As a teacher and then as a librarian, I have been to countless workshops and conferences over the years. Some were better than others, some I was sent to very much against my wishes and others I went to willingly. KidLitCon is one I have wanted to attend ever since I first heard of its existence. This year the stars (and more important, city budget line item) aligned, and I got to spend a few days in Providence, Rhode Island with some amazing people!
KidLitCon has morphed a bit over the years, and is now a mash-up of authors, illustrators, bloggers, publicists, teachers and librarians. In short, people who care about children's literature. Although there wasn't an official theme for all the seminars/workshops, the focus was definitely on diversity in children's literature.
I'll bore you with my whole trip from start to finish, because there are some book characters along the way if anyone would like to lift them for a future story! I am definitely NOT an author, so if you can use them, they are all yours.
After doing morning story time and then wrapping up a few loose ends at home, Mike and I drove down to El Paso, TX. Yes, our closest airport is in the next state. My flight left way early the next morning, so after a fancy dinner at Subway, Mike dropped me off at the Microtel next to the airport. We have both been to the airport enough times to get there with our eyes shut...except they are doing some sort of construction, and all the entrances are blocked off! We ended up going into the airport in order to get out of the airport to get to the hotel - finally spotting the shuttle bus and following it!
It was just a bed for the (very short) night, but nice. Smelled like conditioner. Sheridan was fascinated when she heard it had a window seat, so I had to take a picture for her:
I didn't sleep much because I was paranoid about missing my flight. The very loud family who left around 3:30AM helped with that, though, so I was up and at the shuttle by 4:30 on...
Check-in was quick. Security was a little more backed-up than usual, but moved quickly. Thankfully. Because behind me in line we had book stereotypes #1: three very loud twenty-something guys who were not anywhere near as amusing or interesting as they found themselves to be. If their obnoxious banter didn't alert you to the fact that they were already wasted at 5AM, the smell would have tipped you off. For some reason their target of choice (for friendly-but-not-really-hey-I-was-just-joking comments) seemed to be more sober, smaller, and more intelligent guys around their own age. You could see the TSA workers eyeing them and trying to figure out how quickly or slowly to move their own lines so they didn't end up with one of them. I do not know whether they made their flight or not, but thankfully it was not the same one as mine.
When I got to my gate, I immediately knew I was dressed wrong. 872 people in camo uniforms, one guy in a grey t-shirt and jeans, and me. That made boarding groups fun. "We would like to board all first class flyers and active duty military first. Okay, now you two." Actually, more civilians did show up before boarding, including a little cutie about one year old, with a top knot and Minnie Mouse gear. We had a very one-sided chat while waiting to board. She ended up seated in the sea of soldiers, and seemed to be a very good little flyer! Other than a slightly cranky stewardess, that flight went off without a hitch (admittedly I dozed through most of it).
I had a three hour layover in Chicago, and I was ready for some lunch. There are several food choices, some healthy and some not so much. I chose pizza.
Not a choice I recommend. I saw it taken fresh out of the oven, but it sure didn't taste that way!
I finished reading Tui Sutherland's latest book, Hive Mind, while waiting for my flight. I was pondering while reading it what I would answer if someone asked me which my favorite dragon was. It was a tough choice, because they are all (surprisingly considering the quantity) different, and I kind of liked each one best during their own story but then there were the side characters and maybe...then I got to the last few pages:
Bumblebee. Bumblebee is my favorite. The end.
The second plane was smaller, and oh my goodness - how do tall people fit on these? How do average-height people fit on these?? I had to keep putting my feet out into the aisle, and I'm not either of those!!
I met book characters #2, though (not a stereotype this time). In line for boarding, I noticed a Hispanic couple with a young boy about 8 or 9 and a smaller, sleepy boy being carried by his mother. I joked about kids having fewer bones when they are tired, and she told me she only spoke Spanish. I switched to my broken Spanish and gestures, and ended up helping them understand their tickets and where they were seated, and teasing the older boy about grabbing the window seat right away. This was slightly muddled by me occasionally slipping into Russian instead of Spanish, but we managed to have some semi-intelligent conversation. They were seated across from me as it turned out. That was awesome, because I think it was their first flight, and the older son was fascinated! He spent the entire two-hour flight staring out the window with wide eyes (when he wasn't turned around pestering his little brother through the seats of course). It was just enjoyable to watch his enjoyment!
