In Conversation: Yuyi Morales and Donna Barba Higuera – ALA Annual Conference Day Four

Monday morning, June 27, 2022, I drove into DC for the fourth day of ALA Annual Conference. I began the day in the exhibits and got books signed by, among others, Travis Jonker and Varian Johnson. Here’s how my piles looked after the fourth day!

Then I went to a panel discussion with Yuyi Morales, whose book Dreamers (my personal favorite picture book from my Newbery year) was an important part of the story in this year’s Newbery-winning title, The Last Cuentista, by Donna Barba Higuera.

Shelly Diaz, the reviews editor of School Library Journal, was the moderator, so the first question she asked Donna was “When did you read Dreamers and what did you think?

DBH: In an earlier version, the book the little brother treasured was Frederick, but then she read Dreamers, and it changed everything. It’s about collecting vision and hope.

YM: She was very moved when she read The Last Cuentista. It made her cry. A connection she never would have dreamed of. The story felt as real as when other children see themselves in Dreamers. Seeing the book carried by Petra and Javier — told her she’s done her work.

SLJ: Who was a librarian who affected you?

DBH: Mrs. Hughes at a small rural library. She’d have books set aside for her to read. She knew what she liked and the worlds she was living in.

YM: Nancy, a children’s librarian, welcomed her. She didn’t understand either the language or the dynamics of the library, but Nancy and the other librarians created a space where she felt safe.

SLJ: What can we do?

DBH: Keep putting books in the hands of children. It’s a lot of pressure and easy for the public to say. Kids will find a way to get these books. Librarians are really doing a lot already.

YM: In Mexico, books aren’t used so much for education. We’re going to have to fight like warriors. Books still need to be created. We need to have and protect those books and get them in the hands of children. They should be everywhere.

DBH: It can’t just be librarians. Ask. There will be parents and teachers who support freedom to read.

SLJ: Has anyone seen something in your story that surprised you?

YM: All the time. The San Francisco main library filled her with wonder. She did a reading there and it felt like coming back home. A homeless woman said, “This is me and my child.” It’s written to give everyone the value of their stories.

DBH: She’s surprised by kids who know the folklore and mythology. As a kid, she’d thought they were something her grandma made up. She didn’t expect recognition from children — a satisfying surprise.

SLJ: Both books have focus on folklore and mythology.

DBH: She did lots of research. Oral tradition is one version. El Canejo in the moon is a story lots of kids haven’t heard — but she heard it as a child.

YM: Her favorite thing was that Petra made the stories her own — just like children in classrooms. Kids take from stories what they need, not what she intended.

She also does research. In Dreamers, she put in butterflies and other animals that migrate. Snakes make us fearful – but we’re about to learn something important. It has vital energy.

SLJ: What are you working on now?

DBH: Picture book about her own journey, and El Cuycuy story. Another sci-fi novel with lots of moving parts.

YM: The more books she makes, the longer they take. She has a very different process now, related to her own growth.

“Our biggest rebellion is to be happy.”

And happiness is connected to the well-being of everyone.

The Newbery/Caldecott/Legacy Banquet 2022

The highlight of ALA Annual Conference is always the banquet where they award the Newbery Medal, the Caldecott Medal, and the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. The last time I attended, I was at a publishers’ table with other Newbery committee members and winners, so there’s just such a warm place in my heart for this event. This time I got to sit with my former boss, Laura — who one week earlier was my current boss!

I put my camera in the wrong pouch of my bag before I changed clothes and thought I’d lost it — so I didn’t take as many pictures as usual and only used my phone. But I did take notes on the winners’ speeches. And I’ll sum them up here.

Jason Chin, winner of the Caldecott Medal for his illustration of Watercress, by Andrea Wang

As a kid, he drew dragons and castles and would leave the real world behind.

In second grade, he moved to a small town in New Hampshire. And at school there, he met Trina Schart Hyman — she’d recently won the Caldecott Medal for St. George and the Dragon. It was an endorsement of the value of art, and drawing dragons.

