Last night, instead of reading picture books to my kids, I settled into a seat in the second floor ballroom at The Women’s Club of Wisconsin to hear children’s book authors read to me and a room full of children’s literature enthusiasts.
The event (Wisconsin Women Write for Children), sponsored by the Center for Children’s Literature at Carthage (http://www.carthage.edu/childrens-literature/), featured Carle Barrowman, Ann Bausum, Lois Ehlert, Janet Halfmann, Barbara Joosee, JoAnn Early Macken, and Lisa Moser. Each author gave a short talk and most also read from a recently published or favorite book. Afterwards, we adjourned to the lower level for coffee, desserts, and book signings.
All of the stories behind the stories were fascinating.
Carle Barrowman began the evening telling us about the moment when she first decided she wanted to write. She was up North, and when she arrived at the beach it was scattered with toys, but no kids. “Where the kids?” she wondered. “Probably inside playing video games,” I thought. But when Ms. Barrowman walked into the cabin, what were all the kids doing? Not playing video games. They were lounging around reading copies of Harry Potter! She thought, and I quote loosely, “I want to have power over kids’ brains like that!” And so she started to write.
Lois Elhert, who illustrated Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and countless more (many that she also wrote), talked about her childhood, and how she and her two siblings would go to the library once a week and check out five books each. They’d share the books all week and then go back the next for fifteen more. She said that she read every book in the children’s section—and I do believe she meant it. It was an honor to be in the same room as such a talented artist.
Ann Bausum writes mostly nonfiction, focusing much of her time on social justice picture books. Her talk made me think back to my hunt for social justice picture books when I was teaching Night to a class of low-level and resistant senior boys at DeForest High School. To supplement the text I had the boys study, annotate, discuss and then practice reading social justice picture books before our visit to an elementary school where they read their books to younger kids. I will be following Ann’s work.
Janet Halfmann is how I first learned about the last night’s event; she gave me a flyer while we ate lunch together at the SCBWI Spring Luncheon. I bought a copy of her latest book, Eggs 1,2, 3: Who Will the Babies Be? (Blue Apple Books, 2012) a counting, lift-the-flap book that teaches kids about different types of eggs (penguin, snake, robin, ostrich, for example) through little riddles and beautiful art by Betsy Thompson.
“I know my kids will love this,” I said to her as she signed our copy of the book.
I was right.
When later I drove home through a vicious thunderstorm with wind gusts up to 60mph, I wasn’t the only one scared. My three-year-old daughter was wide-awake when I walked in the door at 8:45, so we crawled into my bed and read our new books.
Skip ahead to this morning, over breakfast, and my daughter says, “Wait, where is that bird book!?” referring to Eggs 1, 2, 3. I have found that the best breakfast books are books with questions, and so all three of us (daughter, son and I) enjoyed guessing what kind of baby would come from what kind of egg over…pancakes. My daughter is particularly fond of the Robin’s eggs, probably because we have a Mama Robin nesting on our back deck.
JoAnn Early Macken talked about the back story to several of her books, including Waiting Out the Storm, one of our favorites that I blogged about here: https://picturebookhouse.com/2013/04/09/waiting-out-the-storm-with-my-daughter/.
I call my blog Picture Book House: Stories About the Picture Books We Can’t Live Without because they really are just that.
We read these books so often that they have become part of our very beings. And so it is strange (not bad strange, just strange) to hear the background to a book that I know so well.
JoAnn said that like many writers, she had a hard time writing after 911. “What’s the point of it all?” she asked. She knew that she needed to write about how to find comfort, without writing a picture book about terrorism or anything too frightening for children. So what are children afraid of? Thunderstorms, and so she wrote Waiting Out the Storm, and it couldn’t be better. This is our go to book when my daughter, who is terrified of storms, hears the thunder boom.
As part of JoAnn’s talk she read the entirety of her book Baby Says “Moo!” (Hyerion Books, 2011) with illustrations by David Walker. There is no question as to why everyone in the book sale line wanted to buy this book. It’s engaging. it’s funny. It’s awesome. JoAnn’s thought process leading up to the book went something like this: “Everybody plays, ‘What does a ____ say?’ with babies. Wouldn’t it be funny if the baby said the wrong thing? Wouldn’t it be funny if that baby said the same wrong thing every time?”
I’ll write a full review/story of this book soon—both of my kids love it already. Last night, during the storm, when I finished reading it my daughter looked up at me, eyes glowing and said the only word she needed to say: “Again.”
And as a testament to David Walker’s amazing art, tonight while we were reading this my daughter said, “I want to hold that baby. I want that baby out of the book.”
Baby Says “Moo!” is quickly on its way to becoming a Picture Book House Favorite.
In alphabetical order, Lisa Moser was the last author to speak. We are huge fans of Lisa Moser’s books. Railroad Hank was the first book I blogged about, and our community’s pick for a future One Picture Book One Oconomowoc literacy event tentatively planned for February/March 2014.
Yesterday, my son yelled to my husband as he walked out the door in a suit, “Daddy! Choo Choo! Daddy! Choo Choo,” and pointed to our copy of Railroad Hank on the kitchen table where we were eating breakfast. My husband set down his bag, sat down at the table and read my son his favorite book.
Railroad Hank isn’t the only book of Lisa’s we love. Her easy reader Monster in the Backpack is one of my daughter’s favorites—but when I try to read this at breakfast I don’t get very far because both kids chime in with Annie when she first sees the monster and screams, “Ahhhhhhh!” The problem is, when Annie stops, the kids don’t.
And then the other day when I spilled my coffee or stubbed my toe, I said, “Ach!” and my daughter, without missing a beat, said, “It was a bad day,” because that is what the character Mrs. Wooley, in Lisa Moser’s Perfect Soup, says.
I mean it when I say we LIVE in picture books.
And something about last night, as inspiring as it was, also made me sad. I was learning about new great books. Great books my kids would love. And then a truth I’ve been trying to ignore poked me: there will continue to be new great books, but my kids will eventually be too old to love them…
The childhood reflections and Grandma Talk didn’t help with my new little heart ache…
Like many of the authors, Lisa also talked about her youth, and how much she loved her Grandmother and the cherished hand-made picture books her grandmother sent through the mail. Although my Grandma didn’t write me stories, she did provide me with a studio—the back room of her house, where she would set up a table for me to write and for my friend Lisa to draw so that we could create our soon-to-be famous book. She would encourage us with snacks and come in dressed in all sorts of crazy costumes to serve them—my Grandpa’s hat, one time—even underpants on her head!
Lisa explained that her book, Kisses on the Wind, about how a young girl learns to love her Grandmother from afar is, “all her” (Lisa), only the main character carries Lisa’s daughter’s name. This book means everything to Lisa, she said, and after every book she wonders, “Is this it?” but that at least having written Kisses on the Wind, she knows she has done what she was meant to do.
Like Gilbert always told Anne, “write what you know,” and this was certainly a theme of the night.
Other common writing advice made personal and meaningful through these women’s stories:
Be patient/persistent. It took JoAnn Early Macken ten years to see Waiting Out the Storm published.
Be flexible. Lisa Moser was so excited about a rabbit/squirrel story based around a “top of the hop” phrase her daughter said one Easter egg hunt, but after an editor read it they said—change everything, everything but squirrel. She did, and now has a stellar series.
Pay attention to the world around you. Janet Halfmann wrote about eggs because she was researching and liked looking at bird eggs.
While I missed reading bedtime books last night (well, to half of my brood, anyway), there was plenty of bookish magic in the Wisconsin Women’s Club ballroom, and I’m thankful I was there to take part.