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2017 Simmons Summer Institute: (im)possible dreams

This past weekend was the biannual Summer Children’s Literature Institute at Simmons College, this year titled (im)possible dreams.

The Institute began Thursday evening with a conversation between journalist Callie Crossley of WGBH and artist Ekua Holmes. Ekua created the event’s logo as well as the art in the Trustman Gallery’s July exhibit (and, of course, in Voice of Freedom, which won a 2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor, and this year’s Out of Wonder). She recalled the support of those who nurtured her — her mother, for instance, let her save items she found outside even if their artistic purpose wasn’t immediately clear — and now tries to encourage kids who make connections between the pictures and stories in her published books and those they create themselves.

Ekua Holmes and Callie Crossley. Photo: Russell Perry.

* * *

The next morning, Cathie Mercier, director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College, officially opened the Institute by explaining the origin of its theme (complete with its parentheses and lowercase letters). Lorinda Cohoon, the Carol S. Kline Visiting Professor who led the month-long graduate symposium tied to the Institute, then presented on “Materiality and (im)possible dreams”: physical obstacles to dreaming for the future and to realizing those dreams.

Next, in presentation “Drawing from Experience,” illustrator Raúl Gonzalez III (a.k.a. Raúl the Third) talked about taking inspiration from his surroundings. In his El Paso childhood, that meant he got a lot of practice drawing desert rocks. In 2011, he used the same principle when mentoring local kids for an MFA community initiative; the students created portraits of their own families for an installation at the museum. More recently, he’s incorporated places from his youth in his ballpoint-pen illustrations for Cathy Camper’s Lowriders books. (And the whole time he spoke, he drew for us!)

Raúl the III in action. Photo: Russell Perry.

As always, the choice of which breakout seminar to attend was nearly impossible, but I ended up in associate professor Kelly Hager’s “(im)possible dreams of Education for Girls,” along with lots of other fellow Simmons alums. The discussion of how books portray education for girls started with Julie Berry’s The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, and with input from all those present, ranged from Hermione Granger to Malala Yousafzai. (Kelly also gave a shout-out to Horn Book editorial assistant Russell Perry and his paper on Tom Sawyer, Little Men, and nineteenth-century education.)

David Hyde Costello moderated a panel with illustrators Sydney Smith, Melissa Sweet, and Don Tate. They discussed the challenges of illustrating nonfiction when it’s not possible to know every detail of how things looked in a certain historical moment, and the role of bias in illustration. All the illustrators modeled willingness to put in the work of research and revision; Sydney Smith drew some gasps from the editors and book designers in the audience when he revealed that he created a new spread for Town Is by the Sea just a week before its print date.

Illustrators Don Tate, Sydney Smith, and Melissa Sweet. Photo: Russell Perry.

Juana Medina had me at “I juana tell you a story.” That (highly visual) story included the difficulty of fitting in as a new arrival to the United Stated: her “shield and superpower” of humor depended on Colombian attitudes and Spanish language. She ended by touching upon the connections she’s made with young readers through her work. Stories about those unlike ourselves, she pointed out, can and should invoke empathy, rather than sympathy. She urged all of us to “observe, listen, read, and create” to help foster empathy in our communities.

Juana Medina and her final slide. Photo: Shoshana Flax.

Jeannine Atkins said that her verse novels about historical figures often begin with her stumbling across a name and thinking, “Why haven’t I heard of her?” or wondering about little-known aspects of someone’s life. She won’t bend what is known about a person’s life — the chronology of events lends structure to her work the same way rhyme and meter do — but views gaps in the historical record as “invitations to imagination.”

As always, Institute regular Jack Gantos had us in stitches, this time with a story about his mother’s arrest for murder. (Spoiler alert: she didn’t actually murder anyone.) Like Ekua Holmes, he believes in encouraging kids to envision their own books on the shelves. He suggested that teachers invite students find the spot on the shelf where their own books might someday go, and shove their (clean) hands in there, or even create their own books to be catalogued in their school libraries.

Jack Gantos presenting in true Gantos fashion. Photo: Russell Perry.

* * *

On Saturday, editor Neal Porter, illustrator Eric Rohmann, and author Candace Fleming shared the saga of Giant Squid in its many incarnations, beginning with a completely different set of illustrations and a text by Rohmann, and ending with Fleming’s poetic, read-aloud-friendly text and Rohmann’s cinematic illustrations of a creature that’s only rarely been captured on film in its natural habitat.

