Allison's Book Bag

Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival, 2010

Posted on: October 23, 2010

Do you read the cover flaps of storybooks? Growing up, I devoured everything about books including those flaps. I read the front flaps for summaries, scanned the chapter listings for main events, noted dedications, and even ploughed through introductions and prologues because those often provided author insights into the story ahead. I also eagerly searched back pages including back flaps for therein often lay biographies of the authors for young people whose books I loved.

I wanted to meet those authors, know those authors, and grow up to be those authors. Despite these desires, I never really thought anything would come of those dreams. I lived on the island of Newfoundland, which for all its beautiful terrain and bountiful wildlife, few famous people ever seemed to venture and few renown authors seemed to live. And of course, although I kept dabbling with writing, when I grew up I forgot about all those dreams.

Then a few years ago while looking through teacher workshops offered through my local district, I came across a listing for Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. If you like to read books for young people, you absolutely must attend the local equivalent. And if you live in Nebrasaka, this is the event to attend to October. For at this festival, you can hear, meet, and have books signed by some of our best American children’s authors.

In its fifteenth year, the festival runs for two days. Friday is a Children’s Day, when local school teachers bring their students to hear invited authors. Saturday is an Adult Professional Conference Day, when any adult willing to travel the distance and pay the registration cost ($40) can attend. Even if you register ahead of time, I recommend arriving by 7:30 for this allows time to load your arms up with books and even get the bulk of them signed before sessions begin at 9:00. Many attendees choose the educational workshops, but I prefer the author presentations. This year, I heard Dan Gutman, Sarah Weeks, and author-illustrator pair Alyssa Capucilli and Pat Shories.  For an extra $10, you can attend the luncheon and hear a fourth author. This year Patricia Polacco spoke. In the evening, one can also attend an endowment dinner and hear a fifth author, but it involves an extra $65 and so far I have not availed of this luxury.


Dressed in sports t-shirt and jeans, Dan Gutman shared how he started out liking sports, but wasn’t particularly good in them, and now makes a living frequently writing about sports. He illustrated the writing process by talking about how his first book originated. Starting with a subject dear to his heart–baseball cards–he also considered what topics were trendy in children’s books. He wrote his first book about a boy who uses baseball cards to travel back in time to meet his favorite baseball heroes. As part of the writing process, he received multiple rejections from popular magazines for his stories and articles and later from publishers for his full-length novels. He showed and read from sample rejection letters. I found of interest too that when he turned from writing shorter works to novels, he switched from a computer to index cards for organizing. His first book actually received so many rejections that he considered self-publishing it, but happily he found a publisher. Today he is the author of several books, including those in series and those that have been nominated for a Golden Sower award. Wow!

Dan Gutman also showed a slide show of a typical day in his writing life. It starts with waking up, having breakfast, saying good-bye to family who leave for work or school, and reading the newspaper. He writes for several hours. By then, he’s ready for a break in the form of a long bike ride. When the family returns, he eats supper and relaxes by watching television or reading books. As you can see, Dan Gutman is a pretty normal guy with a pretty terrific career.


How does a girl who wants to grow up to work in Dairy Queen end up an author? If like Sarah Weeks, she had a mom who encourage her to write. Sadly, when Sarah proudly bundled up her stories to show her kindergarten teacher, her teacher took one cursory look at them, told her she couldn’t spell, and refused to read them. Ouch! Fortunately, she had her mom.

Sarah grew up not being good in math or other academic subjects, but with her strength being in writing. How well I relate! Even to this day, her mom reads everything she writes–just like my dad and my husband read everything I write. Sarah also struggles to this day with spelling–just like I sometimes find myself making up words. As for that kindergarten teacher of hers, she appeared in one of Sarah’s books as a mean teacher–just like I tease my friends that anything they do or say could one day show up in something I write. By the way, she also puts her sons into her books. They didn’t grow up to be readers though and so only realized how much of an inspiration they served for her books after their girlfriends read Sarah’s books. Sarah and I share other similarities too. For example, she likes to write in perfect quiet–just like I am sensitive to noise. Neither of us even like a faucet to drip.

Aspiring writers could learn plenty from Sarah. She follows the advice of an editor who told her: “Write the book YOU want to write.” She constantly observes people; they help form her characters. She also regularly takes photos of houses; they often inspire plots for her stories. Drafts may take weeks or years and she may write as many as ten of them. As for feedback, she tends to shelve it for a few weeks. This allows her enough distance from her stories to feel receptive to suggestions for changes. What wonderful ideas!


Two more ladies who grew up around books! Alyssa Capucillo is the author of the Biscuit picture books. After starting her day with a walk, she pulls out a notebook to write. She has over one hundred of them, in which she has written ideas for and drafts of stories. Her daughter’s adventures with pet-sitting a dog  and trying to help it settle to sleep inspired the first Biscuit book. Many subsequent stories have followed, several inspired by adventures with their own dog that they eventually bought. Some ideas are of course out of Alyssa’s own head, for in writing one can make whatever one wants come possible.

Pat Shories is the illustrator of these beloved books that have sold over 14 million copies. She grew up making her own books and in high school realized one can make a living as an artist. Hundreds of artists were asked to draw sample dog sketches for Biscuit, Pat’s submissions were selected, and she has spent the past seventeen years creating the art for the series. She used her own dog for inspiration for Biscuit and later used Alyssa’s daughter for inspiration for Biscuit’s young owner. Pat brought sample dummies of the Biscuit books, but also treated the audience to an impromptu sketch.

With a Russian and Jewish-Christian background, Patricia Polacco comes from a long line of storytellers. Yet she did not write as a child. Instead she grew up being teased by peers for being unable to read. See, Patricia has dyslexia. She used to stand in front in class and grip her book so hard her fingernails broke. Unlike Sarah Weeks, however, she found encouragement and hope from teachers. They changed her life and made her feel good about herself, Without them, Patricia says she would not be here today. She pays tribute to them in two of her books, by writing down her experiences with them and how they inspired her. Even so, it took her thirty years to feel happy and safe.

Actually, Patricia has always loved art, but also began writing at age forty-one, and now has numerous published picture books to her credit. She read and shared the background to one of them at the Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival luncheon. Her grandmother Anna moved from Russia to the United States but missed her homeland. She wore a dress that reminded her of Russia. She felt heartbroken when she finally outgrew it, but her mother added it to the family quilt so that Anna could always keep home “close to her heart”. Patricia grew up playing and sleeping with this quilt, used it once even to wave at a goat the way bullfighters wave capes at bulls, and she showed it during her presentation.

I listened enraptured to all these authors and left wanting to follow in their stepsteps. How incredible to share life experiences, impart universal truths, and have them reach hundreds of individuals. How fun to travel to schools and festivals to talk about one’s books. Being a children’s author would make a good career!


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I am focusing this year on other commitments. Once a month, I’ll post reviews of Advanced Reader Copies. Titles will include: Freddy Frogcaster and the Flash Flood by Janice Dean, One Two by Igor Eliseev, Incredible Magic of Being by Kathyrn Erskine, Dragon Grammar Book by Diane Robinson, and Wide as the Wind by Edward Stanton.



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