After landing in Providence and grabbing my luggage, I almost immediately met book character #3. Seriously, someone needs to ride around for a bit with cab driver Bill Barsell and then work him into a book. I only had fifteen minutes with him, but I know that he has lived in the area his whole life, used to work in construction, but you know, that doesn't work out so well as you get older. Loves the cab company he works for and everyone in it, they are all like family. Has an adult son who lives in the area too. Likes to listen to audio books but they are expensive, and had no idea until I told him that he can probably go check them out for free at the local library. Bill was extremely personable, pointed out sites and places to eat and gave a little bit of history of some of the buildings. We also rode a bit in silence, though, and I got the feeling he is quite adept as gauging when customers want to talk and when they don't.
The streets of downtown Providence are interesting. Very narrow in spots, and a mix of brand-new-looking pavement and old bricks laid out in designs.
The drivers are VERY polite, always yielding to pedestrians, and I never saw anyone speeding.
In stark contrast to New Mexico's open spaces, and older buildings that are usually adobe, the hotel is surrounded by old brick or stone buildings of several stories, with ornate decorations and windows.
Very odd to walk into one of these old historical buildings and find yourself in a CVS Pharmacy.
This church tolled the hour...or some of the hours...I only heard it a few times, but didn't pay enough attention to see which times it rang.
Sunday morning we happened to be walking by it just as it rang out the bells for church, which was ind of nice.
And then there was...
I stayed at the Hotel Providence, where the conference was held. Very nice hotel with an interesting history that I read on the wall of the elevator and promptly forgot.
Checked into the hotel, checked in at home, checked in with my friend and fellow blogger/librarian/Cybils judge Jennifer Wharton, grabbed a pizza from down the street...and then checked in for the night!
Now for the actual conference! Jennifer was the first person I saw when I got downstairs, easily recognized by the mermaid hair. We have been online friends for so long that when someone asked us how we actually met, neither of us could remember! I joked before the conferences that we would either get along famously, or go back home and block each other. She hasn't blocked me yet, so I think we did all right! We grabbed some breakfast and headed in for the opening remarks and first keynote speaker, LeUyen Pham.
If you know children's lit at all, you know who Pham is. Mykela used to read:
to Sheridan when she was little. The Princess in Black series. Vampirina Ballerina. Alvin Ho. And so on. She has written and/or illustrated over 100 titles!
I had never heard any of her personal story, though, and I was hooked. When she was two years old, her family fled the war in Vietnam and came to the United States. She spoke about the role books played in her life as she moved through her school years. We hear constantly that "kids want to read books about kids who look like them," and I have tried to make sure we have something in our library for everyone in that respect. As she spoke, however, I realized that should be phrased, "kids want to read books about kids who ARE like them" - and that even that can be the opposite of true.
Pham shared that when she was younger, she didn't WANT to read books about little Vietnamese girls, she wanted to read books about little white American girls. These were the people she was trying to understand, and while TV told her a bit about HOW American children behaved, it didn't tell her WHY they behaved that way. Books, on the other hand, offered an internal dialogue that wasn't present in television shows, and helped answer some of those "why"s.
She also talked about how much she related to the book The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Not a book about a Vietnamese girl. Not a book set in Vietnam, or even California where she lived. But the character was a lot like her: a girl from a tropical island who finds herself in a very different world, with rules and customs and ways of thinking that are completely foreign to her. Kit may not have LOOKED like Pham, but she WAS like Pham.
Favorite quote: "All division ends when a story rings true."
I realized that while I need to continue making sure we have books representing a wide variety of races, cultures, and other groups, I also need to make sure we have books representing a wide variety of personalities and experiences - and I need to be familiar enough with them to be able to hand the right book off to the right child. That's the hard part! Can we please have a designated reading time for staff???
As if I wasn't already enough of a fan, I have to share this: before the keynote began, I whispered to Pham that while I LOATHE people who can't turn their cell phones off, my daughter was expecting a baby, so if I went running out of the room I really wasn't trying to be rude.
The next day, I was actually sitting by her in a session when the phone rang to tell me my daughter was in labor, and Pham was almost as excited as I was. Then someone took my seat before I came back in, dangit! When the conference was over, she made a point of finding me and asking about the baby. Now, I was having trouble remembering who I talked to and about what five minutes ago, so I was really impressed and touched! She is just a super nice lady. Everyone I met here was (well, except those who were super nice men.)
(announcer voice) But wait - that's not all!
I bought a book to take home to each of the kids, and two that I picked out were Pham's books. I asked her to autograph them for me, and she asked if I had a picture of the girls.
