Hands down, the best literature conference anywhere

This past weekend, I attended the Children’s Literature Summer Institute 2013 at Simmons College, my graduate school alma mater. Among academic conferences, it is one of the best, managing to be smart and profound but not stuffy. As Lois Lowry, the keynote speaker, conveyed in her talk: We are all in this world of children’s literature together.

About 150 people – teachers, writers, illustrators, grad students, librarians, editors, scholars, and fans – attended. Strangers were instantly affectionate. The featured authors and illustrators were approachable. I made a conference friend, a school librarian who is also a Simmons alum, and I really enjoyed having one person with whom I could continuously share impressions and enthusiasm. I also loved being at Simmons again and remembering my professors, my friends, and my years of learning.

I gathered much good insight and advice from the many author and illustrator talks, which were all prepared and differently framed around the Institute’s theme for this year: Love Letters. I took notes. I hope it will all stay with me, motivating me to return to some projects I have set aside in doubt and helping me stick with them.

From my notebook: a list of the speakers, in order of their appearance, and ideas and inspiration I wrote down as they spoke. There are 13 of them, a baker’s dozen. Keep reading after the jump.

Shane plays; Jack records.

Shane plays; Jack records.

1. Shane Evans, illustrator and writer: website

He gives himself an assignment to journal on the same topic for 41 days. The topic might be truth or love or some other big idea. He does this “because I’m lazy.” Once, for 41 days, he asked a different person every day the same question and photographed him/her and then put it all on his website.

Interesting metaphor: mountain top vs. valley. “Nothing grows on top of a mountain; it can’t breathe. We have to go down to the valley; it’s where nurturing happens… We talk about highs and lows – what’s wrong with the lows?!”

He showed a slide of works from 10 visual artists who are his inspirations. I wonder: who would be my 10 inspirations? What would it be like to take a work from each of them and hang it over my desk?

Shane is also a musician – went to college with Taye Diggs – and got us to sing along with him… TWICE.

2. Deborah Freedman, illustrator and writer: website

She is a former architect. Looks at books (physical ones) as “a spatial problem.” She said, “a picture book creates a space.” She believes an iPad won’t do that, or can’t do that yet. (I wondered, “Why not?”) She likes things she can touch; she likes things that exist in space: “I like the book.”

Talked about balancing “intuition and rationality.” She does that in her sketchbook; she starts a new one for each project. Once she has an idea, the first thing she does is to “go to the library and look at every book about that idea.”

In picture-book making, pacing is very important. She works this out in a storyboard, and she’s constantly “pacing and re-pacing.” (I noticed that pacing is a quality of stories and books that several of the writers or illustrators mentioned in their talks.)

Tight limitations are a gift, she said, using those words exactly. I liked her.

3. Jeanne Birdsall, writer: website

Very impromptu speaker. Told lots of anecdotes from her childhood, especially about romantic crushes, and read from her childhood diaries — which she has held on to for over 40 years (she’s 61)! — and read aloud from her books to illustrate how real life is translated into fiction.

The main point she wanted to make is that there is no sexual explicitness in her books, for middle grade readers. She knows kids this age have feelings, but she wants to get at them obliquely. She talked about wanting to preserve the child’s privacy. During the Q&A, someone asked her to say more about this, and Birdsall said it was hard for her to articulate. I thought about it more myself. By not writing about sex explicitly, the author does not impose adult fact on the children’s imagination. The author does not intrude.

4. Jo Knowles, writer and Simmons College alum: website

Her first published novel, Lessons from a Dead Girl, came about when she had a tech writing job, a pamphlet on child abuse, and she found a stack of articles on kids abusing kids, and she went home and started writing. It was 10 years, start to publication. She looked up from her notes at this point and made an aside to the audience, as if to say, “You can do it.”

Her talk was framed as a love letter to Simmons. Personal, narrative, reflective — maybe a talk she needed to give.

