Allison's Book Bag

Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival, 2013

Posted on: October 1, 2013

It’s 6:00 a.m. on Saturday, September 28, and I had already gotten out of bed. Why such an early start? At 7:30, the doors to the annual Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival would open for its eighteenth year. The festival extended its hours for the first time since I’ve started attending. Instead of ending at 1:30 p.m. after an author luncheon, the last session ran until 4:30 p.m., meaning patrons were able to hear two extra speakers. My choices of authors to hear this year were: Neal Shusterman, Judith Schachner, Kevin Henkes, and Anna Dewdney. I also attended a sessional by fluency expert, Timothy Rabinski, who promoted poetry and songs as a way to build fluency. At the end of the day, I walked away with eleven signed books and ten typed pages of notes.


Neal Shusterman reads from one of his books

Neal Shusterman reads from Ship Out of Luck

When I walked into the crowded room, tabloid-size posters of Shusterman’s books were on display. He’s the author of such trilogies as Skinjacker and Unwind. After formal introductions, Shusterman talked about the history behind his first story, his most influential teacher, and his decision to write for teenagers. After the first thirty minutes, he accepted questions from the audience. Even though I’d already researched into Shusterman’s life, as part of my teasers at Allison’s Book Bag, I loved hearing Shusterman tell them in-person to a captive audience. The last five minutes, Shusterman read an excerpt from his newest publication: Ship Out of Luck.

The first story Shusterman ever wrote was in third grade. The teacher dressed old-school with a tight gray bun and seemed to hate children. One had to raise hands at a right angle to ask questions, but Shusterman wasn’t a right-angle kid. Instead he was bouncy, squirrely, and today would likely get labeled as ADHD. Shusterman knew it would be a tough year. In the fall, his teacher gave the class an assignment to write a Halloween story. He decided to impress her. The assignment was to write two pages. He wrote five, cut it up, illustrated it, and made it ten pages. He even hole-punched it and bound it. She gave him a D-, which he viewed as the worst grade. “It means she wanted to stick it to you.” In all fairness to her, in Shusterman’s story the ground opened up and swallowed his teacher and squirted blood everywhere.

In contrast, Shusterman had a fantastic ninth-grade teacher. Shusterman loved the story of JAWS and wanted to write one like that which would keep people on the edge of the seat. He didn’t do sharks because it had been done, but instead used sandworms and lobsters. He gave the story to his teacher who loved it and gave it to the principal who asked to see him. Shusterman thought the principal would lecture him for an inappropriate story, but the principal wanted permission to enter it into a contest. Shusterman’s entry was the only one from the school. When the list of winners was announced, and Shusterman didn’t received first-second-third or any of the thirty honorable mentions, he was crushed. He didn’t want to ever write again and feel humiliated. His teacher told him to get over it and that this was his first lesson as a writer: Rejection. Shusterman had been handing assignments in late to her class and so she challenged him to write a story per month to make up the grade. However, the stories had to submitted by the first day of month to count. “By the end of the year, I felt like a writer.” A few years ago a student asked Shusterman if he had ever thanked the teacher. Shusterman hadn’t. It had been her first year. Now she was a vice-principal. Shusterman took her out and showed her a stack of books. All due to her!

In college, Shusterman became a teen counselor. Now he was taking care of kids as obnoxious as he used to be. At night, the kids were allowed to have drinks and vending machine food. Naturally, all that junk food resulted in The kids bouncing off the wall. The counselors would yell at them, which didn’t work, and so Shusterman decided to become a storyteller.

Neal Shusterman signs my book

Neal Shusterman signs my book

Not knowing where to start, he decided to make up a story about his cool sunglasses. He loved wish-fulfillment stories and wondered what would happen if whoever wore the glasses could have anything they wanted. In most wish-fulfillment stories, there was always a finite time to the wishes. In his story, Shusterman explored what would happen if the wishes never ended but characters have to deal with the real-life consequences of it.

