Allison's Book Bag

Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival, 2012

Posted on: September 23, 2012

I’ve just returned from another year at the Plum Creek Literacy Festival held at Concordia University in Nebraska. In its seventeenth year, the festival runs for three days. The first two days are for students, while Saturdays are always for adults. Saturday mornings start at 7:30 with signings by authors, switch to sectionals at 9:00 which feature several children’s authors and literacy experts, and end with an author luncheon. This year, authors on my radar were Andrea Pinkney, Clare Vanderpool, and Gary Schmidt.

ANDREA PINKNEY

“If it was writing your writing on the clipboard, they could sell it….”
—attendee at the Plum Creek Literacy Festival

According to Children’s Health Magazine, author Andrea Pinkney is the one of the twenty five most influential people in children’s lives. She is an award-winning and best-selling author of many books for young people, including historical picture books Duke Ellington, Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down, Sojourner Truth’s Step-Stomp Stride, and novels Bird in a Box and With the Might of Angels.

Right now, wherever you are:

  • Close your eyes
  • Put your hands in your lap
  • Touch the floor with your feet.
  • Now think of your happiest moment.

This is how Pinkney tries to start every moment when she rises at the early hour of 4:00. Her current best memory is of her and her daughter hiking in the mountains in Spain. The reason she does this activity is it puts her in a positive mood, which she believes is conducive to the best writing.

The first few hours of Pinkney’s day are spent writing in a notebook, going to the pool before anyone else arrives except the lifeguard, and getting her children ready for school. After that, it’s off to her job at Scholastic, where she works as an editor. One attendee observed: “It sounds as if it except for a brief time in the morning, you don’t get time to write.” Pinkney replied that basically she writes wherever she can fit it in, which means lots of writing on planes, trains, and automobiles.

Pinkney shared one quick story of a morning at the pool where an idea came to her but she had nothing to write on because she had forgotten her notebook at home. “What could I have written on?” she asked. Although many creative ideas were offered, such as her arm, a clipboard, toilet paper, paper towel, no one thought of a flip flop. Pinkney showed us an actual sample!

Next, Pinkney proceeded to talk about her writing roots. She’s actually a product of three television shows: Thanks to The Mary Tyler Moore Show she wanted to become a journalist, rent an apartment, and live in a city; The sitcom A Family Fair inspired her desire to live in Manhattan; She was also an avid fan of The Waltons, which featured John Boy who wrote on yellow tablets and lived in the mountains but later moved to the city and become a journalist.

Naturally, when she attended university, Pinkney majored in journalism where she learned to write for newspapers. Her instructor would assign the class daily to write for thirty minutes on a topic. Through this task, Pinkney learned how to avoid writer’s block. “There was no time for it.”

After graduation, Pinkney successfully landed a job as an editorial assistant at the company which produced Field & Stream. Here, she met her husband Brian, who is a famous illustrator of children’s books including hers.

Later, when working at Essence, one of Pinkney’s responsibilities was to compile an annual round-up of children’s books.  It didn’t take her long to notice that there were very few African American picture books making the list. When she talked with her husband about this need, he advised her to talk to a book editor. She did. And this is how she landed a job at Simon & Schuster.

One thing seemed to keep leading to another. In conversations with the Children’s Book Society of Authors and Illustrators, she inquired, “Why aren’t there any books on Kwanza?”

In response, Pinkney was asked, “Why don’t you write one?”

She declined, stating, “No. I’m Mary Tyler Moore.”

But, things were about to change. Pinkney became interested in the Alvin Ailey dance troupe, which explores the black experience through movement. She decided to write his biography. It was rejected multiple times. No one thought she could compact an entire life into the thirty-two pages of a picture book. Moreover, publishers didn’t think children would be interested. Pinkney proved them wrong and has since written several other biographies.

For all of them, Pinkney drew on her journalistic background to ensure the book is one hundred percent accurate. If she can’t verify a fact, Pinkney will not include it. For example, her historical novel Bird in a Box was about to be printed, when Pinkney decided she needed to do more research for the character of Billy Jenks. Specifically, she wanted to buy a pair of gloves that belonged to Joe Lewis, a hero of the kids in Bird in a Box, and take boxing lessons. Although Pinkney couldn’t afford an actual pair of Joe Lewis’ gloves, she did purchase gloves from the time period of the 1930s. After putting herself through the ordeal of eating yucky food and getting punched, she rewrote all the parts for Billy. Her picture book Sit In was ready to go to press, when Pinkney discovered that she had incorrectly named the foods that were ordered by the four friends and so again a rewrite happened before her book was released.

