The School Library Journal (SLJ) Day of Dialog at the Cambridge Public Library was a day-long event that brought librarians, authors, and publishers together. The day included:
- Three keynote speakers: Erin Entrada Kelly (Hello Universe), Deborah Heiligman (Torpedoed), and Nikki Grimes (Ordinary Hazards)
- Three panels: picture book, nonfiction, and tween/teen
- Two “book buzz” presentations, where representatives from different publishers gave lightning talks highlighting their upcoming books
There was an hour break for lunch, and a few minutes between the keynotes, panels, and book buzzes to speak with folks from the publishing houses, meet authors, and get books signed. It really felt like we were all book-lovers, all on the same side: the side of making great books and getting them into the hands of readers.
Highlights from Erin Entrada Kelly’s keynote, which focused on honesty in middle grade literature:
- The most important thing is to write honestly; it’s important for young readers to experience practical truths
- In Blackbird Fly, bullies don’t get comeuppance. “A lot of times that does not happen…That’s how the real world works.” It’s important for young people to see the world mirrored back at them.
- Young people are already their own complex beings with their own beliefs
- “My hope is that young readers, when they finish reading my book” or any book, is that they can be their own hero, see their own worth and value…they don’t have to conform to our society.
- “Walking around like an open wound” -being sensitive, empathetic, compassionate, etc. – is not a liability, as long as you’re the best version of yourself. “Characters don’t change the core of who they are, they accept the core of who they are.”
- “Even though the world isn’t perfect, we can make it better….Change happens when ordinary people do extraordinary things”
- “Someone once told me, Everyone has a year in their childhood where things change, and there was a before and an after…for me that year was twelve.”
The picture book panel was Julia Denos, E.B. Goodale, Kyle Lukoff, Vita Murro, and Cornelius Van Wright. I was already a fan of Julia Denos and E.B. Goodale’s picture book Windows, and was delighted to pick up their new collaboration, Here and Now, which is a wonderful book for bedtime or any time you need to wind down. Kyle Lukoff (When Aidan Became A Brother) and Vita Murrow (Power to the Princess) were engaging speakers, and Cornelius Van Wright’s (The Little Red Crane) response to the question “How would your book have been different a decade ago?” made me laugh out loud: “A truck book would have been the same.” The moderator’s last question was what the authors’ favorite books were when they were kids, and if those influenced the kinds of books they create now.
In the first book buzz, I wrote down several titles from Candlewick and Charlesbridge to look up when they come out, including This Boy by Lauren Myracle and Not A Bean by Claudia Guadalupe Martinez. I also chatted with the editorial director of Owl Kids about Sloth at the Zoom, which was on the cover of one of their catalogs. (If you haven’t read Sloth at the Zoom, you should go do that right now. It’s about a sloth that gets sent to the Zoom instead of the Zzzzzoo.)
After lunch, Deborah Heiligman gave the afternoon keynote, about the process of writing her new book, Torpedoed. (See her interview in the Horn Book: Deborah Heiligman Talks With Roger.) She talked about “Deb’s Rules for Researching”: start with primary sources, don’t write everything down, only take “oh wow” notes. She also talked about writing for middle grade: what does that mean? What do they know, what don’t they know?
The nonfiction panel was Kim Chafee (Her Fearless Run), Marge Pellegrino (Neon Words), Melissa Stewart (Seashells, Feathers), and Carole Boston Weatherford (Box). The moderator, Maggie Bush, observed that children’s nonfiction used to be more “utilitarian,” whereas now it’s often more heavily illustrated, and there are more narrative nonfiction books than the type of dry fare students might use for book reports. One of the authors – I think Melissa Stewart – explained that her picture book nonfiction has “Multiple layers of text” to “make the book accessible to different age groups.” There’s the main text, secondary text, etc. I’ve definitely noticed this in picture book nonfiction (e.g. Gail Gibbons, Nick Seluk), and it’s great.
The teens & tweens panel was Craig Battle (Camp Average), Ryan LaSala (Reverie), Maulik Pancholy (The Best At It), Christina Soontornvat (A Wish in the Dark), and Karen Rayne (Trans+). Moderator Ashleigh Williams observed a “a common theme between these different books…how compassion shows up in difficult places.” All of the authors spoke about representation and diversity. A few key quotes:
- Christina Soontornvat: “In your middle grade years, you are really ready to confront…Maybe it’s not working the way it should….maybe the way society is set up is not fair”
- Maulik Pancholy: “Kids live complex lives…you can’t lie to them.”
- Ryan LaSala: Internal fantasy worlds are sometimes a response to unkind realities… “just because you’ve gone through shit doesn’t mean you are absolved from having compassion for others”
- Christina Soontornvat: “One small act of kindness or one small act of cruelty has these reverberating impacts”
- Karen Rayne: “You are the expert on your self.”
- Christina Soontornvat: Kids are eager to push back, ask questions, be activists, be aware of the world they’re living in, they want to be more inclusive.
I got fidgety during the second book buzz and went to visit the publishers’ tables. The last speaker of the day was Nikki Grimes. Highlights:
- A tenth grade teacher told her “Good enough, isn’t” and taught her to strive for excellence.
- “The words you traffic in have the power to save lives….reading and writing were my survival tools”
- “The right story at the right time for the right reader is magical.” What is the right story? One to which the reader can relate in some special way.
- Representation matters, and not just for children
- Library card: “a magic pass I used to climb into someone else’s skin any time I needed”
- “Stories unite us, stories transform us, stories anchor us”
Thank you to SLJ and the Cambridge Public Library for a fantastic day! I’m already looking forward to next year.