This past Wednesday was one of my favorite days of the school year – the John F. Kennedy Library’s annual conference for educators. This year’s theme: New Frontiers in Biography and History: Real Life Stories to Inspire Young Readers and Writers. A long title, but the day – as always – felt very short. The highlight of the conference was the panel of authors of history-based books for young readers: Tonya Bolden, Candace Fleming, Emily Arnold McCully, and Andrea Davis Pinkney.
With apologies about the quality of my photo (taken from my seat), here’s the group:
At the beginning of the panel discussion, each author talked about events that sparked their interest in history. Pinkney referred to herself as an “accidental author.” She began her career as a newspaper writing which, as she said, was excellent training in “getting the story.” She talked about the editorial meetings where she was expected to be prepared with lists of ideas for stories. Later, when Pinkney met someone from Simon & Schuster, who asked if she had any ideas for books – she was ready! One of her first suggestions was for a book about Alvin Ailey….
Candace Fleming grew up in Illinois, literally surrounded by history. She could ride her bike to a log cabin built by Lincoln’s father in Charleston, Illinois. Abraham Lincoln lived in Springfield by the time the cabin was built, but the future President visited this home to spend time with his father and stepmother, Sarah. Fleming said she wanted to study history from the time she was a child.
When writing her joint biography of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, Fleming asked herself “how did they influence one another?” It was Mary, she said, who was truly the abolitionist, and her passionate feelings about the issue helped to shape the President’s own views.
The four authors share a passion for telling stories to young readers. “We want to inspire curiosity and wonder,” said Tanya Bolden, the author of Searching for Sarah Rector and Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl.
Pinkney echoed Bolden’s motivation. “I’m inviting the reader on a journey,” she said. “After a while, you’ll forget you’re reading!”
I went on a different kind of journey this week, but it truly made me forget I was reading! This is a middle grade novel for boys and girls, avid and reluctant readers, and kids who need examples of resilience and optimism in the face of adversity. All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, the new book by Leslie Connor, is warm and hopeful – and the main character, Perry, is a kid you want to know. His good heart carries every page of this wonderful book, and I was sad to leave his company.
Perry is eleven-years-old and lives with his mother at the Blue River Co-ed Correctional Facility in Surprise, Nebraska. Through the kindness of the warden, Perry has been able to live with his mother, attend the local public school, and make rewarding friendships with the residents of the facility for nonviolent offenders. But when Tom VanLeer, a new district attorney and the stepfather of Perry’s best friend, discovers Perry’s special situation, he makes it his personal mission to “rescue” Perry. The worst part for Perry is that while his mother’s case is being resolved, he has to live with the VanLeer family.
As a teacher, I think Connor’s novel is a good vehicle for discussions about mistakes, taking responsibilities for our actions, justice, and the power we all have to change our lives. Add this one to your summer reading list!