5. David Hyde Costello, illustrator and artist: website

A lot of his work is generated by his relationship with his nephews. He has always wanted to be the best uncle, the cool uncle, and so he has come up with pranks and projects to wow them. These have often been later incorporated into this work in children’s literature.

He said, “I am motivated by my nephews, and inspired by my own ideas.”

Costello was one of the funniest, in an unguarded way. He brought along with him a lot of toys and devices he had constructed to entertain his nephews that were as carefully made as a bicycle or clock. You can see some on his website. I have a very strong mental picture of him, his voice, and his work from his talk and demonstration of his gadgetry.

6. M. T. Anderson, writer: website

His talk: “A Kiss Is Just a Kiss: Romance and Historical Alterity.” On the ineradicable different between ourselves and others in another culture and time. Started out very academic/analytical and became personal, but relevantly so, in the conclusion.

He said that as a teen he was at once desiring and undesirable (too tall, too skinny, peers often cautioned him against being blown over by a strong wind). In the coolest, calmest voice, he asserted that, as an adult and writer, “You realize that what is broken inside you is broken forever.” His books are often about a character who is less than what he thinks he is.

“All of the different ways people can feel desire and not feel desire – we should write about that for teens.”

Note: I am currently reading Anderson’s novel, Feed. Oh, the range of that imagination!

7. Maira Kalman, illustrator: website

Kalman was joined on stage by editor Susan Rich, another Simmons alumna. Rich is the editor handling the collaborative works by Kalman and Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), who couldn’t attend the Institute because of a death in the family. Both women very funny.

Kalman was a writer before she was an illustrator. She and Sandler started as correspondents. Every week, she would send him an image she had found; he would write a short fiction to go with it and email it back.

Kalman claims she has “no imagination, or not much… Everything in my books, I see.”

In a successful collaboration, you have to have the trust to leave the person alone to do their part.

About the deadline, Kalman says, “It’s a beautiful thing. I would produce nothing without deadlines. If I were an artist, I would be dead in a week.” Best one-liner of all the talks.

8. Wong Herbert Yee, illustrator and author: website

He creates early readers (books and, I suppose, actual readers too!). As a child, he learned to read with Dick and Jane, as did I.

The important elements of a story – context, character, and conflict – these can be established in an early reader, he said.

1800 words in one of his books, but really only 450 unique words, after you account for the repetition. This is a key feature of early readers.

About making a living: “Every time I finish a book I’m unemployed.” Now he’s in the swing of it – has different projects in different stages at all times. He has no multibook contract – “I’m book to book.”

9. Jason Chin, illustrator and author: website
10. Deborah Heiligman, author: website

The two were on a panel about nonfiction for children, moderated by Kirkus reviewer Vicky Smith. I’m interested in this area of children’s literature, so I took a lot of notes. Instead of transcribing them all here, I will simply share what they each shared about their approach.

Jason’s books – e.g. one on Redwoods, another on Coral Reefs – are often about places. To develop a rich understanding of the place (the outcome), he synthesizes facts, system, and feeling. He articulated it in a slide:

facts about the place
how the place works
how the place feels
rich understanding of the place

“This is not analytical,” he said. “It’s hard to describe.” (Actually, I think he described it well.) Later, asked how he picks his subjects, he said that it has to do with his own eagerness to find out about a topic: “If I could love learning about this subject, I can get a kid to love reading about it.”

Deborah is inspired by a quotation from Isaac Bashevis Singer. How do you know you have a story worth writing? Singer suggested three criteria:

  1. Does it have a beginning, middle, and end?
  2. Do I have a passion for this story?
  3. Am I the only person who can writer this story?

Deborah said that, more and more, she believes that the third item is the most important… the most motivating.

11. Melanie Kimball, professor, Simmons College GSLIS program: web page

In a break-out session on historical fiction that was part academic and part informal discussion, Melanie described the novels she grew up loving, which we of their time although not necessarily historical fiction. These included the Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames series, The Turned About Girls (1930), Mystery at High Hedges, and other titles.

