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2015 Simmons Summer Institute: Homecoming

What an invigorating weekend here on the Simmons College campus, as current students, alums, authors, illustrators, teachers, librarians, academics, booksellers, book lovers, etc., etc., etc., came together for the 2015 Summer Children’s Literature Institute: Homecoming. Some highlights are below, and in no particular order. We know. We tried to make it brief. But we just couldn’t. Sorry not sorry.

Shoshana:

Though Michelle H. Martin, who’d taught the longer Symposium class, was unfortunately unable to attend the weekend Institute, Cathie Mercier, director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College, read a brief message from Michelle and then opened the floor to her students, who stepped up and opened the Institute with a glimpse into the work they’d done in her class. We heard astute comparisons between seemingly disparate books, and more about those books’ reflections of home. It was a reminder of the depth of analysis that’s common here at Simmons, and should have been required listening for anyone with any doubts that children’s literature is a serious field of study.

Bright and early on Saturday morning, Vicky Smith, children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews, moderated a panel with illustrators Shadra Strickland, Hyewon Yum, and David Hyde Costello, citing images of home from each panelist’s work and asking about the thoughts behind the images. We learned that Shadra feels it’s important to show children of color in happy, whimsical settings; that Hyewon remembers leaving home to start school but now identifies more with the mother being left at home; and that David thought hardest about a minor character in Little Pig Joins the Band. All three illustrators’ work had enough images of home — some comforting and some unsettling — to drive home (ha!) the importance, especially in childhood, of having a familiar place to return to.

I attended several of the Master Seminars that were offered throughout the weekend. Lauren Rizzuto’s seminar examined the politics of sentiment in children’s literature, and the valuing of emotion both within texts and in response to texts. Amy Pattee borrowed Cathie’s impossible and totally unfair often-difficult exercise of asking those present to divide themselves into those who emphasize books and those who emphasize readers. From those perspectives, we examined some critically successful books and some that were popular in terms of sales, and discussed what each metric values. Jeannine Atkins shared some thoughts about what makes a verse novel work, offering specific, technical advice as well as larger observations. I left Lauren’s seminar feeling a bit more justified in my own feelings of affection toward literary characters; Amy’s with a greater understanding of how my bookselling past informs my thinking; and Jeannine’s with a few ideas of my own.

Joan Tieman, Susan Bloom, and Barbara Harrison.

Joan Tieman, Susan Bloom, and Barbara Harrison at the post-lecture reception.

On Friday night Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire turned the Mary Nagel Sweetser Lecture into a two-voice, three-act play about a subject dear to many of our hearts: the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College. Harrison, the Center’s founder, and Maguire, its first graduate, performed the story of how they got here and how the Center developed. That story, of course, included quotes from quite a few children’s books, words that many of us at Simmons have heard echoing in our ears. Between that and the photos of some familiar faces in bygone years, it was quite the multimedia presentation, and struck a chord with many in the audience.

On Saturday night Jack Gantos gave the most straightforward presentation I’d ever heard from him. It took us back to his childhood home; climbed stairs and trudged through snow to his writing home at the Boston Athenaeum; and scrawled its way through his writing process, but there were no leaps this time to, say, a hypothetical mausoleum. Instead, he connected his thoughts back to the idea of home so relentlessly, the repetition was almost as big a joke as the other actual jokes peppered throughout the speech. Jack Gantos can home in on one idea…who knew?

On Sunday morning M. T. Anderson recalled his adventurous travels abroad, featuring miscommunications that resulted from his learned-from-opera French and a fight with feral cats over a poorly prepared chicken. He realized it might be easier to instead write about places he’d never seen and extrapolate based on books and maps, an epiphany that resulted in the highly creative version of Delaware that appears in some of his books. We were even treated to his rendition of Delaware’s anthem.

Elissa:

Roger Sutton talks with Bryan Collier.

Roger Sutton talks with Bryan Collier.

Friday morning, Bryan Collier, in conversation with Roger — and both in snappy bow ties! — talked about his Maryland hometown (and the chicken farms that he knew were not a part of his future plans). Growing up he was an athlete but also an artist. He didn’t know any other artists, so he left home to find some. The prolific illustrator talked about the work ethic involved in creating art, and he compared creativity to a body of water: some people dip in a toe, some wade in, and others will “jump off a cliff, backwards.” “What do you do when you feel like you’re drowning?” asked Roger. “Trust it. Surrender,” he said. (And speaking of liquids: later I was sitting next to Bryan, in his slick beige suit, and terrified I’d spill my iced coffee on him. Didn’t happen. Phew!)

Kwame Alexander.

“Tall, dark, and handsome” Newbery winner Kwame Alexander.

