A Wild Ride: Caldecott Preconference at ALA 2013

Continuing my coverage of my wonderful time at the 2013 ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, last Friday I was at the ALSC’s preconference, in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Caldecott Medal. Even though I don’t consider myself an art expert by any means (I’ve always dreamed of being on the Newbery committee, but never the Caldecott), when I heard the event was taking place at the Art Institute of Chicago, I couldn’t resist.

One of the wonderful things about the preconference? Being with a large group of people who take picture books seriously, discuss them as art, and believe in the magic of what they do for children.

I was happy that I’m getting to know more and more members of ALSC (the Association for Library Service to Children). I saw many people that I have already met at the breakfast, and met some new people. Capitol Choices, a group from the DC area that I attend, was well-represented.

The first speaker was Brian Selznick, who put on the sparkly jacket he wore for the Caldecott Banquet.

After taking this picture, I realized it was rather futile to take pictures of every speaker! Oh well.

Brian gave an illustrated talk about the history of the Caldecott Medal. He talked about how Randolph Caldecott and Frederick Melcher were about entertaining books just for children. Caldecott’s pictures added to his books; they weren’t just repeating the words. The pictures had a sense of life, rooted in his sense of humor. And that sense of humor was a shield against tragedy.

Brian also talked about Maurice Sendak, their friendship, and how Where the Wild Things Are sums up what the Caldecott is all about. It shows how Max went farther than he intended and came home safe again. It scared adults. It contained life.

The second session was a Spotlight with Erin and Philip Stead and their editor, Neal Porter. The title was “Matching Words and Pictures,” but they gave it the alternate title: “Everyone Makes Mistakes.” I liked the way they showed some early versions of their work and how their editor helped them to the final product.

One interesting point they made: When they eliminated excess words, they actually slow readers down. Sometimes when there are too many words on a page, readers don’t spend as much time looking at the pictures.

With And Then It’s Spring, Erin wanted people to pay attention. She wanted to “trap readers with pictures.”

The next session was with Chris Raschka and his editor, Lee Wade, looking at the making of A Ball for Daisy. A Ball for Daisy is wordless, so you might not think it needs a lot of editing? You’d be wrong. Chris Raschka gave the alternate title: “The Daisy Journey: Not a Walk in the Park.” The book went through multiple versions, even multiple styles. He joked, “Should the ball die? All these questions.”

I was simply amazed at how far the book came from his original sketches to the practically perfect picture book that won the Caldecott Medal last year. A fascinating look at the process that got it there, a give and take between artist and editor.

After that was lunchtime, and they kept us engaged with an Honor Book panel — artists who had won Caldecott honors.

That’s Leonard Marcus moderating, followed by Kadir Nelson, Melissa Sweet, Pam Zagarenski (hidden, sorry), and Peter Brown.

Here’s a shot that includes the lovely room we were in, the former Trading Floor:

Leonard Marcus asked some intriguing questions, starting off with “Why picture books?”

Kadir Nelson: “Books chose me. I always was a storytelling artist.”

Melissa Sweet: She saw Little Bear and felt she had come home. It is like a mini-movie. Art is so varied, she’ll never get bored.

Pam Zagarenski: She’s always been illustrating. Even as a girl, she wanted to be Beatrix Potter when she grew up. She’s never had any other ambition. What she had to do.

Peter Brown: He was a reluctant reader, and more interested in creating than reading. He thought he’d be an animator, but hated it because he wanted to tell his own story.

There was more intriguing talk about making art and making picture books, and then we got to hear from Jerry Pinkney and his editor, talking about The Lion and the Mouse. Sorry that my picture of them is blurred:

He talked about his own history, what got him into picture books. He used to sneak down where he could watch a printing press in action. He enjoys the rhythm… of the printing press, of turning the page.

With The Lion and the Mouse, the editorial, design, and production all worked together. What it’s about is holding that object in your hands.

They also showed the book set to music, with pictures inserted from Jerry’s first book about Anansi the Spider. He said, “I’d love my art to feel the way music sounds.”

After those inspiring sessions, we had an elective. I wish I could have gone to all of them! I chose Leonard Marcus’s talk on Randolph Caldecott. (Oh, and I met Eric Carpenter, a fellow frequent Heavy Medal commenter!)

Leonard’s coming out with a book about Randolph Caldecott. (I wish I had gotten to his signing the next day, but had something else going on.) He titled the talk, “Randolph Caldecott: The Man Who Could Not Stop Drawing.”

Randolph Caldecott was not a sentimentalist. Even though he made books for children, he wrote about the adult world. (He showed us some humorous examples.) Leonard showed us slides of places from Caldecott’s life. His father was an accountant and had lots of practical ideas for Randolph. When he worked in a bank, he discovered that bank slips are great for drawing on. (And we saw some pictures of those slips.)

Picture books for fun were a new idea in Caldecott’s time. It was also a time of the explosion of train travel, so they sold books for people to take on trains. Color printing was new, and they developed the predecessors to the motion picture.

Some hodgepodge notes from this talk: Caldecott was thinking of how to pare down a picture book to the fewest possible lines. When he traveled on trains he’d make “lightning” sketches. He played with composition in new ways. He only once did a book with animals in human dress, and you can see its influence on Beatrix Potter, who admired Randolph Caldecott with a “jealous appreciation.” He invented all the tricks of the trade.

The final general session was Paul O. Zelinsky speaking on “The Caldecott Medal in the 21st Century.”

