (maybe) making up with her best friend next door.
Now put on your dancing shoes (or not)…
Lupe Wong Won’t Dance by Donna Barba Higuera: If “Chinacan/Mexinese” Lupe gets all As, she’ll get to meet her hero, pitcher Fu Li; but her A in P.E. is threatened when Coach announces that the next unit is…square dancing. Lupe goes on a campaign against it, roping her friends into helping her. Readers will see that it’s possible for kids like them to be activists and make change that’s meaningful to them. I did not get hooked immediately, but I kept going, and toward the end there was a part that made me laugh so hard I couldn’t talk for several minutes.
Merci Suárez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina: Anything new by Meg Medina is cause for celebration in my book, and Merci doesn’t disappoint. Adolescence keeps tossing Merci curveballs (“If I’m too young for it all, why is it happening anyway?”): her beloved grandfather Lolo has Alzheimer’s, her older brother is away at college, she’s stuck working in the school store with Wilson, and Edna Santos won’t shut up about the Heart Ball. Merci makes some big mistakes, but she still has the support of her family and friends.
On the road and Underground:
Clean Getaway by Nic Stone: Scoob’s dad cancels their vacation when Scoob gets in trouble at school, so when Scoob’s grandma swings by in a new RV, he hops in – and leaves his phone behind. But the road trip turns strange, with G’ma, who’s white, telling Scoob, who’s Black, about using the Green Book when traveling with his Black grandfather decades ago. Scoob learns some family truths before he returns home.
Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet by Zanib Mian: Middle child Omar introduces his British Muslim family in a funny, relatable way. Sketches accompany the story, which includes getting lost in the Underground on a field trip with only the school bully for company.
New York and New Jersey:
Katie the Catsitter by Colleen AF Venable: Katie’s two best friends go off to camp, leaving her stuck in sticky New York, so Katie tries to earn the money to join them for the last week of camp. She gets a sweet cat-sitting gig for an upstairs neighbor, but begins to wonder…is Madeleine actually the supervillain known as the Mousetress? Super fun; I read it in one sitting.
Like Vanessa by Tami Charles: Vanessa is elated when a Black woman is crowned Miss America for the first time, and a white teacher encourages her to participate in the first-ever Miss King Middle pageant, even though her skin is much darker than Miss America’s. Vanessa is skeptical, but Mrs. Walton isn’t the typical white savior, and she understands Vanessa better than Vanessa expects. Throughout, Vanessa writes in her diary, and works to solve the mystery of her mother’s absence.
The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold: Ten-year-old Gabrielle’s parents send her from their home in Haiti to live with relatives in New York, where she promptly makes an ill-advised deal with a witch called Lady Lydia. Gabrielle’s new friends – a talking rat called Rocky and a Latina classmate called Carmen – help Gabrielle regain what she’s lost. Readers willing to go with the flow will love this magical book about identity, language, culture, and what it means to be American.
Historical fiction (1930s, 1970s):
Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk: When the Great Depression hit, Ellie and her family move from a town to a mountain in Maine; Ellie and her father take to it, but Ellie’s mother and older sister haven’t adapted as well, and when Ellie’s father is injured and lies in a coma, the burden falls on all of them. Ellie takes the initiative to explore and meet others on the mountain – some of whom are already connected to her family in surprising ways. This immersive book reminded me a bit of A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly.
Dawn Raid by Pauline Vaeluaga Smith: Thirteen-year-old Sofia’s diary entries show a dawning awareness of anti-Polynesian racism in Wellington, New Zealand. She writes about McDonalds and go-go boots, the Polynesian Panthers and dawn raids (police raiding Pacific Islanders they suspect are “overstayers,” though the 60% of overstayers who are white are never targeted), and eventually makes a speech at her school recounting her first-hand experience. A time and place rarely written about for the middle grade audience in the U.S.
Poetry/Novel in verse:
The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park: A teacher asks the class to think about the one thing they’d save in a fire (assuming people and pets are safe). The class muses, then shares; grayscale illustrations of their rooms and possessions accompany the modern Korean sijo poetic style.
Starfish by Lisa Fipps: Ellie doesn’t mind that she’s fat – she minds that almost everyone, including her own mother, bullies her for being fat. Luckily for Ellie, she has two good friends – one old, one new – and a skilled, kind therapist to help her realize a way forward in the world.
Pacific Northwest, Native American #OwnVoices:
The Sea in Winter by Christine Day: During a week of spring vacation in the Pacific Northwest, Maisie goes on a hiking trip with her family, but struggles with a healing ACL injury and with the idea that her dream future as a ballet dancer might not come to pass. Maisie’s family – mom, younger brother, and stepdad – are all Native American; both Maisie’s parents support her, gently explaining that “dreams change.”
Fantasy, Newbery Honor:
A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat: Is life fair, or unfair? Characters’ beliefs change in this dreamy yet fast-paced Les Miserables-inspired Thai fantasy novel. Pong, born in prison, and Nok, daughter of the warden, start out on opposite sides but move toward similar conclusions. Absolutely original, hard to put down once you’ve started.
Cultivating Genius and Joy: Culturally and Historically Responsive Education for Equity, Excellence and Joy, Dr. Gholdy Muhammad
Dr. Muhammad is the author of Cultivating Genius, and an amazing speaker with an inspiring message, a deep understanding of history, and the expert delivery of a slam poet (the live chat was full of librarians planning to buy her book or see if she was available to speak to their schools or other organizations). “STORIES MATTER,” she said (it sounded like it was in all caps), and she referenced the danger of a single story (see: “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk). In this case, the story she was referring to was one of “at-risk, confrontational, defiant, unmotivated, non-readers.” Instead, “We must not call readers struggling until we call systems struggling.”
Dr. Muhammad delivered a fast-paced history of Black educators in U.S. history, much of which has been forgotten or intentionally erased: “When you have an erasure of Black genius in education, we see it transfer over to our schools and our communities.” She referenced the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), which consistently produces data showing that children’s literature overwhelmingly is produced by white creators and features white characters. She asked, If our books are supposed to be windows to the world, how come only one kind of kid gets to see themselves as astronauts, superheroes, etc.? “It is a human agenda when some people’s stories matter more.”