Horn Book intern Alex introduced 2015 Newbery Award winner (for The Crossover, like I had to tell you that) Kwame Alexander to the crowd, forgetting the salient point — as the man himself was quick to point out — “Kwame Alexander is tall, dark, and handsome.” He is also an amazing speaker, as everyone who was at this year’s CSK Breakfast and Newbery-Caldecott Banquet already knows, both hypnotizing the audience with his confident flow of words and keeping them on their toes, with brains a-buzzing (there was some audience participation involved).

Rita Williams-Garcia.

Rita Williams-Garcia. And yes she is (see quote above).

And how do you follow a speech that is by turns hilarious, heart-breaking, thought-provoking, swoon-worthy (those ladies at church never had a chance), eye-opening, electric, improvisatory…etc. etc.? First, with a standing ovation. Then with a talk by Rita Williams-Garcia, who talked to…herself. Williams-Garcia played the parts of both present-day Rita and thirty-three-year-old (“the age of Jesus”) Rita, discussing her work, her views, her past, future, and in-between times. She talked about the effect The Horn Book’s words had on her — “Rita Williams-Gracia may well turn out to be among the most prominent African-American literary artists of the next generation” — and her evolving thoughts on book awards, who-can-write-for-whom?, and the n-word. It was moving. And deep. And we don’t even mind that Big Ma wasn’t based on a real person.

Martha:

Editor Neal Porter and artist Laura Vaccaro Seeger (whose art was on display in Simmons’s Trustman Gallery all weekend) took us, step by step, through her creative process — with the added bonus that we also got an illuminating glimpse into their working relationship. They shared (mostly late-night) emails, the journals in which Laura loosely brainstorms ideas (but retroactively goes back and gives tables of contents — she’s a born organizer, apparently), and how three of her picture books came to be: Green; a new book coming out this September called I Used to Be Afraid; and a work in progress, a companion to Green called Blue. As usual, their affection and respect for each other permeated the presentation, whether Laura was demonstrating the challenges of using die-cuts or Neal was exhorting the value of the printed picture book. To paraphrase: No one has yet come up with a more efficient format for telling a story in words and pictures than a picture book you can hold in your hand. It’s all about the page turns, and swiping through an e-book doesn’t provide that. (And his analogy — something about slapping an iPad with a dead fish in order to “page” through a picture book? — is pretty hard to get out of your mind.)

Katie:

Molly Idle.

Molly Idle, an artist from age three.

Molly Idle doesn’t write presentation notes, but she doesn’t need to — charming, high-energy, and insightful, she captivated the crowd. (One tweet read, “I think everyone here has a crush on Molly Idle right now. I know I do” to which Molly herself replied, “It’s a mutual admiration society. :)” How great is that?) She talked about her trajectory from animation to illustration, how becoming an illustrator felt like a kind of homecoming, and the logistics of sharing studio space with her family. I was lucky enough to get to pick her brain about how illustration is like dance — “If you could just say it, you wouldn’t need to draw it!” — at dinner afterwards.

Moving from commune to commune during her childhood, Emily Jenkins (a.k.a. E. Lockhart) found home in books and in shared reading experiences that represented stability in her otherwise uprooted life. As a result of her nomadic upbringing, she came to believe that home is not a nostalgic place to return to (i.e., your parents’ house) but rather something you make for yourself every day. She went on to examine some fascinating examples of literary independent children, such as Pippi Longstocking and the Boxcar Children, and how they create home for themselves. Emily closed with a moving passage from her book Toys Come Home:

“Why are we here?” asks Plastic.
“We are here,” says StingRay, “for each other.”
Oh.
Of course we are.
Of course we are here for each other.

Elaine Dimopoulos, debut author of fashion-meets-dystopian novel Material Girls, is really super smart. (She’s also a grad school classmate and good friend of mine, so I am probably a little bit biased. But even Emily Jenkins says Elaine is “crazy smart.”) Elaine discussed the ways that the traditional narrative structures of home–away–home (for younger kids’ fiction) and home–away (for YA) are no longer realistic, and offered some solutions to help writers get grown-ups out of the picture and allow child/teen characters some breathing room. Elaine also told us the story of how, as a Simmons grad student, she introduced speaker M. T. Anderson at the 2005 Summer Institute (and how it changed her life), as well as a little about being a Writer in Residence at the BPL.

And that was it! You know, just all that. There was a wrap-up by Cathie and Megan Dowd Lambert, and everyone went *home* (or wherever), recharged, refreshed, rejuvenated. For a recap in verse (and in homage), check out Shoshana’s “Goodnight, Paresky Room.”

See you in two years…

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