Category Archives: librarians

Let’s not make Authors into Rock Stars

It’s been a rough few weeks in the world of children’s literature with conversations about sexual harassment in the industry. There are worthwhile things to read on the topic here and here.

One of the comments that caught my eye was the lament from a teacher—but these authors are rock stars to me and my students! I’m so disappointed!

It got me thinking. I’m going to take a deep breath and wade into difficult territory hoping that it will be received in the spirit I intend which is to support both students and teachers and librarians.

I do a lot of school visits. It’s one of the best parts of my life as an author. A school that is well prepared for my visit and eagerly anticipating a day in celebration of literature, goes a long way to making the work satisfying for me and profitable for students. Sometimes there are even lovely extra touches—a welcome sign hand made by students, a warm cup of tea, the principal who gave me her parking spot because it was snowing—all kind and much appreciated.

But sometimes a teacher or librarian goes a little over the top with the adulation of the person of the author. It has always made me uncomfortable and I’m pretty outgoing among my peers. There are many more introverted authors who find personal adulation extremely awkward, even painful. Nobody goes into children’s publishing to seek status. There’s just none to be had. The world of adult literature has no respect at all for us, and those outside of the world of literature are barely aware of our existence. For many the real draw in writing for kids is that it sidesteps the literary celebrity culture which can be so toxic in the adult writing world. So even though the adulation was kindly meant it often makes the author on the receiving end more anxious than flattered. As an added bonus, when an author’s human frailties—fairly or unfairly—become a subject of social media, you will not have the shock of their fall from grace because you never excluded them from the human community by putting them on a pedestal in the first place.

But here’s an even more important reason. Making an author a rock star does not serve your students well. The real benefit of an author visit is connection—genuine connection between students and authors. One of my most memorable school visits was to a middle school in Cicero, Illinois. It was a low income school in a neighborhood where gang violence is common. It was also right next to the neighborhood of my childhood. The teacher in her introduction said this: This author was born at Oakpark Hospital. (where most of the students were born) She lived on Ridgeland Avenue (which runs through the middle of the district) She used to play at the park with the fountain in the shape of a seal. (a place they all know). Oh, the look of joy on their faces, the wonderment! Yes, you can live here and also do this—be an author, graduate high school, attend college, choose a profession that speaks to your heart. And now let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of how that gets done.
That’s what school visits are for–connection. Putting an author on a pedestal, if anything, says to students here is something you can never be.

Most authors work hard to find common ground with the students they work with in schools. If librarians and teachers help us develop that connection then the information we have for students about the craft of story- making has a chance to take root and grow, making them the confident young readers and writers we all want them to be.

Thank you to all the hardworking teachers and librarians who work long and hard to bring authors into their schools. You are such a force for good. I am inspired every time I meet you!

Celebrating Indigenous Authors: Roy Henry Vickers & Robert Budd

Teachers are always looking for books to pair with required units of study. Most students in the 3rd or 4th grade study the indigenous cultures of their region. Quality picture books by indigenous creators are few and far between so I was thrilled to find  Peace Dancer and Orca Chief by Roy Henry Vickers and Robert Budd.

Both books are traditional stories from the village of Kitkatla in British Columbia. This is the home town of the authors. Roy Henry Vickers is an artist and writer and Robert Budd is a historian. Roy holds a leadership position within his tribe. They belong to the Gitxaala Nation which is part of the larger language group known as the Tsimshian. Kitkatla is on the coast of British Columbia  just east of the Islands of Haida Gwaii.

Peace Dancer is a traditional tale about the fate that befalls the people when children fail to respect a crow. It’s a flood narrative, which is interesting because so many ancient cultures have some kind of flood story. It gives the explanation for why a peace dancer is so important in a potlatch ceremony. In the author note, Roy Henry Vickers explains that he is the peace dancer for his community.

Orca Chief is also a story about the importance of respect for the natural world. In this story a group of disrespectful fishermen are taken under the sea to visit the Chief of the Orcas. After the fishermen apologize the Orca Chief forgives them and shows them ways to find many good things to eat–herrings, oolichan, and crabs.

Both books have stunning illustrations, combining a mainstream modern painting style with traditional formline art to represent the fish, birds and animals. They are vividly colored and brilliantly produced on the highest quality paper. If Vickers and Budd were Americans and therefore eligible, they would be contenders for the Caldecott with each of these books.