Why, yes. That is a picture of Grace DRAWN INTO Pham's book "Grace for President." Sheridan was drawn into The Princess in Black. She does that for EVERYONE who asks for an autograph!
Well, what's a librarian to do at that point but go full fan-girl and ask for a photo?
If you're going to be a dork, be a full-on dork, I say.
Next up was a session about STEM in literature, with authors whose books I have some of but have somehow missed others, and thus began my long list of books I need to order when I get home.
Reading Strategies with Multicultural Books began with an overview from a psychology professor about how early children notice race (3 months!) and express attitudes about it (3 years! And no, parents, it doesn't come from you, it's okay). Emma Otheguy (O-teg-ee) contrasted Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken with a poem written by LatinX writer Antonio Machado that says in part, "Traveler, there is no path. The path is made by walking." (Which actually makes SO much more sense and why aren't they taught together??)
Best quote (also Otheguy): "Too many children of color are experts in whiteness. Not many white children are experts in another culture."
Then lunch! This is a small conference, and lunch is part of it, so you can be sitting at a table chatting with the person next to you, and realize suddenly that you just passed the water pitcher to the author of a book you cataloged the day before coming to the conference. We all had name tags on lanyards, but they kept spinning backwards, and unless you tied a knot in the string it hung way below the table. There was much semi-surreptitious leaning over to peek at names and then wracking your brain to remember why that sounded familiar, until someone blurted out "Cybils!" or "Flying Deep!" I suggested that next year we make authors add pictures of their books to their name tags, and David Neilsen thought it was a good enough idea to immediately cut some pictures of his out of bookmarks and do just that. I also suggested we put the name tags on headbands to make them more visible, but nobody took me up on that.
After lunch I went to a session about book awards. There is a lot of frustration with trying to understand how to get your books read by an awards committee, how to get a variety of people on a committee, awards that require you to pay to have a book considered, or which you have to have a (paid) membership to something to apply to be on it...not sure that anything was really resolved or figured out, but it's an ongoing issue in may aspects.
In Teaching, Blogging, and Reviewing Books About Social Justice, I snagged an ARC of White Rose (teens working against the Nazis) by Kip Wilson. Padma Venkatraman talked about her childhood in India and reminded us that other countries are just like the US - there is not just one monolithic culture for the whole country (echoed in a later session by Rajani LaRocca). Lyn Miller-Lachmann told of being diagnosed with Aspergers as an adult and shared an extremely painful lunchroom story that made me want to go find some young ladies and slap them.
At the author meet and mingle, I got most of the rest of the books signed for my kids. I was able to ask Carol Gordon Ekster how she got a microphone into my house at bedtime while she signed her book for Shane, but she feigned ignorance. She did show me the Korean edition of the book, which was neat. Joshua Levy signed Seventh Grade vs. the Galaxy for Christopher. His debut title, it is exactly the right length to read on an airplane going from Providence to Atlanta, and I already want to see the sequel. We talked about his large wardrobe of blue and white shirts, and later, some ways to get your books at least noticed by librarians.
Okay, time to eat! There are a multitude of restaurants around the hotel, and Jennifer and I settled on a Japanese/Korean place just a few blocks away.
Sadness - you can't see the mermaid hair in the back.
The meal was definitely a mix, with miso soup (much better than what we had at home last week), Korean sides, and then we both got bulgogi bibimbap (which I have had and made before) and bubble tea (which I have not). Always love bulgogi, the tea I could take or leave. I did have to laugh at my own surprise in seeing water automatically put on the tables. I grew up with that in Ohio, but after 25 years in New Mexico I can't help thinking "Don't they realize how much water they are wasting?!" I suppose Rhode Island has a little more to spare, though.
Everyone else at the conference had the sense to bring business cards, but not me. So, after dinner we found a drug store and I bought supplies. Jennifer asked if I could draw and I said "No," then immediately, "Hey! That can be my 'thing!'"
If nothing else, I will be remembered as the dork with the index cards.
Every time I call home the kids ask me what I ate for breakfast, so I started taking pictures. The hotel put out a nice spread each morning:
Not hot, and no green chili, but tasty.
This morning's keynote speaker was Varian Johnson, author of (among other things):
and, winner of pretty much everything this past year:
The first thing you should know about Johnson is that his two daughters are absolutely adorable. The second thing you should know is that he is obviously a good Daddy:
Favorite quotes: "It's hard. It's supposed to be hard. But it doesn't have to be impossible."