Dr. Muhammad talked about multicultural education and social justice: “Our schools must have justice at the center….If the system does not help all, it helps no one.” And finally, she described and gave examples of the five lenses/pursuits she uses to examine a text or teach a lesson: Identity, Skills, Intellect, Criticality, and Joy. Most assessment – especially standardized testing – only focuses on skills, but that is only a piece of learning. Dr. Muhammad asked, “How will you make it impossible for students to fail?” (and, “Is it ethical to keep doing the same things we’ve been doing?”).
After the [Diversity] Audit, Liz Phipps-Soeiro
Phipps-Soeiro is an elementary school librarian in the Cambridge Public School system, as well as a consultant and a community organizer. She had an excellent, break-all-the-rules slide show that led with the statement, “I am learning and unlearning every day.” (The second piece of this is so important. Librarians often claim the identity of “lifelong learners,” but much of the new knowledge is really updating and improving on the old.)
Before beginning a diversity audit, a librarian should ask themselves the following questions:
What does “diverse” mean to me?
How am I using that word?
Am I still centering a dominant cultural narrative?
Am I only thinking about race?
How does my identity affect what I value and judge as “diverse”?
What might I consider? (race, region, power, urban/rural, gender, class, sexuality, religion, ability, chronic illness, neurodivergence, oppression/liberation, collectivism/individualism
A diversity audit is a good first step, but move beyond quantitative data. “Stories are our profession.” Look beyond the identity of the character and creator, while acknowledging that “no one book can do everything.” Books can uphold some stereotypes/tropes/myths and break others at the same time.
Engage in self-reflection, hone your critical lens, and beware of “tourist curriculum” (a superficial approach, often featuring holidays or food, then returning to the “regular” curriculum, which further centers a white identity). Be aware of which narratives are amplified or erased.
And involve your students! Give them the vocabulary they need, demonstrate that it is okay to ask questions. The librarian can engage and facilitate powerful book discussions with children (“Does this book support or challenge any stereotypes?”). Analyze books explicitly; kids bring that vocabulary and willingness to discuss out of the library and into classrooms and home.
During the Q&A, a high school librarian commented, “Audit for bias, not just diversity.”
Beyond Books: Supporting English Learners in Your School Library, Emily Houston, Kendall Boninti, and Paige Graves
Houston, Boninti, and Graves all work at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School (CRLS), and their presentation was about a concerted effort they’ve made to bring English Language Learners (ELL) into the library and make it a welcoming space for them. They’ve done that by focusing on the physical space, partnering with community-based nonprofit Enroot, and using a Project-Based Learning (PBL) approach.
Physical space: You want students to be able to “feel that joy” of navigating the space independently. Are there spaces to meet different needs (independent study vs collaboration vs socializing)? Are signs in multiple languages, are they color-coded, do they include images? CRLS has created an Inquiry Lab/Makerspace with lots of donated/upcycled materials for hands-on experimentation.
Student-centered space: Once you’ve identified an underserved group, how do you get them to come into the library? The CRLS Library partnered with Enroot to develop a monthly series: “Lunch & Learn: Building Community Through Playful Learning.”
Project-based learning: PBL is an equitable and authentic approach to teaching and learning; it connects students to issues that matter to them and gives them an opportunity to do something. Best practices for PBL: student-centered (voice and choice), authentic and complex problem/challenge (do not simplify, amplify), builds community (social aspect of language), tap into students’ fund of cultural knowledge, explicitly teach vocabulary, scaffolding, lots of visuals, hands-on, play and joy, reflection (include in every lesson with ELL), equitable assessment. All of this is good for ELL and good for every student! “To ignore important issues [in our country, the world] in school makes school irrelevant.”
Tips and Tools for Nonfiction Read-Alouds, Melissa Stewart
Melissa Stewart has written so many nonfiction books for kids. She is a rockstar! And her website has a ton of resources, including this whole section on nonfiction read-alouds. Stewart made the case that kids love read-alouds, and kids love nonfiction! The most recent data (1996) suggests that at least 40% of the books kids check out for pleasure reading are nonfiction; if that’s the case, shouldn’t read-alouds mirror that percentage? (She wants to do an updated study/survey of how much of kids’ pleasure reading is nonfiction; if you work in a library and want to help her out with that, get in touch!)
What are some of the barriers to reading nonfiction aloud?
Locating appropriate nonfiction titles
Reading aloud in a way that engages students
Encouraging and facilitating student responses to nonfiction read-alouds
Spoiler alert, it turns out that these “barriers” are easily overcome! To start, Stewart offers guidance on choosing appropriate nonfiction titles. And, each year, she writes a nonfiction roundup, so you can search her blog for “best nonfiction of” and get annual lists. As for making your reading engaging, “There’s no reason you have to read an entire book,” and sometimes with nonfiction it works better not to. If there’s primary and secondary text, you could just read the main text (especially for younger students); you could also just share one part, or a little bit at a time, rather than reading cover to cover in one sitting. Students will get excited and respond, especially if you’re enthusiastic about it.
Some teachers and librarians just need the nudge that “nonfiction read-alouds can tie in to curriculum, but can also be ‘just for fun.'” When I was doing storytimes for two- and three-year-olds, I admit I didn’t use many nonfiction picture books at all (exception: Skulls! by Blair Thornburgh), but the next time I get in front of a read-aloud crowd, I’m definitely going to include more nonfiction picture books.
This was just so fun. I’ve read books by all of these authors (Feed, The Mother-Daughter Book Club, From the Desk of Zoe Washington, and Forward Me Back to You, respectively) and they all really seemed to enjoy talking about books and writing together. A few quotes:
You learn something from writing every book even if they don’t end up on shelves. (Marks)
You just never know what you’re going to discover. (Anderson, re: traveling and research)
“Stories written long ago are not all good or all bad but a mix of both.” The books you read early in your life are formative. Eras shaped people (and authors). (Perkins)
“So many of our books grow from our own lives.” (Frederick)
Whew! So, that was my first MSLA conference. And while I’m excited to meet all these librarians in person someday, the virtual conference experience was very smooth and enjoyable (and the coffee and meals were excellent. And I got to be in my sweatpants and slippers the whole time. There’s a silver lining to Zoom for sure). Thank you again to all of the presenters and conference committee, and thank you if you’re reading this!
