The Bank Street Book Festival, an annual gathering of authors, illustrators, educators, and other children’s book professionals was held at Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan on October 28. The event featured a full day of panel discussions on topics relating to children’s literature and a keynote address from author Carmen Agra Deedy.
David Wiesner (Flotsam), Jerry Pinkney (The Lion the Mouse), and Barbara Lehman (The Red Book) spoke about crafting wordless picture books; Stephen Savage (Where’s Walrus?) served as moderator. The speakers discussed their processes, the challenges and power of visual storytelling, and how the experience of reading wordless picture books differs from reading books with words. Savage kicked off the panel, sharing how he turned to The Red Book, The Lion the Mouse, and Flotsam when he was creating his own wordless book, Where’s Walrus?. “Amazingly, the creators of these books are on the stage with me today,” he said. He also commented that he feels the term “wordless” is insufficient to describe the work of the three authors. After all, “would you call a symphony ‘wordless music?’ ”
Pinkney had a suggestion: “Let’s just call them ‘picture books!’ ” He went on to describe his process for creating The Lion the Mouse. Pinkney hadn’t started out with the intention of creating a story without words, but as he was making the storyboard, he realized that the pictures were already conveying the story. “I didn’t think it needed words,” he said. In fact, the cover for The Lion the Mouse doesn’t even have words—the imposing gaze of Pinkney’s lion invites readers in instead.
Lehman did initially write The Red Book with words, but found that, conceptually, the story wasn’t unfolding as she wanted it to. Once she began focusing on telling the story just in pictures instead, “it became a very intriguing puzzle” that played itself out on the page. Lehman believes that wordless books have the merit of being uniquely accessible to all readers, regardless of language or age.
For Weisner, wordless storytelling has long felt organic to him: after all, pictures were his first language. He had written drafts of Flotsam with text, but found that it truly “flowed out with pictures.” The panelists discussed the cues that art gives to the reader in place of words—for example, when readers ought to turn the page. Wiesner accomplishes this by “building anticipation visually” and being cognizant of how readers’ eyes move across the pages. Lehman added that illustrators use techniques to guide readers: action flows from the left to the right and images on the right side of the page can act as “cliffhangers” that compel readers to turn the page.
Somewhat like the music in a movie, Lehman described the “unconscious elements” in a visual story and the patterns that form “the internal logic of the book.” Yet the authors agreed that wordless picture books often allow readers more freedom of interpretation than books with text do. They are like a “self-guided tour,” said Lehman. Pinkney remarked that readers ultimately turn the page “when they are satisfied” and are ready for what happens next. It enables them to have a sense of “powerful ownership” over the story. There is something especially magical about the experience of a child returning to a story they have read before and have come to know, he believes. And a wordless book can be interpreted in different ways: “It’s a beautiful thing. They can almost go back and create another story,” Pinkney said.
The panel ended on a high note as Lehman revealed the sequel to The Red Book—Red Again, which releases on November 7. Cynthia Weill also delivered some “breaking news”: it had just been announced that Pinkney was nominated for the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Award.
A new group of panelists took the stage to discuss writing humorous children’s books. The speakers were Carmen Agra Deedy (The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!), Rita Williams-Garcia (Clayton Byrd Goes Underground), and Jon Scieszka (the Guys Read series). Moderator Elizabeth Bird, children’s librarian and editor of Funny Girl: Funniest. Stories. Ever., asked the group to explain where they find humor, particularly in these complicated and often dark times.
For Scieszka, writing funny stories for kids comes rather naturally, because “kids are funny,” he said. As a teacher, he learned that one of the job descriptions is being a “stand-up comedian.” Humor in the classroom is not only essential, but enriched his time as an educator and provided plenty of fodder for his books.
Deedy commented on the wisdom behind humor: “The king’s fool has always been the most powerful person in the kingdom,” she said. The fool knows that humor is mined from painful, strange, and “crazy places.” She shared an anecdote about the time when her Baptist Cuban mother met her daughter’s heavily tattooed and pierced boyfriend for the first time. She commented, “You have holes!” To which he replied: “But I have Jesus in my heart.” Her mother’s response? “Jesus had holes!” As much as she had tried to avoid that particular encounter from ever happening, it ended up being comedy gold. “We’re always looking for funny because life can be so hard, so excruciating at times.” Humor is sometimes the only way to ameliorate the pain of life’s “little wounds.”