"Who are you silencing when you speak that opinion? Be part of the conversation (relating mainly to diversity in literature), but think about HOW you want to be part of the conversation."
Next for me was Diverse Fantasy in the Real World. I was pleased to see panelist Anna Mariano, whose Love Sugar Magic series is already popular at our library. I snagged an ARC of Rajani LaRocca's upcoming book Midsummer's Mayhem (also about baking - and Shakespeare!), and bought Zetta Elliott's Dragons in a Bag for Logan, which she kindly signed. The panel was led by Stephanie Toliver, a graduate student in language and literacy development.
From Elliott: Magic is about power and belief systems are about power. You have to be respectful about how you portray them. Kids often feel powerless in trauma; with magic they get to wield the power and save themselves or others.
From LaRocca (who is also a physician): Fantasy is more real to kids than to adults. Elements of magic and fantasy make things fun, which gives you a way to reach kids about other topics. The realm of fantasy does not belong to one culture, so it is also a prime opportunity to be inclusive.
Meriano sparked a conversation about books as being both mirrors and windows, which evolved into how books really need to be sliding glass doors - we don't want kids to be voyeurs, staring at people of another culture but still thinking of them as "other", but rather stepping inside and joining them and being part of the same story.
Next up: You Can't Say That in Middle Grade! It used to be that tough topics were reserved for young adult novels, but kids are experiencing those situations at all ages - how do you address them in age appropriate ways? Panelists were Ann Braden (Benefits of Being an Octopus - grabbed an ARC!), Paula Chase (So Done), Barbara Dee (Maybe He Just Likes You and many other titles with very long names), Varian Johnson, Jo Knowles (Where the Heart Is, etc.), and Katy Kramp moderating.
Panelists talked about getting pushback from both parents and publishers. Chase was asked by her publisher to "dial back" an assault. Um..no, it's an assault! Knowles has been accused of "damaging children" because she mentions a child dying, and at one school was asked not to mention her brother dying because it could bother a child whose brother had died - as it turned out, once they asked the child what she would prefer, there was a kinship formed, she DID talk about her brother's death, and the presentation was perhaps much better for it. From Braden: "If we don't have the words to talk about it in books, we won't have the words to talk about it (in real life)."
Knowles pointed out that if readers can find a kinship with a character and read about tough situations before they experience them themselves, then they already have built a framework to help them deal with it. Chase also reminded us that when empathy is built around a character, adults reading the book can better understand where kids are coming from.
Dee contrasted YA, which often hits the issue head-on and stays with it, with middle grade, which tends to come at a topic more sideways. "Middle grade readers need a break." Johnson said he wanted multiple avenues to enter his latest book: you can give The Parker Inheritance to a child who likes puzzles or mysteries, a child who has lost a relative, a child wanting to read about racism or history.
LUNCH! I didn't take pictures, kids, sorry!
Then two back-to-back sessions about reaching readers - the first from the viewpoint of authors and illustrators needing to get their books to us, the librarians and parents, included Anika Denise (Planting Stories, which we just got in at our library), Debbie Kovacs (publicist for, among others, the Boy Called BAT books which I am absolutely in love with and had to gush with her about afterward), Barbara Fisch (publicist for Blue Slip Media and new friend), Josh Funk (Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast stories), and moderated by Lee Wind (Queer as a 5 Dollar Bill). It was really informative but the only note I seem to have taken is that the third BAT book is coming out next month and that pretty much supersedes any other critical information. (Although, when I scrolled through Barbara's site later I discovered many other books I need to order asap as well - there is a sequel to I Am Famous coming out soon too!)
The second session was more for librarians and teachers, and focused on finding the right book for the reader. I finally got to meet Karen Yingling of Ms. Yingling Reads and oh my goodness! For just an ounce of her energy! She shared several ideas I am going to steal. For reader's advisory, for example, she boils it down to three questions. Do you want happy or sad? Modern or historical? Fantasy or reality? That seems like such a simple thing, but so much more effective than a general "What do you like?" She also added, in line with earlier conversation: Who do you see in the mirror?
One of the audience members talked about reading ladders - we have our "If You Liked" lists, but these give a more visual way of using those lists to move students along to slightly more challenging books. I definitely want to put some together when I get back to work.
When all else fails, let's pick a book to match your outfit! I loved that idea as a fun way to shake things up a bit.