This was my first year attending the Massachusetts School Library Association (MSLA) annual conference. It was entirely virtual this year, and it was great! Between an app (Whova) and various platforms (zoom, YouTube), everything worked smoothly. I noticed that most attendees were chatting when live chat was enabled, but not many were tweeting, even though several are on Twitter. As usual, I took compulsive notes, which I’ve tried to consolidate here into useful takeaways. Thank you to the MSLA Conference Committee, who did amazing work, and to all of the presenters, keynote speakers, and panelists, who delivered inspiring and thought-provoking ideas.
Saturday, March 20
Jarrett Krosoczka, Awards Night Keynote
Krosoczka is the Massachusetts-based author of the popular Lunch Lady series of early graphic novels, as well as the award-winning graphic memoir Hey, Kiddo. He talked about his long history of virtual author visits and book launches, and how his model has changed over the years as technology has changed. He asked himself, “I don’t want to be just a talking head, how can I make this more interesting?” When the pandemic arrived in March 2020, he began “Draw Every Day with JKK,” a popular series of drawing sessions. His home setup has improved with time; he noted that phone cameras are usually better quality than computer cameras, and if you mount one on a tripod, it doesn’t hurt to put googly eyes on it so you know where to look. Krosoczka closed with, “Students just want to be heard. They just want an adult to listen.”
Sunday, March 21
Books and Bytes Keynote: The School Librarian as Information Specialist, Jennisen Lucas (AASL president-elect)
When it comes to libraries – school or public – there is a huge equity issue. Generally, affluent towns and cities have library buildings staffed with qualified professionals who manage a collection of a variety of materials and offer a range of services. Poorer towns’ libraries aren’t as well-funded, may not have the same number of open hours (an access issue) or amount of materials or the same program offerings. In school libraries, the inequality is even starker, if possible, and it seems as though the barely-adequate staffing levels can be slashed at any time. School libraries might not have a budget at all, or they may have an insufficient budget; libraries might be staffed only by paraprofessionals or parent volunteers, or by a certified librarian serving several schools at once. This knife-edge existence is frustrating for a profession that knows its vital importance to student learning outcomes, yet constantly has to explain and defend itself. School librarians don’t just check books in and out; SLs nurture a love of reading, teach research skills, support the curriculum, and teach media and news literacy. “We are vital,” Lucas said. “We are trying to be everything to everybody.”
Lucas addressed the common misperception that “what we do is read to kids and check out books”; that now that there’s the Internet, librarians aren’t necessary anymore. Lucas argued that we have workout videos – and yet we still have gym teachers. We have calculators, and yet we still have math teachers. “We teach things that no other teachers teach.” Lucas said, “Our school library ensures learners become effective and ethical users and producers of ideas and information.” All learners deserve libraries with certified librarians.
A few more takeaways:
Recommended books: Start With Why by Simon Sinek; Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman; The Information by James Gleick; Our Enduring Values Revisited by Michael Gorman
“It is not the amount of knowledge that makes a brain. It is not even the distribution of knowledge. It is the interconnectedness.” -James Gleick, The Information
“Information” is one of those words like “research,” we use it all the time to mean a lot of things. Information is directly tied to communication.
Ask students: “What is research?” (Their answers will surprise you!) Research is answering questions: start with a question. Teach learners how to ask a question.
Many hats: School librarians are “a guide, instructor, facilitator, coach, administrator of programs.”
Fostering Diversity in the Library, Felicia Quesada Montville
Felicia Quesada Montville works as a middle school librarian in the Newton Public Schools. Her presentation focused on diversity, inclusion, equity, and antiracism. Librarians have many tools to move past “superficial” representation and build an antiracist library.
Collection development: Prioritize diverse voices. Seek multiple review sources. Weed, weed, weed! Know your community and assess their needs. Analyze your collection and identify gaps. Do a diversity audit. Identify priority areas (e.g. summer reading lists, books taught in classrooms). Examine the images in your space and on your website.
Displays, and a student-centered environment: “There’s a lot of power in the books that we choose to put on display.” Students and teachers and people coming into your space see the books that are there. Make the library a safe space for everyone by centering students. What professional practices can you improve to help your students?
Advocacy outside the library: Librarians have power – use it for good. Advocate for inclusive and diverse texts outside of the library. Use position in school as a leader to help move social justice forward. Advocate for equitable school policies. Lead by examples – lead by doing. Speak up.
Using Picture Books in High School, Susan Harari, Morgan Keohane, Blake Barich
Blake Barich, and English teacher at Boston Latin, developed an assignment for her 12th grade students to find and examine “existentialist themes” in picture books. School librarian Susan Harari helped find the picture books, using both her own library collection and the Boston Public Library to provide 150 texts for the students to choose from. She also taught a lesson on picture books, covering Rudine Sims Bishop’s concept of windows & mirrors, what is(n’t) a picture book, types of children’s books, the role of author/illustrator, audience, design elements, and interplay between text/illustrations. Thus equipped, students chose their picture books and began work on a 4-6 page essay.
But the unit didn’t end there. In a fantastic example of inter-school collaboration, the 12th grade students took a field trip to a BPS elementary school, where each was paired with a younger student (K-1) and read their book aloud. Elementary librarian Morgan Keohane got teacher buy-in by presenting the many arguments in favor of the collaboration: it’s a chance for students to get personalized, individual attention from an older peer (who is very familiar with the picture book – not a typical guest reader). It models the value of 1:1 reading time (child:adult). In their diverse community of learners, a lot of volunteers are white; this is a chance for students to see themselves in successful older roles.