In wrapping up her presentation, Pinkney talked about her job as an editor. In doing so, she noted that authors and illustrators don’t normally meet. This way “each is free to have their own creative vision”. Andrea and Brian are an exception. They make their marriage work, by mostly keeping their personal and professional lives separate. On a weekly basis, however, they meet for three hours to discuss her stories and his illustrations. Otherwise, they focus on their marriage when together. He even his studio outside of the house.

Next up for Pinkney is a book called Hand in Hand, which will be released later this fall. Her husband drew ten portraits of influential African Americans to give to his son. She thought this would make a good book. It will be a companion to Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters, a book of hers which I brought at the festival.

CLARE VANDERPOOL

“It is not down any map
True places never are.”
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Clare Vanderpool won the 2011 Newbery Medal for her historical novel Moon Over Manifest. When she received the call telling her the news, Vanderpool was in such shock she couldn’t speak but just held the phone and cried. At her presentation, she compared her shock to “having a baby when you didn’t know you were pregnant”.

Vanderpool started her presentation promptly at 10:15 by closing the lecture room door and quipping, “There, it’s too late to change your mind.”

“Oh yeah,” retorted someone from the audience.

To which, Vanderpool jokingly responded by placing a garbage can in front of the door.

Then Vanderpool told us about herself. She’s a stay-at-home mom, living in Kansas, who was raised in a Catholic school. For an assignment, she once wrote that she wanted to be a nun, because “it was fun”. Being good in creative writing assignments, Vanderpool also considered being a writer. Unfortunately, they stopped being fun in high school. Besides liking to write, she also read constantly—even during class and in church. Her family traveled a lot, meaning she had been to every state by the time she turned twelve, which credits with helping her develop observation skills.

From this bio, Vanderpool turned to talking about her writing life. “Can you go from a blank page to a book?” she asked. No! One needs practice. And so after the birth of her first son, Vanderpool joined writing clubs and organizations. Through them, she started to study the writing craft.

Moon Over Manifest took her six years to write. Perhaps, if she hadn’t been a mom of three young children at the time, the book could have been written faster. Or maybe not. Vanderpool stressed the importance of allowing ideas to simmer the way one does a stew.

Vanderpool believes five ingredients help her to write Moon Over Manifest:

  • Memory: Moon Over Manifest is rooted in geography and a hodgepodge of memories
  • Research: Vanderpool gravitates towards historical novels and enjoys research as a hobby.
  • Inspiration: The book Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey is a true story of a man who visited libraries to see old maps and would then use a razor to cut them out. In the book is a quote from Moby Dick, which inspired Vanderpool to think about what are true places. She realized her home state is for her. From there grew idea of having a character explore what is a true place.
  • Luck: In her mom’s closet, Vanderpool found photos which served as models for some of her characters.
  • Imagination: To Vanderpool, this is the most important ingredient. It’s what drives the process or serves as the chicken broth to the stew.

Much of the rest of Vanderpool’s presentation evolved around the factual background to Moon Over Manifest. Set in Kansas and during the Depress, it’s about Abilene, who wanders from one place to the next with her dad until he decides she needs to establish roots. Vanderpool’s next book, Navigating Early, is another historical novel. It’s due out later this fall and is about a boy who is uprooted from Kansas to Maine.

GARY SCHMIDT

“Art is going to give you something to be more of a human being with.”
—Gary Schmidt

Gary Schmidt has won two Newbery Honors, one for his historical novel Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and the other for his contemporary novel Wednesday Wars. He is a professor of English at Calvin College, a job which he loves and has no plans to quit, and the author of over twenty books. For his presentation, Schmidt wore good pants, shirt, and tie. He also spoke without any props, but relied simply on the power of stories.

Indeed, he started his presentation by telling one about his uncle. You might not know the name of Bradford Ernest Smith, but you probably know what he wrote. He’s the author of Captain Kangaroo. Schmidt used to watch the show to the very end, just to see the credits.

His uncle is the only other person in the family to write and Schmidt admired him. But, at age seventeen, Schmidt had a falling out with his uncle. His uncle offered to get Schmidt into Harvard, but Schmidt said no. He wanted to get into a college on his own skills. The two had words and stopped speaking to one another. About thirty years past and Schmidt decided it was time to make peace. He called his uncle, who agreed to meet with him.

There is no way I will do justice do his story and so I’m not going to try. Basically, his uncle told him a story about going bird-hunting during his youth. He went with his father (or grandfather), but didn’t want to shoot the hawk. He finally did. And when he did, another hawk flew down to the fence and started to screech. His uncle had “killed its mate”. As an adult, Schmidt’s uncle threw all the guns in the house into the lake where he had killed the hawk. He had been through more than one war, but what stood out to him was the memory of the hawk he killed. From this story, Schmit made the point: “We carry our childhood with us all the time.”