Williams-Garcia often injects humor into stories that tackle difficult subject matter. From her perspective, her characters may suffer and face insurmountable challenges, but they are more than the sum of their circumstances. She sees her characters as “people who still have inner will in the face of powerlessness.” She also views their hardships as strengthening them; in fact, she even enjoys throwing another hurdle into a character’s life: “I don’t spare my characters much. I cackle a little each time I decide to bring a character down a peg,” she said.
Finally, the panelists weighed in on their go-to sources of humor and the kinds of humorous children’s books they are hoping to see in the future. “I’m reading a lot of books on slavery,” Williams-Garcia joked. But she honestly would like to see more history books that take a humorous approach to their subject matter. Humor enables “figures and events from history to be humanized and relatable” to readers. After all, a sense of humor can tell us so much about who a person is: “I’d love to know what made Frederick Douglass laugh,” she said.
On Scieszka’s wish list: more “funny books for black kids.” Deedy reiterated that stories about kids in hard situations can also have levity and it’s important to include those moments: “Kids have all kinds of poverty stories, not all tragedy.” She also longs for a return to focusing on stories and characters that appeal broadly to readers, while finding a way to put aside anxieties about gender and cultural representation. While she sees these issues as being very important, she has observed that “we’re becoming so concerned, it’s affecting the writing. We’re like pedantic gadflies.” She believes that writers need not be limited or stifled, but should instead ask of their writing, “Is it true? You write the truth—your truth, anyway,” she said.
Leonard Marcus next delivered a presentation on the history of Bank Street and its connection to Little Golden Books, the series that, for generations, has been “lodged in collective memory.” Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Bank Street’s founder, became instrumental in the Little Golden Books publishing enterprise, with many Bank Street authors writing Little Golden Books in the Writer’s Laboratory, Marcus recounted. Bank Street emphasized the importance of providing books to children that were less focused on “once upon a time,” and more centered around “the here and now,” or everyday realities within a child’s world. “Lucy Mitchell went to Golden Books because that’s where you could reach children,” Marcus said. In addition to focusing on realistic, conceptual topics, Little Golden Books were meant to be read, held, even scribbled in—“as Harold [from Harold and the Purple Crayon] would go on to do.” There was even a place for the books for children to write their own names, which provided readers with a “literal sense of ownership” over their books and their stories.
The Little Golden Books series became a conduit for Bank Street’s model of “relationship thinking,” Marcus explained, which emphasizes teaching children to build concepts and connections through exploration and asking questions. It was in part Marcus’s own library of Little Golden Books that inspired his career as a children’s literature expert, historian, and author. Admitting that perhaps he was an unusual child, he recalled always being curious about “Dr. Mary Reed PhD,” whose name he saw on the books (she was the first editor for the series). Incidentally, “Dr. Mary Reed PhD,” invented the reading table in schools—a table where children could sit and read once they had finished their work—an empowering progression toward reading choice and independence in classrooms.
Next, discussing what moderator Carole Boston Weatherford called our “golden age” of nonfiction books for children, were Tonya Bolden, Eric Velasquez, Candace Fleming, and Don Tate. The authors spoke about how they choose what to write about, their research processes for writing their books, and the challenge of writing about complex individuals from history that may not always have the best of reputations. Bolden and Fleming credited the Library of Congress as one of their most valuable resources for information on their book subjects, but agree that the National Archives are a challenge to navigate. Tate’s secret research treasure trove? Pinterest. It’s where he first found images of Victorian-era bodybuilder Eugen Sandow, the subject of his picture book biography Strong as Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became the Strongest Man on Earth (Charlesbridge). Tate’s interest in Sandow arose from his own history as a bodybuilder; he first started bodybuilding as a kid, because he felt insecure about being skinny. Tate did have to make some difficult choices about what part of Sandow’s life he would tell in a children’s book—particularly when it came to Sandow’s personal life. “When you Google Eugene Sandow, you see all of Sandow,” Tate said. Apparently he was also quite the philanderer.
