“The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will
light our country and all who serve it –
and the glow from that fire can truly light the world”
John F. Kennedy/January 20, 1961
This past Thursday I was at the John F. Kennedy Library for a yearly gathering of teachers and librarians who come together to talk about how children’s books can help our students make sense of the world and encourage them to embrace the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. It is one of my favorite days of the year, and this year was no exception. The theme was “To Light the World: Stories of Hope and Courage for Challenging Times.” As the conference organizers said at the start of the day, our meeting was being held one year after the Boston Marathon bombing, and the discussion topics grew out of questions asked by children about the bombing. Every person in the room was devoted to shining light on books that inspire kids to have courage and ask good questions.
One of the best parts about attending a professional conference is the opportunity to talk with colleagues and, hopefully, to come away both inspired and full of new ideas. It’s a bonus if you get to hear from favorite authors and illustrators, and the Kennedy Library conference always includes influential and engaging speakers.
The first session was a discussion with three amazing authors and a very good moderator, Mary Ann Capiello from Lesley University. The panel included:
Susan Campbell Bartoletti
The author of the Newbery Honor Book Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow, the Sibert Award winner Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850.
Walter Dean Myers
Author of over 50 children’s and young adult novels, including five Coretta Scott King Awards and the Printz Award for his popular novel, Monster.
One of my favorite authors in the whole world – and more importantly, the author of so many award winning books that shine brightly – including, Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust, and a series of picture book biographies of well-known leaders, including John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The first topic Capiello asked the authors to think about is their source of inspiration. “My initial inspiration, Rappaport said, “is that I came of age during the civil rights movement. People were fighting for equality that I took for granted. And then the Civil Rights Movement led to the Women’s Movement which raised my consciousness again…..I write about power and struggle in a way kids can relate to.” In response to the same question, Bartoletti told the audience that her books “start with a feeling that comes from a fact.” Bartoletti impressed me as a person with an insatiable curiosity to learn what motivates people and to remind kids that they have a voice. Young people are “political beings,” she told the audience.
Walter Dean Myers spoke movingly about his long time interest in juvenile prisons. “As the juvenile prisons began to fill up, their stories seemed more distant. We forgot these were human people, as much victims as culprits.”
Later in the discussion, Rappaport talked about the challenging of writing history for young readers. “How do you simplify without dumbing down a person’s life?” she asked. Her answer is to focus on the “essence” of the person about whom she is writing. What is the point of this story? What can be left out? Myers said he “begins with a question.” The book is the answer.
Another bonus….Bartoletti told us a little about her current project, a book about Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary. It will be on my library wish list as soon as possible!
In the afternoon, I attended a discussion with Doreen Rappaport and learned about how she works with the incredible illustrators of her biographies, Kadir Nelson (Lincoln), C.F. Payne (Theodore Roosevelt) Bryan Collier (MLK, Jr.) Gary Kelley (Eleanor Roosevelt) and Matt Tavares (Helen Keller). She held up some of the incredibly beautiful pictures in her books and pointed things out that, to be honest, I had not noticed before. For example, in a picture of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt being rowed on a river during their courtship, the swans near the boat support the reader’s knowledge that the young couple is wealthy and socially prominent. Rappaport also said that the cover of her book about Helen Keller is in profile because Keller apparently did not like to be photographed head on.
Rappaport’s enthusiasm for her subjects felt fresh, as if all of her books had been published only the day before. Her commitment to sharing stories of courage and risk permeates every thing she says. “I choose people who have made a major contribution to America or the world. I know they are not perfect.” Her next subject: Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
I left the Library with a bag full of books and my head full of stories. A good day.