In high school, he showed his artwork to Trina Schart Hyman, and she invited him to her house. He ended up visiting her many times and was his mentor and role model. She lived in her stories. Her deep empathy gave her art emotional honesty.

To make great art, pour yourself into it.

In making Watercress, meeting Andrea was the first step in the process.

He had to answer questions: What does corn look like? A 1957 Pontiac? He remembered times of being ashamed. He first tried making the illustrations in pastel, but he returned to watercolor, which has echoes of Chinese art. It was a symbolic merging of two cultures.

The words bring the art to life. “Be happy with what you have. Be proud of who you are.” It’s also a story of a mother dealing with grief. When she shares her story, she begins to heal.

It’s an American story.

To believe there’s one correct American story is behind book banning.

Book banning says kids should be ashamed of who they are.

Without empathy, resentment grows.

We need books that reflect the whole American story.

Donna Barba Higuera, Newbery Medal Winner for The Last Cuentista

She thought it could never happen to a kid like her.

“If you’re worried about putting your foot in your mouth, wear really big shoes.”

She grew up as a bold-faced liar, and couldn’t stop. Her first lie at 8 years old was that aliens landed in her yard. The adults didn’t stop her. They asked, Then what happened?

Her grandmother told stories, as did her aunt and her mother, and Esther Grigsby, the woman in her 80s who lived next door, and her father, who told her Al Capone was his great-uncle.

She loved books, beginning with Richard Scarry and Frederick and continuing to stories of Meg Murray and other science fiction, all told by cuentistas.

If all the cuentistas are going to hell for lying, we can sit around a fire pit and tell stories.

Her book is about love of family, dangers of conformity, and the power of story.

The elephant in the room is that erasure of stories is what she fears most.

Stories and memories are what she’d take from earth if she had to leave.

Erasure and banning stories is a pattern that repeats, and it’s based in fear.

We have to say out loud the parts that hurt the most.

It does take courage to put stories in the hands of children.

Grace Lin, Children’s Literature Legacy Award Winner

Let’s suck up each other’s book love!

She had a bad case of imposter syndrome winning this award. Imposter syndrome is like bugs that swarm late at night and are impossible to get rid of.

It’s hard when your life’s work is disparaged. “When are you going to write a real book?”

These bugs leave eggs.

The danger of diminishment is we start to believe it. If our work is not important, we are not important.

We are working to create a better humanity. We are showing what our culture wants to pass down. What we create is important.

Asian Americans have paid a deep price for otherness. Her books show how human we all are. None of us need to prove we are good enough to exist.

“No matter what, we’re going to keep working hard to do good things.”

We’re replacing outdated books with books that reflect our world today.

You are the essential workers of the spirit.

The worse bugs are those ideas. Put the ideas in the light for all the world to see.

We have changed the landscape of this world.

If others see us only as bugs, let’s show them we are fireflies! Humanity can also be beautiful.

[During the speech, Grace gave us drawing breaks, giving us step-by-step instructions. At the end of the talk, it turned out that we had all drawn fireflies!]

It was all a wonderful evening!

ALA Annual Conference Day Two – Authors for Freedom to Read and Newbery 100 Celebration!

I spent most of the Saturday of ALA Annual Conference in the exhibits, having a wonderful time. I got books signed by Nancy Pearl, Christina Soontornvat, Gail Jarrow, L. M. Elliott, and I’m sure several more people. I went to a lunch hosted by Scholastic Press where they gave us a nice tote bag filled with five books and had the five authors speak — so of course now I very much want to read all five books. They also gave some swag related to the books like these lovely pink glasses!

I picked up lots more free advance reader copies in the exhibits, and had to make a trip to my car in the middle of the day so I could reload. Here’s how my pile looked after Saturday:

As you can see, restraint had gone out the window!