Right now, wherever you are:

  • Think about your best moment from childhood
  • Think of your worst moment from childhood

Schmidt said chances are one can remember these moments extremely well. The same goes for the books we read as children. He gave the example of his mom. She took him once to an antique store, where she found a first-grade reader from childhood and claimed she could remember every page. When Schmidt put her to the test, he found out she was right.

“Books are dangerous,” Schdmit next announced. When he attended school, schools used a tracking system. If you were in track one, you were considered smart and college bound. If you were in track two, you were considered okay and maybe college material. If you were in track three, you were considered stupid and bound for a restaurant job. Schmidt was placed in track three. Consequently, Schdmit didn’t learn how to read in grades one to three.

Then in grade four, Schmidt got to know the track-one teacher. One day she took him to her class, sat him in a desk full of picture books, and began to teach him to read. It changed his life. As did finding out after high school that he was color blind. This diagnosis ended his plans to join the military. Instead, he attended graduate school with the plans to become a professor. While writing his dissertation, he took a break to write a book for young people. Although it was rejected, he received encouragement to keep writing and so he did.

Next Schdmit talked about his writing process. He works in a 10×10 outbuilding with a wood stove, some book shelves, a typewriter, a desk, and an uncomfortable chair. The latter helps keep him awake. He writes on three different books at any one time and outputs five hundred pages on a daily basis. To the chagrin of writing teachers, Schdmit never uses an outline. Rather, he prefers to keep the mystery of what happens next as fresh to him as to his readers. Some other quirks include using a typewriter and burning all his rough drafts. About the typewriter, Schmidt said, “Anything that slows you down has a writer is good. Anything that speeds you up as a writer is your enemy.”

To conclude his presentation, Schmidt talked about the two main things writers must do:

  • You have to love the stuff you’re working with. In making this point, Schdmit talked about an artist instructor who drew an apple on the board and then asked: “What’s on the board?” No one guessed the right answer: chalk. For writers, the stuff they’re working with is words.

Imagine you see a table with a blue velvet cloth, to the right is a hat and to the left is a rabbit with the number five, and standing behind the table is a magician. What caught your attention? Schmidt would say, “The number five.” It’s the one thing that is not cliché. And so it’s probably the one thing you are starting to wonder about. And that’s what authors do with words.

  • You have to love the world you create. In making this point, Schdmit talked about an ancient author named John Ruskin. Schmidt said everything this author wrote is dull, except that he loved his one line: “You will never learn to love the art well, until you learn to love what the world loves.”

Writers should also give you something to be more of a human being with. As such, stories should have questions. And so Schmidt likes to explore: What turns a young person towards adulthood? In his most recent book, Okay for Now, Schmidt explores two decisions one can make about art. One can sell it the way a middle school did so that they could pay for three teachers who wouldn’t be under government control. Or one can keep it the way one library did so that it will be around for the next generation.

Schmidt ended with one last story. The fact he asked about the time, I think he probably could have shared a dozen more. But, lunch was drawing near and so he concluded with a story of his experience of working with reluctant boy writers. Some librarians asked him for his help and then took him a remote building, where guards guided him through several steel doors. You see, they had taken him to visit boys in a moderate security prison. What impressed Schmidt most was how many different ways the boys related to his books. “Books take kids out of cells of all kinds.” And that’s the best reason to be a writer.

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4 Responses to "Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival, 2012"

Wow! This must be a great festival. I really enjoyed your detailed summary of each well known author’s presentation. Thanks for sharing!

From the moment I walk in the door to the moment I feel as if in a perfect world. Everyone there talks children’s books. I could live there. 🙂

An interesting article about three writers whose presentations on their lives and practices surely inspired those attending them.

I tried thinking about my best and worst moments from childhood and couldn’t even identify them. I’ll have to look through our family albums to stimulate my memory.

One of my best memories is waking up after midnight one Christmas and staying up to open gifts. That’s the year you have me Nelson’s Picture Bible. I didn’t want to go back to bed, because I wanted to read it all the way through. 🙂 That book is still on my shelves.

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Summer Reviews

Books can take connect us with strangers, take us to unique places, and introduce us to new ideas. They can also offer hope in a chaotic world. And so I must share what I read!

Each week, I’ll introduce you to religious books, Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, or diversity books. Some I’ll review as singles and others as part of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Joni: The unforgettable story of a young woman’s struggle against quadriplegia & depression by Joni Eareckson
  • The True Story of the World’s Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary by Samantha Glen
  • Brothers in hope : the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan–refugees by Mary Williams
  • The Inner Life of Cats by Thomas McNamee

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