“The value of this project is that it’s a learning experience for both sides.” High school students gained an appreciation for visual literacy, an understanding of windows and mirrors, and increased literary criticism skills. Younger students (who completed simple book reviews with a star rating and a sentence or drawing about their favorite part of the story) got one-on-one attention from enthusiastic older peers who were deeply engaged in the book they had brought to share.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog post on Monday’s sessions.
“Because sometimes the better the story, the greater the restlessness that comes when it ends and the listener has to go on, imagining the story continuing somewhere, but untold and out of sight.” -Kate Milford, The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book
Probably no author envisioned that one day, a book they’d worked for years on would be released…during a pandemic. When libraries and bookstores are open on a limited basis, and certainly not hosting in-person events. However, authors, booksellers, and librarians are all making the best of it, and in some ways, author events and book launches have become more accessible: plenty of readers who couldn’t attend an in-person event in New York or Boston or San Diego in ordinary times can now attend via zoom, crowdcast, or other platforms – and attendance isn’t limited by fire code! Lots of authors are still doing signings and working with independent bookstores to get books to readers. Here are summaries of three author events – one adult, one YA, and one middle grade – I’ve attended in the last few months:
Deb Gorlin and Eula Biss at Hampshire College, December 2020
I’ve been following Eula Biss’s writing since I got a galley of On Immunity: An Inoculation back in 2014 (she said during this interview that she “would love for that book to become obsolete,” but if you know anyone asking themselves “to vaccinate or not to vaccinate?” please buy them a copy). Eula joined writing instructor and Emerita Senior Faculty Associate Deb Gorlin to discuss her writing career and her newest book, Having and Being Had.
They talked about “personal foundational texts,” books you return to over and over again, books that become part of you, that guide you. (I wrote about some of my personal foundational picture books recently, and am mulling over a piece about non-PB foundational texts.)
Eula said, “I do better and more interesting thinking when I believe that I’m in the margins.” She said that if Hampshire teaches any one thing to all its students, it may be how to draw connections between any two (or more) apparently disparate things. (I can say from my own personal experience that this is true, and led more or less directly to my invention – while waiting for the R train – of a game called Guess the Thing. In short: Person 1 thinks of a thing. Person 2 and 3 each guess a thing. Person 1 says which thing is closest to the thing they were thinking of, and why. The person whose thing was chosen gets to pick the next thing. Repeat until train arrives.)
Kristin Cashore and Malinda Lo in conversation with Tui Sutherland at Mysterious Galaxy, January 2021
Hearing from Kristin, Malinda, and Tui was perhaps less academic but more fun. I was thrilled to hear that Kristin was publishing a new Graceling Realm book; I have since read Winterkeep and it is amazing. Fans of the original three books will likely love it, and I think it works as a stand-alone as well: it’s got amazing world-building, complicated characters, and plenty of action. (And, yes, telepathic foxes.) I requested Malinda Lo’s newest book, Last Night at the Telegraph Club, from the library, and while I was waiting for my copy to come in, I read her brilliant essays on the craft of writing on her blog, Lo & Behold. I read Tui’s first Wings of Fire book as well, The Dragonet Prophecy – I’ve been meaning to read it for ages, because that series was incredibly popular at the last library where I worked – as it is in many places – and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Now I see! More excellent world-building, strong characters to root for, and a lot of action (and violence – like, Hunger Games levels of violence). I could have sworn I took notes on this event – I take notes on everything – but I can’t find them anywhere. However, I can recommend these books, as well as any future author events these three do together – it was so fun to be a fly on the wall.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club
Wings of Fire
Books from Other Worlds: A Conversation with KateMilford & Melissa Albert, March 2021
If we’ve met in real life, probably I have talked your ear off about Kate Milford’s Greenglass House books. Her kind of world-building is one of my favorite kinds: our world, but different. And the ways that it’s different are so inventive and compelling to me, from Nagspeake’s shifting iron and the Skidwrack river to the existence of roamers, a culture of smuggling, and an evil catalog company. Plus, the structure of her books is excellent, and nearly always features an ensemble cast of interesting characters, many of whom cross between books – basically, David Mitchell for middle grade, but completely her own. And her newest book, The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book, is actually the book that Milo (main character of Greenglass House) reads – so Kate invented a book-within-a-book, then wrote that book. And like Greenglass House, it’s an Agatha Christie-style strangers-stuck-in-a-house-together setup.
Melissa Albert pulled off a similar trick with Tales of the Hinterland, which she first dreamed up within the context of The Hazel Wood. Tales is a book of dark fairytales that is out of print and hard to access, adding to its mystery and allure. As a reader and a writer, I am in awe: it’s hard enough to invent a creative work that exists for your characters within the world of the book, like Nick Hornby does in Juliet, Naked and David Mitchell does in Utopia Avenue. This piece of art exists for the characters, and grows in the reader’s imagination until it has nearly mythological status. So then, to write that book – and have it meet or exceed expectations – takes immense bravery and talent. Brava!
Toward the end of the picture book panel at the SBCWI winter conference, Sarah Baker said, “We all have special books in our lives that we keep coming back to over and over again.” She asked the panelists (Joanna Cárdenas, Elizabeth Bicknell, and Andrea Welch) to talk about “a classic book for you – what is it about that book that has that magic for you, what makes it exciting and important and lasting?”
They mentioned enduring classics (The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson and Beth Krommes) and more obscure titles (Sara & Hoppity by Roberta Leigh), as well as contemporary books (the upcoming Watercress by Andrea Wang and Jason Chin). Of course, it got me thinking: what childhood books did I bring with me into adulthood and parenthood? What new books have become “important and lasting” to me in the past five years?
Usually when I am putting together a book list, I have a hard time keeping it short, but this time, it wasn’t that hard to narrow it down.
From childhood, the picture books I remember best are Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell, Sunshine by Jan Ormerod, The Cat On the Mat by Brian Wildsmith, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag, and Alligator Cookies by James Young (I have yet to meet someone else who has even heard of that last one, but all the others are pretty well-known).