Shusterman had about forty kids to watch, but now he also had a story and his sunglasses prop. In the first cabin, kids were having a pillow fight. He started telling the story: Eyes of Kid Midas. The first cabin was rowdy and so Shusterman told them he was leaving and would share with the next group. Because the kids wanted to hear, they snuck after him. He did this for the next two cabins. At the fourth cabin, he walked slowly and then waited, until all the kids went into the fourth, snuck in, made everyone quiet. The next night, he informed the kids he would tell the story only to the QUIETEST cabin. A director walking by asked, “Where are the kids?” Shusterman loved the power!

One night, outdoor movies were planned but it rained. The kids got rowdy and the camp director asked Shusterman to tell a story. He had ninety minutes to fill. Shusterman started telling Eyes of Kid Midas again. The kids started giving suggestions, asking questions, and helping him stretch the story. And so Shusterman developed an audience of teens.

When asked about what’s next, Shusterman shared that he’s co-writing the first book called Telsa’s Attic, that is part of a middle-grade series. Some local kids discover objects with extraordinary powers in an attic that’s part of a magnetic vortex. He’s also working on a novel called Challenger Deep, which is about teen mental illness. His editor told Shusterman it was his best work to date. Shusterman hopes it’ll make a positive difference.


Judith Schachner talks about her writing career

Judith Schachner talks about her picture books

Picture book authors are still more of an unknown quality to me and so I struggled to pick among all the ones at the festival. Author of the Skippyjon Jones series, Schachner intrigued me because of her proposed topic: How to Write about Your Pets. While she didn’t really end up covering that topic, audiences loved her. She was funny, gregarious, and shared many interesting aspects of her life.

First off, Schachner told us that she had been diagnosed at age fifty-five by a little boy as having ADHD. Because was already seeing a psychiatrist about her difficulties with talking in front of people, Schachner asked her psychiatrist about this comment. The psychiatrist tested her and off the charts. Schachner compared herself to an Etch-N-sketch, saying that if she bumps into one thing it might give her an another idea and she’ll talk about it. To help her organize her thoughts for this presentation, she brought samples of letters from kids which she receives on a daily basis.

Are you still alive?
Were you ever a child?
Were you a good student?

Yes, she’s still alive! Of course, she was a child! As a student, she was shy! A third-grade teacher knew that Schachner needed to draw and allowed. She called her “a little artist”. On report cards, she wrote, “A good little grader”. Other teachers were less accepting of her. In fourth grade, she received a D. This changed her life. She never wanted to volunteer again. On report cards, her teacher wrote, “Judith needs to improve.” In fifth-grade, the story repeats herself. Report cards read, “Judith needs to work faster.” Everyone criticized her lack of math skills. No one recognized her art talent.

Yet, Schachner feels drawing and imagination saved her. Life for her was full of suffering, with her mom being diagnosed with breast cancer, her grandfather being an alcoholic and often living with them, and Schachner herself developing astigmatism, which made her sick when she read. Schachner drew herself into stories, ones with positive endings, because she needed them. At schools, she tell students that they can make their way out of a dark place. She did it herself through art.

Are you married?
Do you have kids?

Schachner has been happily married for thirty-two years. Her husband was the first person in her life to let her put together an art portfolio.

Judith Schachner poses with me after signing a copy of her book

Judith Schachner poses with me after signing a copy of her book, Yo, Vikings!

Her oldest Emma took an interest in Vikings, to the point she wanted a Viking ship. An ad appeared in the Philadelphia paper of a Viking ship for sale: “BUY OR BURN. Longship of 29 long feet. $7000 or best offer.” Emma broke open her piggy bank, counted her money, and wrote a letter. Two weeks later, her parents received a letter agreeing for the family to take the Viking ship. Emma was interviewed about the purchase. At the time, Schachner wrote “Yo Vikings” in her notebook, because she knew that she’d write this story. It’s actually her favorite of all her published books. It teaches that dreams can happen. Today, Emma is a paleontologist.

As for her other daughter, Sarah, she’s not a verbal kid but expresses herself through art. She makes board games, thinking caps, and little books. Teachers often couldn’t decide if Sarah was intelligent or if she headed for academic difficulties. Sarah’s experiences inspired Schachner’s book about a girl who creates thinking caps and asks people to pay for her thoughts. One of Sarah’s dream was to become a ballerina. She even tried out for the School of American Ballet. She Knew she probably wouldn’t make it, and she didn’t, but she wanted to try. Schachner encouraged Sarah to become a performance major, to learn to conduct and to compose. Sarah served as a ghost writer for music in movies such as Iron Man.