I went to a talk by David Levithan with some teen DC Public Library interns talking about Freedom to Read. Here are some notes from him and the teens he was interviewing:

As of 2020, David Levithan was the 8th most banned author in America. Book bannings feel different now — it’s a national movement to ban books.

Book banning always does more harm than good.

Kids will still find out about the issue. But books give a fuller picture.

Once teens get in the library, there’s always a chance they’ll pick up a book.

How do you ban someone talking about their life story?

Story isn’t a competitive thing. Movies and books don’t compete with each other.

David Levithan taps into the universality of teen experience.

He started in publishing as the editor of the Babysitter’s Club series — and he still edits the Babysitter’s Club series.

Books don’t get banned as much if you actually have to read them to know there’s LGBTQ content. His books, such as Two Boys Kissing, obviously have LGBTQ content.

They’re trying to prey upon parents who are scared, to get people to run away from public education.

Our literature has to be representative. Reading a story with emotions make LGBTQ kids feel they belong. The power of recognition.

There isn’t an ounce of truth in the mud-slinging. He’s not writing to push buttons, but being truthful will push buttons.

His new book, Answers in the Pages, is about book challenges. (I did get a copy signed by him later!)

The authors are in it together. The publishers don’t walk away, they double down.

Now there are more books about LGBTQ Joy, not just trauma.


After that inspiring session, I had more time in the Exhibit Hall. Besides picking up free books, I also talked with some vendor representatives our library purchases from and had the fun of mentioning that I’m the new Youth Materials Selector for my library system.

And the day ended with a celebration of 100 years of the Newbery Medal!

Besides that being very cool all by itself, I was looking for the room along with Megan Whalen Turner, one of my favorite authors, who won Newbery Honor with The Thief in 1997. We helped each other find the room (She found the right hall, and I found the right door) and sat together.

The celebration was fun stuff — a film showing titles, with quotes from authors, a presentation of trivia, and a competition of authors vs. librarians of knowing detailed facts about their award-winning books. I’d read all the books featured, but hardly knew any answers — these were *very* obscure details!

After the formal program, many Newbery authors were doing giveaways and signings. I got an ARC from Meg Medina — along with a hug! She was the winner of the Newbery Medal the year I was on the committee. She has written the third and final book about Merci Suárez, and I was delighted to get a signed copy.

I went home “early” that day (leaving DC around 6 pm), but with a full heart.

Conference Corner – ALA Midwinter Meeting – John Green

I’m attempting to post my notes from the many conferences I’ve gone to this year. I think I’m going to work backwards and forwards both. Last time, I posted notes from the last session I attended. Now I’m going to post notes from where I left off — John Green’s talk at ALA Midwinter Meeting

I spotted his van the next day when walking back to my hotel:

I walked in late to the talk, since I had been at a committee meeting. But here are my notes. It turns out that this works as a Librarians Help post as well. John Green is definitely a supporter of libraries and librarians.

While he was writing, he was still tweeting and using youtube and tumblr. He uses those because he likes them. After all, he likes talking about stuff that matters with people he finds interesting.

“There’s no such thing any more as a non-social-media internet.”

Social media has a lot of similarities with real life connections.

There’s so much location-based social media, that’s fantastic for librarians. “People are building real life connections in real life places.”

Librarians have been good at raising the quality of discourse for hundreds of years.

It’s difficult to build space for thoughtfulness.

Librarians should infiltrate digital communities and raise the quality of discourse.

“Reading builds strong and deep connections between people.”

They are building productive communities online. Some examples are for Nerdfighters and and wells in Haiti through

Ultimately these are not opposite ideas: Reach out into the world and organize information to help people.

“The ultimate thing that librarians do is help people toward the answer to the overwhelming ultimate question of how to organize our lives.”

Then talking about teens: “Teens are having a lot of interesting things happen to them for the first time.”

His recommendations for reaching teens? Use Tumblr. Look for communities in your community that are active. Search the name of your community. Join the nerdfighters group in your area.

“Education exists for the benefit of the society, not the individual.”

Lead people to interesting places online.