Cathie Mercier introduces collaborators Eric Rohmann and Candace Fleming. Photo: Russell Perry.

Christine Heppermann contrasted the lack of rules within the context of dreams with the waking world’s rules, especially for women. She cited Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Feminist Tools,” and concluded that we need to rewrite the rule book to make our world more like dreams.

Saturday’s choice of seminars landed me in Amy Pattee’s “Making Whiteness Visible.” She began by asking us to think about privileges we have that become invisible to us as we get used to them. She parlayed that question into a discussion of how easy it can be for people to see their own privilege as normal, and of actions we can take to work against these assumptions. She also reminded us that adulthood is a identity of privilege.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s heartfelt lecture gave an honest look at painful periods of his own life, as well as exploring bigger-picture ideas. The reason we don’t try to fix social inequalities is because we don’t believe it’s possible, he said — but making the leap to “yes, it’s possible” was what allowed him to fulfill his dream of becoming an author. A shift in perspective can make the seemingly impossible achievable.

Tim Wynne-Jones and Julie Berry — who were teacher and student, respectively, at Vermont College for Fine Arts — discussed the work that went into their books, particularly The Emperor of Any Place and The Passion of Dolssa. Both described a lot of work that didn’t make it directly onto the page. Berry had to contend with sources that contradicted each other, and Wynne-Jones did a great deal of “side writing” to develop the novel’s villain.

After we refueled with some thematically celestial cookies, Malinda Lo told us about the circuitous path to her dream of being a writer. Though she wrote three full-length fantasy novels as a teen, it took her a long time to accept writing as a valid career path. It took even longer to realize that she could write about lesbians and about Chinese American characters — characters like herself. (Those three early fantasy manuscripts all had white protagonists.) “We need you,” especially those with marginalized identities, to “dare to dream,” she told the audience.

Malinda Lo recalls the first time she saw her debut novel, Ash, on a bookstore’s shelf. Photo: Shoshana Flax.

Andrea Davis Pinkney’s Mary Nagel Sweetser lecture started with a dramatically performed reminiscence of those who influenced her. She followed it with a call to “show the face” of people of color on book covers, reminding us that “we are the ones” responsible for making change. She read a letter she’d written to “diversity,” and suggested that we each write our own letter, telling diversity what we plan to do to help, and mail it to ourselves in a year to see if we’ve followed through.

Andrea Davis Pinkney’s powerful Sweetser lecture. Photo: Russell Perry.

* * *

On Sunday morning, M. T. Anderson spoke about the “texture” of writing, from style to “moral universe” to the relationship between the author and the reader. For instance, various characteristics of his Pals in Peril books, such as their illustration style, assure readers of the likelihood of happy endings in ways that his Octavian Nothing books don’t.

M.T. Anderson begins his presentation. Photo: Russell Perry.

For the first time, the Institute’s closing came in the form of a series of creative, often hilarious videos by the symposium’s students, inspired by the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. Of course, there were plenty of opportunities for fans to meet their favorite authors and illustrators and have books signed (and many trips to the Children’s Bookshop pop-up shop set up in an adjoining room.)

Raul the III, Sydney Smith, and Don Tate at a signing session. Photo: Russell Perry.

Julie Berry signs a novel for Friend of the Horn Book Molly Glover. Photo: Russell Perry.

Juana Medina signs Juana & Lucas for a fan. Photo: Russell Perry.

Jack Gantos with fans. Photo: Russell Perry.

“My brain is full,” I heard more than one person say during the weekend, and I agree. Thanks to everyone for giving us so much to think about. See you in 2019!

* * *

To dream the (im)possible dream.
To doubt the ridiculous doubt,*
revise when your research belies you,
reframe what a book is about.

To write the unwritable wrong,
reveal an invisible scar,
to draw till your hands are too inky.
(To pause for an edible star.)

This is our quest, to go to extremes,
to hear our subconscious and follow our dreams,
to search for the truth, and wherever we’re led,
to share what we find even if it means adding a spread.

And the work will be better for this,
that we dive to the ponderous deep,
persist, though we thought we’d be finished,
and earn our unreachable sleep!

*Thanks to Julie Berry for this line. And while we’re at it, thanks to lyricist Joe Darion and composer Mitch Leigh for the original “Impossible Dream (The Quest)” song.

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Shoshana Flax About Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College.

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