What makes these books memorable? For some, it’s the ubiquity: just try working as a children’s librarian and not encountering Dear Zoo, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, or Wild Things. As a librarian, I’ve gained a new appreciation for these three. Caterpillar is endlessly appealing: it’s a counting book, a days of the week book, an animal and food book, a book about transformation. Dear Zoo has the lift-the-flap element, animals, and a happy ending. And Where the Wild Things Are – people have probably written entire theses on Wild Things, but what I think of now – thanks to Megan Dowd Lambert – is the air frames around the illustrations on the initial pages, and how the illustrations become full-bleed as the story progresses. The pictures quite literally expand as Max’s imagination takes over the story, before he returns to his “very own room.”
Millions of Cats is perhaps not as universally well-known as those three, but it has that lovely repeated refrain (“hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats”), it has a landscape format perfectly suited to the old man’s journey, and it has unique black and white art. The slightly smaller-than-average trim size makes it feel intimate, as well. Likewise, Sunshine by Jan Ormerod, a wordless picture book, is suffused with warmth; it’s an intimate look at a family’s morning routine, which felt familiar (all families have routines) and different at once.
Cat on the Mat rhymes and has a great moment of drama, resulting in an ending that mirrors the beginning – a lovely symmetry that even very young children can appreciate. Alligator Cookies also rhymes, has a fun hide-and-seek element, and – for my money – is a far better rainy-day book than The Cat in the Hat. Plus, there’s a recipe! I remember making “alligator cookies” as a kid (peanut butter, corn flakes, and green food coloring: “you don’t have to bake them, you just have to eat them!”).
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz is a classic for a reason. There’s the distinctive art, with its detailed cross-hatching and Alexander’s grumpy expression, but even more, there’s the universal experience of having the kind of bad day where so many little things pile up on you that you think about moving to Australia. The final revelation (“Some days are like that. Even in Australia”) underscores the universality of bad days – and the hope that tomorrow will be different.
What picture books have burrowed into my heart since these? Naturally, a few of them are bedtime books: City Moon by Rachael Cole and Blanca Gomez, Sleep Tight Farm by Eugenie Doyle and Becca Stadtlander, Sleep Like A Tiger by Mary Logue and Pamela Zagarenski. Each of these takes a different angle on easing into rest: in City Moon, a mother and young son take a walk through a city, looking for the moon before bedtime. In Sleep Tight Farm, a whole family works together to “put the farm to bed” before winter. In Sleep Like A Tiger, a girl insists she’s not sleepy, and her parents say she doesn’t need to go to sleep, but she does need to put on her pajamas, brush her teeth, and get under the covers. Once there, the girl asks if all animals sleep, and comes up with her own example. (Zagarenski’s magical illustrations are what tip this book into “favorite” status for me; she wrote and illustrated Henry and Leo as well, another close-to-my-heart book.)
Nearly all of the other books have an element of fantasy, starting with Ben Hatke’s Julia’s House for Lost Creatures and Aaron Becker’s Journey trilogy (Journey, Quest, and Return). The art styles are completely different: Hatke also creates graphic novels, and that style carries over to his picture books, which mix comics frames and full-bleed art. Julia as a character is so expressive and independent; she’s welcoming and nurturing, but she has boundaries as well and isn’t afraid to enforce them. Her world is full of the fantastic, but she brings order to it (and tea and toast). Becker’s art…I would like to live inside Becker’s art. As in the best wordless picture books, I notice something new every time I read them, every journey the nameless protagonist takes (first alone, then with a friend, and finally with her father). The girl is lonely, loyal, brave, creative, and quick; she enters easily into a magical world through a door she draws herself (a la Harold and the Purple Crayon).
Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen fits under the fantasy umbrella as well: Annabelle finds a box full of yarn of every color, and no matter how much she knits, there is always extra yarn. “Things began to change in that little town,” but Annabelle’s yarn is stolen by a greedy archduke – who finds the box empty when he opens it. He throws it out the window, and it floats on an ice floe back to Annabelle. Extra Yarn has moral justice, humor, and Annabelle’s creativity and generosity, as well as a poetic, repeated turn of phrase: “But it turned out, [she/it/there] was.”
World Pizza by Cece Meng and Ellen Shi involves a wish come true, in a roundabout way: on a hilltop with her family, a mother makes a wish for world peace, but she sneezes in the middle of her wish, and gets world pizza instead. Pizza rains down all over the world, with all kinds of unique toppings; everyone eats until “their bellies were full and everyone was happy.” In a coda at the end, one of the children says he’s sorry Mama didn’t get her wish. “Next time,” she replies with a smile.
Lift by Minh Lê and Dan Santat nods to portal magic like Journey: older sister Iris takes an old elevator button out of the trash and sticks it on the wall next to her closet door. Ding! The button lights up, and Iris opens the door to a new somewhere else each time: jungle, international space station, snowy mountain summit. At first, Iris wants to escape her little brother, but it’s his cries that bring her back, and ultimately, she realizes that she wants him with her on her next adventure. Lift has a timeless feel, but, published in the summer of 2020, its core message (“After all, everyone can use a lift sometimes”) felt so needed. (There’s also the subtle wordplay of “lift” as both noun and verb, though we usually say “elevator” in the U.S.)
Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian and Mike Curato uses animal characters to illuminate the absurdity of fixed gender roles, and to show that we don’t need to do things a certain way just because “That’s how it’s always been done.” Curato’s absolutely charming Worms (not to mention Cricket, Beetle, the Bees, and Spider) are all the argument anyone needs that love is more important than traditions; love shines in this kind, gentle book, with touches of humor throughout.
Lastly, Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away by Meg Medina and Sonia Sanchez centers around the heartbreaking and very real experience of having a best friend move away. On the very first spread, narrator Daniela tells the reader that her “mejor amiga, my número uno best friend” has invited her over to play, “Just like today is any other day.” From that sentence, the reader knows it’s not like any other day – today is different. The girls play while the last boxes are packed and loaded, even “Evelyn’s mirror with the stickers around the edge” (that detail!). At last, all that’s left is to say goodbye: “Evelyn Del Rey is moving away. So she won’t be right here anymore.” (Just try to read this book without tearing up. I cannot do it.) However, the story ends on a note of hope: the final page shows a grown-up Daniela, reading a letter from Evelyn, because these “número uno amigas” stayed in touch.
