Allison's Book Bag

Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival, 2011

Posted on: September 25, 2011

As an aspiring author, my favorite event to attend is the Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival at Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska. From the moment one walks in the door and receives their registration packet to the moment one drops off the event survey and walks out the door, the air buzzes with children’s literature. I attend the Adult Professional Conference Day on Saturday when, for forty dollars, I can learn from and be inspired by authors and professional literacy speakers.

I arrived at seven fifty in the morning.  The doors had been open for only twenty minutes, but already attendees were amassing. My eyes scanned the author tables. This year I had bought some books prior to the festival, knowing I would want them signed. I set off to find Eileen Christelow and Barbara Robinson. The lines grew longer and longer, the hour grew later and later. Limits were imposed on the number of books we could have signed, and numbers were handed out to those who would have to return to the lines after lunch.

Bathrooms filled up, attendees grabbed last-minute refreshments, and doors swung outward. By eight forty-five, we were heading to other buildings where we would hear forty-five minute presentations delivered by our chosen speakers. I headed first to Grace Lin because she is a multicultural author. Then I checked out DyAnne DiSilvo who writes community service books but also wrote a chapter book for reluctant and struggling writers. Last, I dropped in on Barbara Robinson whom I grew up hearing about because she wrote The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and two sequels.

GRACE LIN

Looking young and nervous, Grace Lin studied her notes. At nine o’clock she began to share the account of her long conflict with her Asian heritage. She grew up in upstate New York, the only Asian in her school. In her attempts to fit in, she tried to forget that she was Asian. She succeeded so well that once she glanced in a store window and thought “there’s an Asian girl!” before realizing that the Asian girl was her.

While Lin grew up loving books, none included Asian characters except The Five Chinese brothers. One day when the librarian took this book out to read, Lin’s classmates all turned Lin’s way and exclaimed, “They’re Chinese like Lin!” Lin felt embarrassed. She was more like her classmates than those five Chinese brothers. After all, she ate at the same restaurants and shopped at the same stores.

Lin loved writing as much as reading, and saw every school assignment as an opportunity to write and illustrate another book. A teacher noticed her passion and told her about a writing contest. Drawing on her love of European fairy tales and fantasies about royalty, Lin created a book that won fourth place and earned her $1000. (First place went to none other than Dav Pilkey, who would go on to write the Captain Underpants series.)

On the heels of this success, Lin decided to pursue an art degree at Rhode Island, through which she improved her illustration skills. During a year of studies in Rome, Lin began to feel strange. Everyone loved their rich culture while she knew nothing about her Asian heritage. Lin began to draw pictures of an Asian girl in these European places but this still didn’t feel right. Lin made a decision. She wasn’t going to be a great European artist. Moreover, her reasons for drawing were all wrong. She desired recognition, when instead she should be drawing for herself and to share.

As you can see, Lin kept struggling with identity. Lin tried to figure out what to do next. She wondered about what she would want to do if she knew she was going to die. She realized she would more than anything want to spend time with her family. And so she drew a family portrait. It didn’t follow the classical style, but it was uniquely her work.

After college, Lin submitted her portfolio to various editors. Eventually one expressed interest in her drawings but wondered if she had a story to go along with them. Lin declared, “Yes!” But in reality she did not. Drawing on her Asian background, the Ugly Vegetables was born and became her first published book.  For her next book, the editor wished her to change the main character to a boy and to a Caucasian. Otherwise, Lin would be labeled as multicultural and would find her career choices restricted. Around this time Lin accepted a contract offer from Random House for another Asian book, sealing her fate as a multicultural author . Soon other aspiring artists were praising her for using her culture to get her foot in the door. Lin felt as if in a “double jeopardy”; was it a blessing or curse to be a multicultural author?

Again Lin pulled back from her Asian culture. She began creating animal stories to avoid culture altogether. The funny thing is that her audience preferred her multicultural books, and so Lin once again evaluated her priorities. She decided that she wanted to explore her culture through her art, and also to help others like her to become comfortable with their race. Lin began writing books for older readers based on her childhood and similar experiences that had been shared with her over the years. Her latest book, Where the Moon Meets the Mountain, draws heavily on Asian folklore. Rather than further typecasting Lin as a multicultural author, it has gained her more attention by landing on the New York Best Seller list and garnering the Newbery Honor. Best of all, the audience for it is mixed, meaning Lin is now being recognized as an author in her own right.

DYANNE DISAVLO

I next attended Dyanne DiSalvo’s presentation, which was focused on her successful community-themed books. City Green appears in grade-school readers across the country. What more could an author ask for?

Helping out has always been a passion for DiSalvo. Even as a child, she helped out in the neighborhood soup kitchen. And after a boy died of muscular dystrophy, Disalvo and her friends started an annual town carnival to raise money to find a cure.

Although she also grew up loving to draw, DiSalvo didn’t initially consider a career in art. She thought books were “born” in libraries. Moreover, all the women she knew were either moms or nuns. When a librarian told her that books were created, DiSalvo knew she wanted to be an artist. DiSalvo did what all aspiring artists do: she took classes, submitted her portfolio to editors, and watched for ideas.