Where do you get your ideas?
Do you live in a house or a pet store?
Hey, what’s with all the cats?

Schachner lives in a house. She writes about cats, because she loves them. By the way, the inspiration for Skippyjon Jones died young, but has been replaced with a new cat. As for where she gets ideas, well, from all sorts of places! For example, after watching a video about a raccoon who loved a cat, she wrote a book about it. While in Nebraska, she read a story about a man who bought a truck, sucked up prairie dogs, and saved his marriage. Guess what? She wrote a book about it! All of her tangible ideas for stories, she collects in hat boxes and in briefcases, which she shows off to students at schools.


Kevin Henkes speaks

Kevin Henkes speaks at the festival luncheon

A quiet and somewhat private author, Henkes spoke twice at the festival–once at a sessional and once at the luncheon. At the latter, I gulped down my croissant sandwich and miniature desserts, anxious to be prepared to type notes the moment he began to speak. Henkes first shared from his life, one absent of much of the modern technology we take for granted, and one which requires a juggle between two passions. Henkes is both an artist and an author. To end his presentation, Henkes read from one of his newer novels, The Year of Billy Miller. With it, he wanted for a change to write about a boy, as well as to return to his Wisconsin roots, and to write about finding the ordinary in the extraordinary.

Born in 1960 in Racine, Wisconsin, Henkes was a happy child. He was the youngest for six years, but then was dethroned. Because of being both the youngest and an older sibling, Henkes understands the different types of sibling relationships.

When did he first aspire to become an artist? He doesn’t believe he ever really decided, but has always thought of himself as one. As a child, he often drew people’s faces, from one side and the other. He probably didn’t realize it at the time, but he was practicing for his future job.

Henkes has a studio, but before he can work he has to come up with an idea. Creativity he thinks is difficult to explain. Wemberly Worried came from his being a worrier. Sheila Rae The Brave came from an actual child in our neighborhood. Lily is a conglomeration of people. was not. His nieces liked to dress up and so does Lily. One particular story, Lily’s Purse, came to him while in an airport. Hankes was working on Lily in Love, saw a girl with a plastic purse that made music when opened, found it amusing, and so pulled out his notebook. Julius came from out of his experience of getting a younger sibling. A photo of his niece with him serves as inspiration. As for Crystantheum, it comes from his love of writing about school and about teachers. With an idea in mind, he can work.

Kevin Henkes signs his book

Kevin Henkes signs his book

After thinking for a long time, Henkes starts to take notes. His stories usually grow from characters. He likes to know everything about them before he writes. Once Henkes has finished this prewriting, he types up his stories on a typewriter. Surprisingly, Henkes doesn’t know how to use a computer, doesn’t have email, or even use a cell phone. Henkes doesn’t know if it’s because he’s an artist first. Or maybe it’s simply that if something works, he keep doing it. His kids laugh at him all time.

After Henkes has written the story, he turns to drawing it. He does rough pencil sketches, then refines them, and then refines further. He likes to use ink and to test the colors. When he finishes the sketches, he transfers them using a Walt Disney light box that Henkes got when he was twelve. He also has a cup from his childhood. Obviously, he likes to keep using whatever he’s comfortable with.

In the beginning, he thought that sending the book to a publisher meant it was done. He discovered that it’s really just the start, because there are teachers, students, and others readers around the world who embrace the book. One of his favorite pieces of mail is a drawing of Lily by a young student, where her arms became one with the drum sticks. “That sums up Lily, who becomes whatever she’s doing.”


Anna Dewdney talks

Anna Dewdney talks about her popular series Llama Llama

The final author on my list was Anna Dewdney. My reason for picking her? She’s the author of the popular Lhama Lhama books and my mother-in-law likes lhamas. Dewdney’s reason for writing about lhamas? When her kids were little, they would sit in the back of her car, and she’d drive around Vermont with them. She’d point out the cows to them and make the MOO sound. She would do that for each different animal. One day, they saw a different animal. She called, “Hey, look girls, there’s a lhama.” Not knowing that sound they made, she just said, “Lhama, lhama.” This became a story. At first, Dewdney felt weird when she realized that she’s probably going to be called the Lhama Lhama lady for her life. Seeing children clutching their lhamas made her okay with it.