Considering developments in historical fiction over her life as a reader, she identified some gems:

She mentioned some titles she disliked for their anachronisms, that “pull me out of the story as a reader,” even ones claiming to be historical fictions, like Avi’s True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (2003).

In recent decades, one trend has been for historical novels featuring strong female protagonists, part of the movement to reclaim women’s history. She seemed tolerant of the American Girl series and Scholastic’s Dear America and My Name Is America series. She’s not a big fan of The Royal Diaries, another Scholastic series. “Not substantial,” she said.

A few contemporary books, which are historical fiction, that she recommends?

12. Lois Lowry, author: website

Lois Lowry gave the keynote talk. In what she framed as a series of letters, she addressed remarks to people from her past, starting with her grandmother, whom she never knew, and showing photographs of them from her archives. She has a leisurely yet compelling reading voice, and we were in part mesmerized by the voice and in part by the narrative constructed by the many letters. The purpose was to illustrate how her personal history became material or motivation for her many stories and novels. For example, Lowry’s first novel, A Summer to Die, is not autobiographical exactly, and yet it draws a great deal from childhood relationship with her sister Helen and her feelings about her sister’s early death. Autumn Street is based on the time her family lived with her grandfather in Pennsylvania. There were other examples.

About being a children’s book writer, she said that she “likes being able to revise my own childhood.”

13. Jack Gantos, author: website

I could write an entire post about this speaker. If you ever have a chance to be in his audience, take it. He speaks at a lot of schools and libraries, so be on the lookout. Better yet, if you are a teacher or librarian or PTO parent, invite him to your school or library, selfishly.

He’s smart. He’s funny. Energy seems to crackle around him – people want to talk to him — and yet I’ll bet that he’s a loner who prefers his own company.

He addressed us as though we were all fellow writers.

“When you sit down to write books, you don’t sit down and ask, ‘What do they want to read?’ I sit down and I ask, ‘What do I want to write?” And he threw his hands up as exclamation point.

“The writer is enslaved to the text in order to free the characters.”

“Multiple selves… build a stage inside one’s self… room for everyone to play.” A theme of his talk was the inner dialog, for play, discovery, doubt, and truth-seeking.

A favorite book as a child was Harriet the Spy (1964). He said that spying as an activity is akin to [or necessary to] “constructing the self.”

As a kid, he drew spy maps of his neighborhood, with lots of details about neighbors, houses, landmarks, happenings. “The story starts at the puncture point.”

At the end of his Q&A, he said, “What do I love about writing? Every time I write a book, I change.”

Jack the Spy

Jack the Spy

11 thoughts on “Hands down, the best literature conference anywhere

    • Simmons is a great place, and the Children’s Lit Program is very highly ranked. I can attest to the intelligence and care the professors bring to the work and their students.

      • Alison, actually I did the MA in English — always was my intention — but when I got in the program, I found out about Children’s Lit, and I took some courses in it. Great department. Thought about transferring into it, but wanted to teach academic writing, so the MA in English was a better route for that. One thing I love about Simmons is that, although rigorous, it’s also… nurturing, for lack of a better word. There are no rock star egos, in the students or the profs.

      • Thanks so much for your insight. I’m still trying to figure out what route I want to go regarding what kind of degree to get, but you’ve made me really excited about Simmons!

  1. Words cannot express how envious I am of your experience, Jane! So many amazing writers there. You do a great job here of summarizing not only their talks, but their personalities and philosophies of writing. Thanks for introducing me to several new faces and titles–I’ve got more to add to my never-ending “to read” pile.

    • The next one is in July 2015 (they have it every two years), and it’s a biggie, because the Children’s Lit Program at Simmons is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Maybe you’ll come!

  2. Pingback: Alone time, and its treats | leaf – stitch – word

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