Writing about Sandow and highlighting his positive attributes, without sugarcoating his life, was also illuminating for Tate: “There is no such thing as a perfect person,” he said. Tate added that he thinks he would have found Sandow’s story very interesting as a kid: “I was writing to the eight-year-old Don Tate reluctant reader,” he said. Fleming similarly came up against some challenges when writing Presenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West. In this age of “fake news,” Buffalo Bill’s hyperbolic tendencies ended up providing a valuable teaching opportunity. Fleming felt she owed it to Bill to “let him go ahead and tell his story.” Then, she created sections called “Panning for Nuggets of Truth,” in which she treats Bill as a “primary source,” but pulls in additional historical sources so readers can cross-reference and determine what really happened. While learning about Buffalo Bill’s life, readers also gain an understanding that “the truth is never as easy to uncover as it seems,” Fleming said.
Velasquez, who illustrated Boson Weatherford’s Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library, spoke about how he first became aware of the book’s subject, Arturo Schomburg. When he was a child, a sensitive educator showed him an image of Schomburg. “You have a lot in common with this man. He is also from Puerto Rico,” the teacher said. By the time he set down to illustrate Weatherford’s book, he knew a great deal about Schomburg’s life and contributions. Notably, Valesquez said, he uncovered “the global conspiracy of suppression of contributions of people from African descent from our culture.”
In closing, the speakers touched on whittling down an individual’s life into 32 pages (“I think of a picture book as a poem,” Bolden said), and making history accessible to readers, while also urging them to ask questions. Velasquez commented on the “value of a child growing into a book” that might be a little beyond their level of comprehension. Finally, the authors shared their upcoming projects—including, for Weatherford, a picture book about the song Amazing Grace and for Fleming, a book about Charles Lindbergh. Bolden’s next book is Facing Frederick: The Life of Frederick Douglass, a Monumental American Man. She explained that she had to fight to write the book, because of some fears that the market might be oversaturated with Frederick Douglass titles. Weatherford, for one, believes readers can’t know enough about the pivotal historical figure. After all, “some people think he’s still alive,” she joked.
Closing out the day’s events, Deedy delivered a rousing and emotional keynote address. She spoke about how small events in the life of a child can have enormous impact, shaping that child into a lifelong reader, for example, or—in her case—a storyteller. She shared a story from her childhood. As a Cuban refugee, she grew up in Decatur, Ga. You could say that she was a bit of a troublemaker. In fact, on the last day of elementary school, she pulled the fire alarm as a traditional end-of-year prank. The principal at the school, a powerful and imposing woman whom Deedy described as being “a presence—a sentinel,” miraculously spared her the punishment she might have deserved at the time, requiring her only to handwrite her name 500 times. After turning in evidence of her penitence, she moved onto middle school and didn’t see Miss Paris again—until many years later (the early 1990s), at her first book launch event at a Decatur bookstore. In walked Miss Paris, as terrifying as ever and, while ancient, seemingly perfectly preserved, “like she’d been soaking in formaldehyde,” said Deedy. Nervously agreeing to go to dinner with her former principal after the reading, Deedy first had to quickly sign books for customers. “She’ll sign them, and in a hurry,” Miss Paris said. “I trained her.”
A bottle of wine later and Deedy finally got up the nerve to ask Miss Paris: “Why didn’t you do anything to me that day?” She told Deedy a secret that she was to promise never to reveal. Turns out, the two of them had something in common. Miss Paris had, in fact, once pulled the fire alarm while she was in a sorority at Wellesley. After a pause, she told Deedy what many Bank Street educators and children’s book authors understand: “Sometimes we see the trajectory of a child’s life,” she said. “And we see that all they need is to turn a degree or two this way and they’ll miss the wall…. Sometimes, they fly.”
Deedy’s keynote was a fitting finale to a book fest filled with humor, personal reflections, and insights into where and how the stories that most move us are made.