DiSavlo didn’t set out to write community books, but to share stories of her neighborhood. The first story she told was about Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen. Workers told her she couldn’t because the story would be too sad. DiSalvo persisted, wanting to share the stories of those helped by the soup kitchen. For example, there were the owners of a family store regularly gave food to the soup kitchen. One day they had to close down because they didn’t have insurance. Next thing DiSalvo knew, these people were in the soup kitchen line. She also told of another man who carried around his paintings that he made from discarded nail polish.

Another story DiSalvo wrote was about a local apartment complex that was torn down because the landlord continued to refuse to maintain it and so it eventually became unsafe. As she talked about City Green, DiSalvo offered tips to aspiring authors and artists. For example, writers are always in training and so should carry a pen around with them everywhere. If they consciously carry a pen with them they’ll consciously think of ideas. This is important because, after all, every story starts with an idea. Characters are also all around. Authors should make an effort to search for names too. Once DiSalvo heard a man tell a boy, “Your head is like a hammer.” This inspired the name of Hammerhead. Once authors start to write they need to think about what will pull readers into their story. DiSalvo thought about starting City Green with a picture of a wrecking ball, because it would entice even boys to read it. In talks with her editor she realized that because the story focused on people it should instead show the community who would be affected by the destruction of the building. Authors also need to “show, don’t tell.” For example, she never outright says that one of the characters is pregnant, but does use the pregnancy to show the passage of time in City Green. Finally the book was almost ready for printing but still needed a title. DiSalvo had been calling it “The Lot” but her editor didn’t like that name. After compiling a list of variations, a friend gave her the name City Green. Around the same time City Green was published, city gardens were becoming popular. And so City Green became part of a wave, which helped it sell.

Despite its success, DeSalvo has experienced her share of rejections. She brought a stack of letters to prove her point and declared, “It’s an artist’s job to be be rejected.” Then she thanked everyone who has ever given up, for it makes it easier for her to succeed. At the same time, she encouraged aspiring writers and artists to buy a binder with sparkles and smiles for all those rejection letters. Then just persist; it’s not about ego but the art: one of the these days success will come.

Although DiSalvo focused her presentation around her community books, my interest lay in her chapter book for reluctant struggling writers: The Sloppy Copy Slip-up. During question time, I asked how she came up with the idea for the book. Well, a lot of readers had been asking her when she would write a chapter book. Moreover, DiSalvo has worked directly with students in writing workshops, where kids frequently complain, “I don’t know what to write!” DiSalvo likes that teachers can use The Sloppy Copy Slip-Up to encourage students. In the process of reading the book, students can also learn tons about how to write. To reluctant struggling writers DiSalvo repeats her advice to always carry a pen and to write down what their senses tell them.

BARBARA ROBINSON

While part of the fun of Plum Creek Literacy Festival is discovering new authors such as Lin and DiSalvo, it’s also fun to meet beloved authors such as Barbara Robinson. The more autobiographical stories I hear about authors, the more I realize how different they are despite their common bond. Barbara Robinson is no exception.

Robinson started out as a short story writer. After about five years of submissions, she sold her first story. Some of her sales were to McCalls, whose editor one day called to ask Robinson if she had any Christmas stories. For inspiration, Robinson pulled out Christmas books and music. For the only time in her life the first sentence to a story popped into her head. Readers familiar with The Best Christmas Pageant Ever will all recognize this famous line: “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.” A year after the story’s publication readers began requesting a reprint and a longer version.

The novel-length version stayed around long enough for parents, teachers, and even ministers to discover it. Schools and theaters began inquiring if there was a play. Robinson knew a little about theater and so gladly turned it into play. Next, she was asked to write it as a script for a producer who wished to turn The Best Christmas Pageant Ever into a movie. She felt less comfortable in this territory, but the producer told her that he always asked children’s book authors to write the script to help ensure the movie maintained the spirit of the book. So Robinson did. And she even learned from the experience. Now when she finds herself stuck, she will imagine the next episode as a scene in a movie. To introduce younger readers to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Robinson has written a picture book version that will hit bookstore shelves in about a week.

Due to the popularity of the original book, naturally readers demanded a sequel. Robinson tried to comply but found it tough. She didn’t want to disappoint her fans. For months she recorded ideas on index cards. Then upon a return visit to school one boy asked, “When are you going to finish it?” Robinson admitted she had a problem. She had all these funny ideas but nothing to tie them together. The boy told her, “You need them to be in school, because that’s our job.” This gave Robinson the inspiration she needed to pull the sequel together. The Best School Year Ever won the Nebraska Golden Sower award and is perhaps even more popular among kids than her first book. I look forward to reading it!

As noon approached, authors began to wrap up their presentations. Those attendees who had paid an extra ten dollars for the luncheon headed towards the large dining room in the back in the main building. Sandwiches and cupcakes awaited us at our tables. I selected an empty table but others soon joined me. We chatted about authors, teaching experiences, and our own writing desires. Then the guest speakers for the luncheon took the podium. One of them was Barbara Robinson, who treated us to a reading from her newest book about the Herdmans. She plans to set it at summer camp and has already visited ones for ideas. As the applause died for her presentation, so did the festival activities. A few people hung around to buy more books or meet more authors, but by three-thirty most of us were headed back out to the routine outside world.

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