Long before Dewdney became an author, she was the shy kid who sat in the back of the classroom. But she was also rebellious, always drawing on her paper.

Growing up in New York, Dewdney would spend time in her yard imagining she was a lady of 1800s. She wanted to be Tasha Tutor. Who is this? A famous children’s book artist who wore old-fashioned clothes. When Dewdney was a young adult, she actually got to meet her.

After graduating from an art school in Connecticut, Dewdney spent twenty years trying to get published. Every evening after she returned home from her job and took care of her children, she worked at being a picture book author. She worked late hours and every couple of weeks submitted manuscripts. Throughout her years at college and her jobs in furniture sales and teaching, she received rejections.

Anna Dewdney signs her book

Anna Dewdney signs her book

One job was at a boarding school for eight-year-old kids. She taught them reading and writing, but also served as their mom. During that time, she pulled out a manuscript she’d written when her kids were little. It was a lhama story. She sent it to an agent AND to an editor. This miraculous thing happened. She got a call at her job from her agent telling her that her book had been sold. She screamed. Later, she received a second message. Her editor also wanted to buy the lama book. She screamed again. Her co-workers thought she was being attacked. It was a weird experience.

Dewdney works until two or three o’clock in the morning and then retires. In the morning, she rises about ten o’clock for a walk. These walks make a huge difference to how she functions. She talks to herself and figures out stuff. She also loves looking at colors and studying objects. She enjoys time outside, because it’s close to nature and quiet.

When asked about how she makes her books, she talks about making sketches upon sketches. To everyone else, they probably just look like wiry lines. She refines and refines. When she bought a Wacom, which is like a really fancy IPad, it changed her life. She can draw pictures, scan it into the computer, and make quick revisions. Then she’s ready to paint.

At various interludes, Dewdney shares slides from her personal life. For example, she lives in a small town, where everyone knows one another. During Hurricane Irene, the water rose in Vermont, because the area is hilly. Water rose sixteen feet in one hour and the bridge to her house washed out. For several weeks, it was just a small group of people in town with no access. Dewdney describes it as being kind of cool, because everyone all got to know one another. There are three sections to her house, built at different times. She has a woodchuck living in her house! Oh, and bats! She owns wire-haired pointing Griffons. In trying to decide on the right dogs for her, she wanted quiet and intelligent dog who would get along with people, as well as like to run and to swim. However, when she called breeders, they would hang up on her because Griffons are hunting dogs. Finally, she got two duds. Radish and Brussels are too fluffy to be hunting dogs. Also, Brussels failed his training classes.

Dewdney tries to answer every note she receives. When artist Tasha Tudor wrote her, it changed her life. Pictures and letters from kids inspire book ideas. Expressions can also add to a book. When her daughters and her took a trip to Paris, they weren’t happy. Their faces became pictures in her books. And of course Dewdney’s own personal interests can impact a book. For example, she enjoy pangolins, animals that curl up when scared. In China, people really like their scales and so these critters are going extinct. In Vietnam, they are being preserved, and she observed them for a book.

At the start of her presentation, Dewdney said that she feels sad for the festival to end. It served as a chance to hang out with other authors. I understand her sentiment, because being around so many others who loves children’s books always psyches me. Only one year to go and the festival will start-up all over again!

2 Responses to "Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival, 2013"

Congratulations on having a great day! Hopefully someday you’ll attend Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival as a speaker instead of as a patron.

I really enjoyed your fascinating account of the writing careers (etc.) of the four authors whom you got to hear presentations by. Each account was worthy of being a separate post at Allison’s Book Bag and of receiving separate comments from your readers.

Ah, four hours into the evening, I decided reporting on an entire day’s worth of presentations was overdoing it. Next year, I’ll try splitting it into two reports, one for the morning and one for the afternoon. Thanks for your feedback!

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