This week is small press week and it’s worth noting that these books are published by Harbour Publishing, a small independent publisher in British Columbia. They have been publishing the work of Vickers and Budd for many years. The pair has a new board book out this year called Hello Humpback.

When you are looking for diverse titles–especially by indigenous writers and artists–don’t forget the small presses.

Celebrating Indigenous Authors–Red: a Haida manga by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

One of the things I love about PNBA is the opportunity to meet small press publishers  and see work by emerging artists and and Indigenous story tellers. By far the most distinctive work I saw this year was a graphic novel called Red: a Haida Manga by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. He is a visual artist and storyteller from Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands)

The story is done in graphic novel format but it’s totally unique in using the formline art style to create a variety of curvilinear panels. The formline style of art is what you typically see on totem poles in the pacific northwest. The unusual shapes give the narrative a uniquely flowing character which suits the story well as it shifts across time and space following the character of Red and his sister who begin the story as orphans taken in by a village on Haida Gwaii. Raiders come to the village and take Red’s sister away. Years later when Red is the leader of his community, he hears news of his lost sister and hatches a rescue and revenge plot that goes horribly awry. The story is based on Haida oral tradition and conveys important cultural values around the futility of anger and revenge.

The other thing that makes this book unique is that the pages work in codex form but they can also be taken out of the book and put together in a large mural in which the curved borders of the manga panels join together to form a large cohesive work of art. A photograph of the joined panels is in the back of the book so that you can see how to assemble it.

If you are a comics fan you’ll be intrigued by this story. If you are school librarian you should know that the panels include a few images of nude males. The images aren’t sexual in nature and are completely appropriate in the context of the story. If you are looking to increase the diversity of your graphic novel collection RED a Haida Manga is a great choice.

Oregon on Fire

Ordinarily I recommend only children’s books on my blog, but in view of the fires which are burning hundreds of square miles of my home state, including some of my very favorite places in the wide world, I’d like to recommend a book by my friend Gary Ferguson. He has written dozens of books about the wilderness and its role in our lives. His book just out this summer is called Land on Fire. Its a well-researched look at how we got into our current cycle of catastrophic fires year after year, through decades of fire suppression and record draughts. It would be a great book group read and a worthwhile text for high school and even middle school science classes.

Thank you to the hundreds of firefighters, national guards, sheriffs, state patrolmen. coast guards, red cross personnel and volunteers, who have worked round the clock in brutal conditions to bring these fires under control and protect the people, land and wildlife we all treasure.

 

First Nations Picture Books–Stolen Words by Melanie Florence

Writing about the ravages of colonial control over First Nations in the United States and Canada is difficult enough when addressing adults. It’s even more challenging when presenting material to the youngest readers. How to convey the seriousness and depth of pain without crushing the spirit of the child reader–it’s a huge challenge, and I admire any author who even attempts to take it on. Few come out with such a successful result as author Melanie Florence in her picture book Stolen Words about her grandfather’s forced enrollment in boarding school and the loss of his mother tongue. Ms. Florence tells the story of a young girl who innocently asks her grandfather how to say grandpa in Cree. He tells her about being taken away from home and punished at the boarding school for speaking his Cree language. Illustrator Gabrielle Grimard captures this beautifully representing the Cree language as a blackbird captured in a cage and locked away. It’s an image that conveys the sadness and brutality of the Canadian boarding school without presenting images too heart-breaking for young readers. The girl finds a Cree dictionary in her own school and brings it to her grandfather and the words on the page, again symbolically, take the form of blackbirds and fly free. It’s a simple tale–too simple for older readers certainly who need much more substance and a less tidy resolution. But for the youngest readers this is an important story of native language denied and ultimately regained, and a book well worth celebrating.

Stolen Words is published by Second Story Press out of Toronto, Ontario. It will be available in September of 2017. I wrote this review from an Advanced Reader Copy which I obtained at the independent bookstore where I work. If you are looking for more context as an adult reader I highly recommend They Called Me Number One by Bev Sellars, and acclaimed author from British Columbia. She is a chief of the Xat’sull and her book is about her own experiences in boarding school. It’s not a read for the tenderhearted but it is very useful in understanding the depth of wrong that was done in Indian boarding schools across the Unites States and Canada.