Finally, the panel(ist) that all my patrons back home were most excited about: The Frightful Fantastic explored themes of horror in middle grade fiction, with panelists Stephanie Toliver, David Neilsen, Antoine Revoy, and Tui Sutherland. Yes, the same Tui Sutherland who writes the Wings of Fire and Menagerie books (and edits the Warriors series). That doesn't mean anything to you? Then you are obviously not in upper elementary or middle school. Trust me, she's big.
Every time someone mentioned Sutherland leading up to the conference, someone would say, "Oh, Tui is lovely!" I would have to use the word adorable. Normally that is not a word I would use for a grown adult woman, but it just fits. She is the girl you always wanted at your slumber parties, staying up way late watching movies and eating ice cream and laughing about everything. I mean, anyone who giggles while talking about cannibalism and dictator governmental leaders brainwashing their subjects is a friend of mine! Bonus: I was chatting with the shy but sweet young man next to me, assuming he was a fan, and asked him if he was here for Tui. Well, yes, because he is her son. He reminded me of my sweet Logan, and Tui and I talked later about them never leaving home, prompting an argument between the two of them over how far away he was allowed to move (I believe down the street was the final compromise).
Oh, and if anyone was wondering (I was), her favorite dragon is Kinkajou. (Mine is still Bumblebee, but you probably really don't care about that.)
So, fan-girling on behalf of my patrons aside, the session included a great discussion about how important and diverse the genre of middle grade horror can be. Some kids want gore and lots of it. Some prefer "chills, not jump scares" (David Neilson). Some may not realize that what they are reading - corrupt leaders and perilous situations - is actually horror. All can help kids deal with difficult situations in their own life, whether by letting them see other kids solving problems and not giving in to impossible situations, by 'hearing' other kids (or dragons) wrestle with questions of conscience, or simply by thinking, "Well, at least my day didn't end with blood spattered across the dessert table!"
And on that note, KidLitCon was over, and it was time to eat again! Okay, there was actually a bit more hanging out and talking and exchanging cards, but the bloody desserts was such a good segue.
Barbara joined Jennifer and I for dinner, and after wandering around poking our noses into restaurants and checking out menus, we settled on a family-style Italian place. Obligatory picture for my kids:
Chicken something or the other with penne. It was really good, but my stomach never caught up with the time change, and kept wondering why I was shoving so much food at it so early. I don't think I did any of it justice. Great conversation, though, not just about the book world!
I had an early afternoon flight, so Jennifer and I were able to have breakfast together one more time. We took the long way around to check out some of the murals painted everywhere. A local saw me taking pictures and kindly pointed out a few more:
I had considered knocking on Barbara's door to see if she wanted to join us, but didn't want to bug her. We ended up in a little coffee shop, and guess who walked in a few minutes later!
|The sign says, in part, "We are not a library!"|
More great conversation, until I looked at my watch and realized my cab was coming in about five minutes. Oops! Dash back to the room and try to cram everything back into one suitcase. I had a lot more 'stuff' than I did when I came, from books to a dozen tote bags (acquired earlier in the morning when someone discovered two boxes of them had been left under a table.) It juuuuust fit, and I caught the taxi to the airport...where check-in and security took all of 5 minutes. Gosh, I have plenty of time on my hands now, what can I do with OHMYGOODNESS!!!
His name is Mike. He is squishy. He gives great kisses. We bonded.
I eventually tore myself away so he could check two little girls for contraband crumbs, and worked on my conference notes a bit. When it got closer to boarding time I struck up a conversation with a gentleman named Jerry based on dog hair. He has two golden retrievers, which are one of my favorite breeds, and from there we went on to books and jobs and school. He got bored, started failing, and quit when he was (17?), and only went back after his father went to bat for him with the principal. He said the fact that his father had gone to bat for him was what motivated him to try again, and he ended up with straight A's - and now, many years later, a degree in the medical field.
That first flight, Providence to Atlanta, was fine until the descent, which the pilot was apparently doing on a pogo stick. My stomach was...not happy. Fortunately, I guess, I had a very long layover in Atlanta to let it settle again. I went ahead and found my gate, and was shortly joined by a really fun group of high school kids from El Paso. They were coming back from their senior trip, ten days in Europe! Why did we never have senior trips like that??? I don't think my high school had senior trips, period. They very kindly (and enthusiastically) entertained my questions about what struck them as most interesting about the places they visited (you have to PAY to use the BATHROOM! I was told that at least six times.)
That flight was much smoother, and again I slept most of the way. It actually landed early, and Mike was there to meet me, so - I'm home! So if you'll excuse me, I have some unpacking and laundry to do before I go pick up the kids and hear all about their adventures while I was gone!