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Simmons Summer Institute: Love Letters

From July 26th to 28th, over one hundred teachers, librarians, students, publishing professionals, academics, and children’s literature enthusiasts gathered at Simmons College for the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature’s biennial Summer Institute. This year’s theme was “Love Letters,” and each day was filled with fascinating presentations by authors, illustrators, and publishing professionals who spoke on their interpretation of the theme as it pertained to children’s literature.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend (along with a few other former interns and Horn Book staff Elissa and Martha). As a student in the corresponding graduate course, I had spent the past month critically examining the work of the authors and illustrators presenting at the Institute, and I was eager to hear their thoughts on the theme first-hand. All of the presenters had thoughtful insights; here is just a small taste of the weekend:

  • Jo Knowles talked about the way that Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War influenced her as a reader and a writer (she called it “my personal love letter”) and showed us a letter she received from Cormier in response to a manuscript she sent him.
  • Knowles also spoke of the “darkness” in her books, saying that literature is only as dark as reality gets and that she tries to be honest rather than controversial.
  • Illustrator Shane Evans opened and closed his presentation by using a loop machine to perform his songs “41st Day” and “Olu’s Dream,” getting the entire audience to sing along and harmonize. (Elissa later tweeted, “Listening to Shane Evans speak makes all seem right and good with the world.”)
  • Jeanne Birdsall sat cross-legged on a table and discussed her conviction that she should keep explicit content out of her books. She cited the influence of Louisa May Alcott’s writing, and in particular Alcott’s ability to hint at without directly addressing sensuality, allowing children to discover content at their own pace and “protecting their privacy” in the process.
  • M. T. Anderson lectured on historical examples of literary romance and discussed problems with anachronistic romance in historical fiction, saying that it “trivializes the problems people faced in the past” and arguing that historical accuracy is more interesting.
  • Anderson also discussed his adolescent feelings towards romance, saying that he didn’t find romantic wish-fulfillment credible and that he wanted books about truly “broken” people. “That was my reaction,” he said: “**** you, romance.”
  • During her keynote address, Lois Lowry discussed stage and film adaptations of her work. She had just returned from South Africa, where she had been visiting the filmmakers working on the movie adaptation of The Giver; Lowry said she is comfortable with changes that are being made (for example, making the characters slightly older and adding action since the book is so introspective).
  • In lieu of a traditional speech, Lowry read letters addressed to family members, friends, mentors, and acquaintances, saying “It is a wise and important thing in life to write letters.”

It was a truly excellent weekend that overflowed with love for the (grown-up) children’s literature community. Each presenter gave a unique take on the theme, leaving me with the question: how do you interpret the theme of “love letters”? And, if you attended the Institute, what were some of your highlights?

Here’s the lineup of all the wonderful presenters; photos from the weekend are available at Simmons’s Flickr.

About Kazia Berkley-Cramer

Kazia Berkley-Cramer is a former editorial intern at The Horn Book.

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