He wore his Rapunzel tie, which he painted just after turning in the artwork for his Caldecott-winning book Rapunzel

He did some joking about what might happen with the Caldecott in the future. (“We can extrapolate. They’ll all go to Jon Klassen.”) But he did point out that we can’t figure out what will happen.

“Picture books may change, but Story never will.”

He pointed out that your consciousness *is* story — the autobiographical self.

“We are stories. So we cling to stories.”

“Stories take you out of yourself and take you away.”

He talked about writing Rumpelstiltskin and how he got pictures of straw from the New York Public Library photographic archive. He wanted to find a spinning wheel, but there was none to be found anywhere in New York City. (I loved his aside: It was just like the situation in Sleeping Beauty. Made him wonder.)

He concluded that the picture books of the future and those that get honored are completely unpredictable. But bottom line, speaking to that crowd of librarians, “The Caldecott of the future is up to you.”

By the time I finished that amazing Preconference, the entire weekend in Chicago was already worth it. I was energized and inspired and all the more excited about showing children the wonder of art and words and story that picture books are.

2011 National Book Festival Report

This year, I had to work on the Saturday of the National Book Festival, but that worked out nicely, because this year they decided to extend the Festival to Saturday and Sunday. I was happy to attend Sunday, since that was the day Gary Schmidt would be speaking, author of the book I’m rooting for to win the Newbery Medal, Okay for Now. Since events started at 1:00 on Sunday, instead of at 10:00, as on Saturday, the event ended up being less tiring for me this year. That was a good thing, since exactly two months after my stroke, I’m still not quite up to the same energy level I used to have.

So, right after church, I headed downtown. I did arrive on time for most of Susan Cooper’s speech.

Susan Cooper is the amazing author of the Dark Is Rising series and many others, like the Boggart books and a wonderful book about writing.

She talked about the magic of reading, and how a book is the ultimate door to the imagination. She talked about the magical connection that’s made between readers and writers. And she had the whole audience shut our eyes and she led us through the reading of a poem to see a unicorn. It was a lovely talk, and I was thrilled to hear her.

Next, I went to hear Terry McMillan.

She read from her work-in-progress, currently titled You’re Telling Me? It’s going to be good! I laughed in many places, but the only line I wrote down was: “You get used to men, just like you do a household pet.” (The main character’s husband has dementia.)

Then I waited in line to get two copies of Okay For Now signed by Gary Schmidt.

I had a chance to tell him a little story that a friend of mine told me: She is a girl scout leader and was discouraged about a poor kid in her troop with NO family support. She read Okay For Now right when she was most discouraged, and it reminded her that though she couldn’t change that girl’s family, she could touch that one girl’s life. (Such a great book!)

While waiting in line, I got a good view of Garrison Keillor, also signing autographs.

Then my plan was to go to the Teen tent and sit there for the rest of the afternoon. First up, I got to hear the end of Kadir Nelson’s talk.

He told the entertaining story of how he’d dress up like the historical characters he was going to paint if he couldn’t find a model. Even the women. He says, however, that those pictures have been burned.

Patricia McKissack is someone I probably wouldn’t have gone to hear if she hadn’t been in the tent where I wanted to be. But her talk was delightful! (And that’s one thing you can be pretty sure about at National Book Festival. The speakers will be good.)

She said that she writes to tell the different story. And that she’s a listener first. She gave us the background of some of her books, like The Dark Thirty, in a most entertaining way. Then she talked about writing her first science fiction trilogy by taking the news and doing some “What-Iffing.” She started with a news article about cloning bacteria that would eat oil spills and went on to think up an entire future society where human clones are created to do certain jobs. She made clone codes based on the old slave codes of the past. Don’t teach the clones to read. Don’t let the clones gather in groups of more than three or four. She made these books sound very fascinating.

Finally, it was time to hear Gary Schmidt, the author I’d particularly wanted to hear. My phone ran out of batteries just as his talk started, so I wasn’t able to Live Tweet his speech, as I had the others. However, before it ran out, I was able to connect with Sara Lewis Holmes and sit with her, which added to the fun.

Gary Schmidt was, no surprise, a wonderfully funny speaker. He told about the real things from his life that he put into his books — like having to be in Mrs. Baker’s class every Wednesday afternoon and scraping gum off desks until the principal intervened.

He said that his books answer one question: In times like these, how does a child turn his face to adulthood?

Particularly in a culture where we don’t want children to grow up?

For the humor, he takes real things, and heightens them.

For him, it’s all about voice. He has to hear who’s talking.

Why does he do it? In a world where we throw kids away, books are companions. He told a story about visiting a group of teens in a high-security prison. Books can reach kids like that. Books provide friends.

Someone asked if his faith affects his writing, and he said that it does. He believes that grace is given to everyone. That was why he gave the father at the end of Okay for Now a small moment of grace. He’s gotten all kinds of flak about that! But he believes there’s hope for everyone.

Afterward, my friend Sara talked about how Gary Schmidt’s books are like Shakespeare — they take the ordinary and make you believe in the extraordinary. She said that with both, you shouldn’t ask if this is realistic. They take you to a place where you believe the extraordinary can happen. We were talking so much, all the people clamoring around Gary Schmidt had left, so she told him about the Shakespeare Camp she’d just been to, and then I got a picture with him and Sara.

So it ended up being a lovely afternoon. I’d been feeling quite tired and fuzzy-headed in the morning, but National Book Festival perked me right up! It did help that I stayed sitting the last few hours. But it was a lovely time to stop and hear people talk about how wonderful books are.