There are, of course, many more picture books that I love, that make me laugh, that teach a lesson gently, that amaze me with their art and creativity, that I love to share aloud with kids, but these ones are especially special. As Liz Bicknell of Candlewick said about her own list, this group might seem eclectic, but I’ve tried to pinpoint exactly what it is I love about each one. What are your favorite picture books?
Because I am not in possession of a Time Turner like Hermione, I couldn’t attend all of the sessions of SCBWI during the weekend, but fortunately – yet another silver lining of virtual conferences! – the recordings of all of the sessions are available to attendees for the next month. Here are my notes on the three keynotes and panels that I didn’t cover last weekend (and here are my notes on the sessions I attended last weekend).
Genre Breakout Sessions: Two Editors Discuss What’s Hot, What’s Not, What They’re Acquiring and the Rules of the Road . Picture Books: Elizabeth (Liz) Bicknell (editorial director at Candlewick), Joanna Cárdenas (senior editor at Kokila, imprint of Penguin Young Readers) and Andrea Welch (executive editor at Beach Lane Books, S&S)
Liz Bicknell is drawn to stories about (in)justice, nature, and stories that show human foibles in a humorous way. “In all of these subject areas, I hope that the storytelling and the art will be compelling and arresting so that the underlying messages will be absorbed…I hope that readers will grow up to love the world and to embrace all those who inhabit it.”
Fun fact: Liz said that she was the only editor who didn’t want to change the ending of Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, which she acquired for Candlewick. Can you imagine it with a different ending?! And that is why you need the right editor for the right book.
Joanna Cárdenas said that Kokila’s mission is “centering stories from the margins” to “more accurately reflect the world that we live in and we add depth to the way that readers see the world and their place in it.” They publish “Books that make an impact…Books for children and teens across genres and formats… [Books that] entertain and inspire. [Books that] push against harmful, entrenched narratives.”
Andrea Welch is looking for books that “help children of all backgrounds see the world in new and exciting ways.” She said, “When I’m reading new projects, I always pay attention to my gut reaction primarily.” She asks, Am I intrigued by a story or a concept or a topic? Does the manuscript feel different or unusual in some way? Does the writing/voice capture me? Do I find myself wanting to read the story aloud? Do I feel excited to sit down and share the work with a child? Are artist/illustration possibilities popping into my head? Then, does market/audience exist for this book? Can I get the rest of my team excited about it?
Andrea said that in her role as an editor, “Those conversations [with author/illustrators] move a project forward. I have a vision for each book, but ultimately my job as an editor is to help author/illustrator tell the story they set out to tell in the most impactful way.”
Joanna said, “Great picture books are entire worlds captured in 32 or 40 pages…really good picture books help a young reader orient themselves in space…and in time.”
Joanna also said that rather than try to identify or follow trends (it takes so long to make a picture book that trends aren’t as much of a thing in that format), “What is helpful is for creators to read current picture books. Read every year things that are coming out… Be aware of what’s coming out, who are your contemporaries… Understand how your work might fit somewhere in there. Read, read, read, read, read.”
For illustrators, Joanna is looking for someone who can tell a whole story in one picture. “Something that makes me ask questions not because I’m confused but because I’m intrigued.”
For authors, Andrea is looking for that feeling of “the author has taken my hand and led me into the story, the story is executed in such a way that I’m on board and in from the beginning.” It can be a strong voice, an unusual topic – that feeling of being swept up by a manuscript. What doesn’t work is “when I feel like I’m just dropped into action right away,” there’s dialogue between characters I don’t know yet. “I like to be led and not just thrown in.”
Joanna’s advice: “Creating stories for young readers is a huge responsibility. Picture books are an introduction to the world, to interpersonal relationships, and how things work.”
Liz’s advice for writers: “Take some picture books that you really admire and reverse-engineer them – type up the text of that picture book.” You’ll get a sense of length, pacing, page turns, and what illustration brings to the story that isn’t in the text.
Keynote Address: Looking Back to Move Forward, Tami Charles
“Life is like an arrow: sometimes you get pulled back only to get launched into something beautiful.” (Quote unattributed)
Growing up, “I never really saw myself, my friends, or my community” reflected in literature. Now, we have Jacqueline Woodson, Carole Boston Weatherford, Meg Medina, and many more – “I would have loved to have had their books as a child….REPRESENTATION IS EVERYTHING….I wanted to add my voice.”
Over the years, “My writing grew stronger, and my rejections grew nicer.”
“The word ‘no’ has empowered me, broken me, and put me back together again. The word ‘no’ holds power, but on the flip side, the word ‘yes’ holds beauty. And somewhere in the middle of that, there exists hope. And it’s that hope that keeps us going…”
“Collectively, this work that we do is bigger than us.”
“Celebrate the yeses, learn from the nos. Allow them both to launch you…”
Re: writer’s block after rejection: “There’s a beauty in pausing. If you’re not writing, there’s a reason for that. And the reason is probably that you need to be reading, you need to be studying.” Especially read the genre that you want to write in. “I write as widely as I read. And I read a lot.”
“Don’t give up on the stories that you shelve.” May be wrong format or wrong time.
“In this journey…success is going to look different….Your path is your own. Don’t look at what someone else is doing to compare how you’re doing in your own journey.”
