This is part two of my notes on KidLitCon 2019 in Providence. You can take a look at my notes on Friday if you missed them. There were so many good sessions and I really wished I could have gone to them all!
Keynote – Varian Johnson – If It Were Easy, Everyone Would Do It
Varian Johnson is the award-winning author of many books for kids and teens. I’ve read the four most recent, including last year’s Coretta Scott King honor book, The Parker Inheritance. He was coming straight off another trip and getting sick, but did his best anyway, giving writing tips based on his career, as well as sharing his social media philosophy. This boils down to “You don’t always have to share your opinion. Think about who you might be silencing.” Other gems include
- Give yourself a chance
- Do the work
- Set a schedule
- Show up even when the muse doesn’t
- Have a support group
- Find the thing that ignites your passion
Diverse Fantasy in the Real World
With Rajani LaRocca, Anna Meriano, and Zetta Elliott, moderated by S.R. Toliver
My dream session! S.R. Toliver, the moderator, is a Ph.D. student in YA literature, specifically looking at the treatment of people of color in these books, and working at bringing fantasy books to young women of color.
Rajani’s thoughts – we can all be magical in different and also strikingly similar ways. Her book aims to normalize things, specifically about Indian-American culture, that are usually exoticized.
Zetta says that fantasy is a way to help children negotiate trauma because magic is power. A disadvantage is that people want books for Black children to be Brussels sprouts, not fantasy adventures.
We need to avoid monolithic views of cultures. (I didn’t write down who said this. Nor anything in particular that Anna Meriano said, even though she was witty and personable and so much fun to listen to.)
There was general discussion about the article that started the whole discussion of books as windows and mirrors is that we need to remember that books shouldn’t be one or the other, but sliding glass doors – every book should be both a window and a mirror to the reader.
“You Can’t Say that in Middle Grade!”
With Ann Braden, Paula Chase, Barbara Dee, Varian Johnson, Jo Knowles, and Katy Kramp, moderator
This session had five authors with books for middle grade students on lots of tough topics, including domestic and gun violence, being molested by an adult, racism, becoming homeless and more. Authors talked about why they feel it’s important to talk about these issues, their relationships with them, and how they structure the books so the heavy topics aren’t overwhelming. I took no notes because I was moderating, but it was a really good conversation. These authors are so dedicated, we were sitting together at meals and talking about the topic more! (Readers, if you went to the session and took away memorable bits, please let me know in the comments!)
The Illustrated Middle Grade
With Christopher Denise, illustrator, and Chris Tebetts, author, moderated by Anamaria Anderson
Chris Tebetts works with James Patterson on his Middle Grade series. He shared his very visual, film school graduate way of looking at writing. He uses color-coded post-it notes, Scrapple software, storyboarding, and highlighting portions of text in different colors and then shrinking it down to view 20 pages or so at once, to look at balance. He also talked about different types of illustration in middle grade books – the “drawn by narrator”, the comic strip, and the spot.
Christopher Denise is an illustrator – I’m most familiar with his book Firefly Hollow, though he has illustrated may others. In general, illustrating is a dance with the author leading. Don’t let the illustrations bog down the narrative! Except that Firefly Hollow started with his illustration and finding someone else to tell the story that would go with it. He likes to follow advice from N.C. Wyeth – don’t illustrate the highest emotional moments – illustrate just before or after these moments, or asides that might otherwise be missed.
Reaching Readers Part II: the Gatekeepers
With Ms. Yingling, middle school librarian, Sam Musher, middle school librarian, and Melissa Fox, bookseller
This was a big ol’ talk on reader’s advisory. This is really relevant to my job, so I took lots of notes. (I’d skipped part I, for the authors and publishers, as it wasn’t.)
Sam has 3 main and two follow up questions she likes to ask:
- Are you in the mood for happy or sad?
- New or historical?
- Realistic or fantasy?
- What do you want to read today?
- Who are you seeing in the mirror? <- this last helps find books tailored to that person beyond just their outsides – she could give Anna Meriano’s Love Sugar Magic books to a girl who says she sees a witch in the mirror, whether or not that girl is Latina.
- Melissa has new book displays
- Monthly themed book displays
- ARC book review groups by age – those kids write shelf talkers for the books they read that really work.
- Sam has just 3 shelves for face-out books
- Bringing books to classes and doing booktalks works better for her
- Paula (in the audience) uses whiteboards for kids to fill in:
- “When I’m sad I want to read….” Or
- “A series I can’t wait for the next book is…”
What about diverse books?
- School libraries there have an easier time.
- Melissa stocks them, even if they don’t sell to the grandparents who are usually buying the books. She tries to reach out to readers anyway.
Other ways to promote books
- Kids write reviews on a school iPad app – then a QR code linking to that review goes in the cover of the book
- Think of reading ladders – ways to progress on from Wimpy Kid books or similar
- Boys Read Pink month – after working with the football team, boys now try to out-girly the other boys
- For kids who say they no longer read, ask for their favorite TV show now plus a book they liked in the past
- Find a book that matches their outfit
Where to Find Books
- Cybils, state lists
- Library Guild
- Kid recommendations
- Bigger libraries
What about the books you don’t like or want to read?
- Reassure kids it’s ok to read them anyway
- Find book ambassadors
- Know one thing about the book to sell it
What is the most essential thing we need to know about giving kids books?
- Enthusiasm! Be goofy!
- Speed in finding the right book
- Relationships and authenticity of caring
The Frightful Fantastic
With Tui T. Sutherland, Antoine Revoy, David Neilsen, S.R. Toliver, moderated by Paula Willey
This session brought together three authors of scary books for children and one Ph.D. student, moderated by a librarian. They set out to discuss why kids like scary books, how much scary is too scary, and how gatekeepers can help them find the right books. It was a lively conversation with lots of back-and-forth and laughter. David started out by saying that he thinks kids today like scary books because their lives are too safe. Stephanie reads such books with kids who’ve been in horrible situations – refugees, homeless, etc. – and says that even when their lives aren’t safe, kids want the difference of fantasy danger, and the hope of meaning and maybe a happy ending. Tui, hilariously, doesn’t like scary movies (at which point Antoine asked what was wrong with her and tried to help find the perfect scary movie for her), but says that the stakes need to be high. She did write her books about kids in the modern world with much less violence than her dragon fantasies. Lines not to cross include gratuitous violence or suffering. Tui won’t include despair – her characters always have hope. Paula notes that in her experience, kids are really good at knowing what’s too scary for them.
And that was KidLitCon 2019! There were many more people I got to meet, including Stephanie Whelan of Views from the Tesseract, and authors Lee Wind, Kara LaReau, and Debbie Michiko Florence, as well as lots of friends from previous KidLitCons. We talked about things like the books that saved us when we were kids and teens, and books that exist now that we needed then. I’m already thinking about KidLitCon 2020…