Mock Acquisition Meeting: Wendy Loggia and Delacorte Publishing Team
Delacorte is an imprint of Random House Children’s, with a focus on MG and YA fiction (“where commercial + literary intersect”). There are nine members on the Delacorte editorial team; four of them, including Wendy Loggia, were on the panel (Hannah Hill, associate editor; Ali Romig, editorial assistant; and Lydia Gregovic, editorial assistant), along with Kelly McGauleyfrom marketing, Adrienne Weintraub from school and library marketing, Jillian Vandall from publicity, and Kim Wrubel from subsidiary (sub) rights. Delacorte is invested in their authors in the long term; “we’re acquiring authors, not books.” Looking for books that reflect our (editors’) personal taste and that have hungry readers in the marketplace. Wendy said, “Every acquisition is unique” – editors discuss, and loop in other departments as necessary. In this mock meeting, they discussed five titles, and revealed whether they acquired them or not, and why. It was a fascinating fly-on-the-wall experience, hearing about appeal factors and other considerations, like summer reading, audiobook rights, school library and classroom potential, and the Scholastic book fair.
Reasons to say YES to a manuscript: authentic emotions, relatable, discussion-worthy themes, strong commercial voice, good hook(s), fresh, emotionally resonant, standout quality/breakout potential.
Reasons to say YES to an author: positive, clear communicator, engaged in their community, familiar with genre tropes, flexible and open to change, social media presence.
Reasons to say NO to an author/manuscript: not strong or unique enough, a glut of that type of book in the marketplace, point of sale (POS) numbers on previous similar titles not encouraging; if the author had an opportunity to revise and the revision isn’t as strong as the editors had hoped. (It’s hard to break someone out if they’re writing the same kind of book for a different publisher; “Maybe consider writing something completely different and give yourself a fresh start.”) If an editor decides not to make an offer, in most cases, “We give feedback to the agent/author, information about what worked for us and what didn’t.”
Did you attend SCBWI Winter Conference? What were your most important takeaways?
The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is usually held in New York, but this year, of course, it’s virtual. Ordinarily, there are about 1,000 attendees, but the online format hosted 4,000 attendees – many of whom were illustrators who contributed to the Virtual Portfolio Showcase, which is full of incredible art! (Not sure how long that link will be live.)
This is my first time attending (#SCBWIBIRD, per Jolie Stekly) and in many ways it’s similar to the many library conferences I’ve attended (except: there were ASL interpreters and closed captioning in every session!). The Golden Kite awards were Friday night, and the weekend was packed with sessions from 11:30am through the evening (EST). In a few time slots there were multiple choices for sessions, but all of them were recorded and will be available to conference attendees through March; I plan to catch up on those I missed over the next week, but in the meantime, here are some quotes and takeaways. (Note: I use quotation marks when I’m pretty certain I’ve got the exact quote. If there are no quotation marks, it’s close to the actual words used, but not exact.)
Friday, February 19
Orientation for first-time conference attendees: Jolie Stekly
“This is an industry full of turtles.” Slow & steady.
“If you’re able to be yourself, you have no competition. All you have to do is get closer and closer to the essence.” (Quote unattributed)
Keynote Conversation: Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson, The Picture Book as a Perfect Marriage Between Author and Illustrator
Matt read their new picture book, Milo Imagines the World. “Maybe you can’t really know anyone just by looking at their face.”
“I try to enter every picture book through [children’s] point of view…. What is it like if you don’t have all the information and the only thing you can really read is the adults?” (Matt)
“I don’t think good writers go into a story with a message…but I do think good writers go into a story with a point of view.” (Matt)
“I’m curious, how many wizards do you have at your school?”(Matt, pushing white teachers/librarians to make sure all book collections are diverse)
“Drawing and making pictures was my way of making space for myself.” (Christian)
“Talent can get you a job but character can help you keep it.” (Christian)
“Play well with others…. You have to make compromises and you have to trust that everyone has the same goal in mind – to make the best book possible and get it to the most readers possible.” (Christian)
“Authors of picture books have two jobs: you have to get the story right and you have to get the music right.” (Matt)
“A true collaboration is putting your collaborator in the best position to succeed.” (Matt)
State of the Industry Keynote: The Hard Questions and the Truthful Answers: Jean Feiwel with Lin Oliver
Jean Feiwel on adapting to the culture of each company she worked for: What do they want from me, and what can I accomplish for them?
On combining fiction and science in the Magic School Bus series: My answer to people who say “you can’t do that” is “of course it wasn’t the way it was done, but I did it anyway.”
Children are humans with information needs. “Rather than keep content away from kids, I think it’s important to expose them to many different types of books.” Adults should be “not gatekeepers, but ambassadors.”
“The market is crying out for diversity and expansion… The real growth and opportunity is in doing NOT what you did last year…but to change the landscape.” If publishers have a limited perspective, they’ll have a limited list.
Children today don’t have the prejudice against pictures anymore. Artists are incredibly varied and sophisticated. Illustrations add to the story. “Those boundaries don’t truly exist.”
Creators (authors, illustrators) should “be in the world,” be on social media, be well-read.
Behind the Scenes at a New York Publishing House: An Insider’s Tour of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers with Laurent Linn, Katrina Groover, Chava Wolin, and Paula Wiseman
Art Director Laurent Linn’s “circle of life of a book” graphic (right)
Publisher and Editor Paula Wiseman offered an analogy: “the editors are the beads and the publisher is the chain”
“Backlist is frontlist to those who haven’t read it.” Paula Wiseman pointed out that children’s literature gains new readers every few years.
Laurent Linn described Katrina Groover, Managing Editorial Director, as both an air traffic controller and orchestra conductor. In her words: “What I am responsible for is meeting deadlines.”
Genre Breakout Sessions: Two Editors Discuss What’s Hot, What’s Not, What They’re Acquiring and the Rules of the Road
I watched the middle grade session with Tricia Lin (Random House) and Krista Vitola (S&S), but plan to watch the picture book session with Elizabeth Bicknell, Joanna Cardenas, and Andrea Welch ASAP!
“Editorial opinions vary. If we don’t fall in love with a voice, it doesn’t mean another editor won’t fall in love with that voice.” (Krista)
You’re always going to write more than what ends up in the finished publication. “You still [need] to write those pages, because they’re gonna help you later in the story.” (Krista)
Series is the bread-and-butter of middle grade. Character driven, concept driven. (Krista)
“A second pair of eyes is always super important. Someone not as close to your project as you are can really bring fresh eyes, things you would never be able to catch on your own. We get second readers all the time on our end…. Open yourself up to that feedback. Receive it with an open mind.” (Tricia)
There’s this idea of success in publishing…it’s important to keep in mind is that everything is subjective – what you choose to write, what I choose to acquire, what the customer is going to buy…every step of the way, it’s so subjective. You’re here, and you’re writing. With every idea you brainstorm and every word you write. … We’re trying to reach people, we’re trying to do good. (Tricia)
Keynote Address: Looking Back to Move Forward, Tami Charles (I was zoomed out and needed a break, I will watch this one ASAP as well. The tweets from her talk were ecstatic!)
Zoom Peer Critique: Picture Book: Despite a few technical difficulties – handled with grace and perseverance by April Powers and Julian Petri – a huge number of us eventually got into breakout groups for a useful critique, employing the “sandwich style” (praise, constructive criticism, praise).
Sunday, February 21
Keynote Conversation: Jerry Craft and Victoria Jamieson, moderated by April Powers
“All children need to see all children in their books.” (April)
“It’s hard to know which feedback to take and which feedback not to take.” (Victoria)
“If I don’t have to put words in a panel, I don’t.” (Jerry)
I like to have the pictures say one thing and the words say another…. That’s one of the beauties of graphic novels…that makes it a really sophisticated art form. Kids have to read something visually and in words and put them together. (Victoria)
Story arc for picture books: introduce character quickly, then they start having problems; a little denouement at the end.
Timeline for making a graphic novel? (1) brainstorming/developing, (2) sketches/writing, (3) final art (Victoria)
Every author/illustrator collaborator is different. At one point Victoria wished aloud to “phone a friend” (Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham), so I found a couple of interviews with them: School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly
Mock Acquisition Meeting with Wendy Loggia and Delacorte Publishing Team (planning to watch recording)
Mock Book Cover/Book Design Production Meeting with Yaffa Jaskoll and Scholastic Publishing Team (Stephanie Yang, Baily Crawford, Maeve Norton)
“There are a lot of opinions to consider and it takes time to make everyone happy.” (Yaffa)
On designing a series (e.g. Baby Sitters Club): Each book has to look individual and also look like part of the series (Yaffa)
Key takeaways (for illustrators): Keep your social media updated. Reply to email quickly (within 24 hours). Do your research, stay current, keep your work fresh. The conceptual solution is as important as execution; try a few different designs. Find where your style fits naturally and build on that. Be flexible: it can take a bunch of tries to get the art just right. Show variety in your artwork. “You never know what we’re going to gravitate to.”
Real Talk with Four Agents: A Deep Dive Into the Children’s Publishing Business: Kirby Kim (Janklow & Nesbit), Kevin Lewis (EMLA), Erica Rand Silverman (Stimola), Saba Sulaiman (Talcott Notch)
“I’ve always felt like I could be a good advocate for others.” (Kirby)
“It’s never too early to get engaged in the industry…. You don’t have to wait to have a book published.” (Erica)
“Children are really, really receptive to difference… Characters who don’t look like them, think like them. They embrace silliness, absurdity, the unexpected.” (Saba)
“You should be encouraged if you’re unpublished, that’s not a bad thing.” (Erica)
Or “pre-published,” per Lin Oliver.
“You have to care about something, and you have to engage in that thing you care about…. Find that thing that you can do, and do it!” (Kevin)
“Go by your compass, not your clock.” (Kirby, quoting Alvina Ling)
Keynote Address: Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera: Writing for the Contemporary YA Audience, introduced/moderated by Kim Turrisi
Something that surprised me as an author…You end up hearing from readers all around the world and you find out that there are people who have something in common with you that you thought you were totally alone in feeling. It’s the most bizarre, surreal, and wonderful experience to have. (Becky)
“It’s really hard to keep in mind that our specific experiences can be night and day from other people… There are a lot of people who need a lot of different kinds of stories.” (Becky)
To some people it might feel like only marginalized stories are getting attention right now, and it’s like no, we’re gathering steam for sure, but there’s still so much catching up to do…. Not reading widely is doing a disservice to your worldview and your reading experience. (Adam)
Writing tips from Adam: I create a list of 10 random things/details about a character to get to know them. Helps get closer to the heart of the character. “All these choices lead to that authenticity.” There’s world-building in a contemporary space as much as there is in a fantasy space.
How to create high stakes if the main character is not facing a huge, life-changing problem? “The stakes are how badly your characters want the outcome that they want.” (Becky)
Re: social media: Authenticity is so important to me but also really scary…Privacy gets really complicated. It’s part of the job to figure out those boundaries. (Becky)
I was not prepared. I wasn’t prepared for being talked about in a public way. There’s a big difference between being a writer and being an author. (Adam)
My Life in Children’s Books: A Rare Appearance by the Legendary Patricia MacLachlan, in Conversation with Lin Oliver
“I like books that allow me to enter them, and if there are too many words, I don’t know where I’m going.”
A book should speak to all readers: “Something for the adult to hold, and something for the child to grab onto.”
Landscape: “It matters where a book takes place, and what’s going on and where it is.” Recognize your landscape: where did you come from, where have you been, where are you going, what is your great sadness and great joy?
Children know everything. They’re also very direct. “They believe everything and they want to know everything.”
Quoting her father: “The title taps you on the shoulder and the first line takes you by the hand.”
“Children matter.” They see everything, they know everything, they don’t always understand it. It’s nice to be able to reach out and touch them, even if it’s to ask them a question, or show them someone else going through what they’re going through. We owe them…quality of attention.
And that’s a wrap! It was a great first SCBWI conference experience, even if it wasn’t in person. (On the plus side: I didn’t have to travel; I got to do yoga stretches, hang out with my kid, and eat snacks between sessions; and I could be in sweatpants the whole time. On the minus side, I actually like meeting people in person.) Overall: pandemic sucks, technology is a good workaround – and made the conference more accessible – children’s books are here to stay, everyone involved in the creation of children’s books is pretty cool.