If participants hadn’t caught the reading bug already, they did after two days at the 31st annual BYU Symposium on Books for Young Readers. Facilitator of the event Terrell Young exclaimed, “You can’t catch a cold from someone who doesn’t have a cold! And you can’t catch a love of reading from someone who doesn’t love reading.”
Librarians, teachers, authors, and lovers of children’s literature came together two days in July to hear from six different nationally recognized illustrators and authors. Participants at the symposium heard from keynote speakers each day, then went to three different breakout sessions featuring Q&As from the authors/illustrators. In each of these sessions, the presenters shared their processes, inspirations, and influences for their books.
Matt Phelan presented on Thursday and discussed the development of his best-selling graphic novel, Snow White. “Before I start a single drawing, I write my story out completely,” Phelan said. “Of course, my books have a lot of sequences where the drawings are telling the story. . . . I sit down and think it out panel by panel, image by image, and I write what you’re going to see.”
Phelan compared his process to that of an actor or screenwriter, and said that his method allows him to tell the story first without worrying about the details of the art.
Matthew Kirby, another presenter, spoke of his unique experiences of being both a school psychologist and a children’s author. Kirby said he distances himself from his school job as much as possible in his writing. “I would never want one of the students I work with to open one of my books and feel like they see themselves in it. I’d never want to violate that trust and that relationship,” he said.
Instead, Kirby shared that he gains his inspiration from an internal curiosity. “I do a lot of exploring. I’m very curious,” he said. “If I find somebody who is passionate about what they do, I can listen to them talking about it for hours. I love learning about new things. I love to travel. And when I travel, I love to get off the beaten path. Getting lost in a city is an incredible experience.”
Illustrator and author, Adam Rex, is from Tucson, Arizona, and was always the class artist. His book, Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, made the New York Times best-selling list and his first novel, The True Meaning of Smekday, was adapted into the DreamWorks Animation film Home.
“Trying to explain humor is complex,” Rex said. “Humor is poetry. It is a rhythm and focus that ebbs and flows.” During his presentation, he itemized three elements of humor or comedy. First, there is an element of surprise. There is something that you just weren’t expecting. Second, there is the rule of three and therefore an order of things such as three bears, three musketeers, or three goats. There is also three in the structure of a beginning, middle, and end. And third, the sound “K” sounds funny. “Just think of words like Kokomo or cockatoo. Words are important, words mean things: select your words carefully,” he advised.
Along with producing his own books, Rex is also an illustrator for many notable authors.
In the evening there was a lecture by Lauren Work and dinner for participants. Lauren Wolk is a writer, visual artist, editor, award-winning poet, former high school English teacher, and Associate Director of the Cultural Center of Cape Cod.
Many symposium participants are fans of Lauren Wolk’s book, Wolf Hollow, which won the 2016 New England Book Award, a 2017 Newbery Honor, and a 2017 Jane Addams Honor, among other awards. Her second novel for young readers, Beyond the Bright Sea, won the 2018 Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction as well as other honors.
Wolk shared her thoughts on writing and her individual experiences. When she writes, she asks a question, does research, and writes about what she knows and about people she is acquainted with. She writes about emotions we all share and suggests that writers be honest, universal, and unique. “Sometimes children’s literature is dark, and we can’t keep the darkness from them.” However, she went on to explain that children need to learn to be the light in the darkness, be courageous, and create a new and better truth.
Adam Gidwitz, author of The Inquisitor’s Tale, winner of a 2017 Newbery Honor, launched the second session. Gidwitz revealed that most of his inspiration comes from everyday life. He said, “I have been a writer my whole life. I frequently tell a story out loud while I shoot basketball hoops. I just never wrote anything down until recently.” He loves writing because it gives him an opportunity to imagine and create. One of his mottos is “if you want big muscles you need to do pushups. If you want a good brain, you need to imagine.”
Gidwitz also spoke about his new series The Unicorn Rescue Society. The books have characters who travel across the world to capture mythical creatures, and while they are on their journey they learn about different cultures and issues. Gidwitz has enjoyed the opportunity to learn about and research different cultures. However, he does not trust his own research to be accurate enough; he hires different co-authors for each book who are experts in the specific culture that the book is highlighting. Gidwitz exclaimed, “I have learned a lot and made a lot of dumb mistakes—thank God I am working with them!”
The second speaker of the day was 2015 Caldecott winner Dan Santat. He often asks himself, “Why am I the way I am? And why do I write books the way that I write them?” He proceeded to share a few moments with the audience that helped him get to where he is today.
The first moment he shared was when he decided to go to art school. Growing up, his parents pushed him to be a doctor. However, he didn’t want to be a doctor—he wanted to draw! After receiving an undergraduate degree and entering dental school, he made a drastic educational change and applied to art school, relying on his raw talent. He was accepted and began his journey as an artist.
Moment two was all about learning to believe in himself. After art school, he worked tirelessly to succeed as an artist. He was employed with video game companies and eventually was given his own Disney TV show, The Replacements.
Moment three completely changed his life: becoming a parent. Before Santat was a father, he worked well over 12-hour days with the video game company, Disney Channel TV show, and freelance book projects. His priorities shifted as soon as he held his son and he was faced with the question, “Should I be there economically, or in body and spirit to raise a child?” When he was given a once-in-a-lifetime offer to be the creative director at Google, he decided to turn Google down and spend more time in the home. He focused a good deal of his time and energy on writing/illustrating children’s books as a freelance project. The young father wrote The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, which was inspired by his toddler who called bicycles “beekles.”
Moment four was when he received a Caldecott award for The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend. He was honored to receive the award, but he said, “The hardest book to write is the one after the Caldecott award winner.”
Although Santat was nervous about writing a book after the Caldecott award, he continued to write successful books. One of Santat’s most recent books is called After the Fall. This story tells what happened to Humpty Dumpty after he fell off of the wall. After the Fall is deeply personal to Santat because it was inspired by his wife. Santat shared his story of struggle and hardship when his wife grappled with severe depression and anxiety. Santat calls this book a “love letter to my wife” because it shows Humpty Dumpty overcoming his anxiety and fears from the wall just as his wife was able to overcome her trials.
Santat finished his keynote by saying, “I write the way I write because I am learning to love myself. I have come from a place with not a lot of confidence, but the one thing I do know is I can create something with these hands that can influence others.”
The conference closed with additional breakout sessions and a spotlight on new books. The books were selected by a group of librarians and book enthusiasts. The spotlight on new books can be found here.
Provo City Library Director Gene Nelson was one of the people who spotlighted new books; he was formerly an adjuct faculty at BYU as well. “I love watching my students’ faces when they come in and have to read all this children’s literature.” He said. “Many of them come back to reading with a renewed vigor and excitement that they can then pass on to the children they are teaching.”
Why is it so important for teachers and educators to pass on an excitement for reading children’s literature? Terrell Young said, “Children’s literature has the power to affect one’s head and one’s heart. And so, if we want to have a more compassionate world, we need to get kids reading good books.”
Facilitators of the event worked countless hours to host a successful conference. They are all accomplished and passionate readers; to name a few, Gene Nelson is the Provo City Library Director and served on the 2017 Newbery Committee, Rachel Wadham is the Social Sciences Department Chair—education and juvenile collections librarian and senior librarian of the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU, and Terrell Young, Children’s Literature at McKay School, Associate Chair of the Department of Teacher Education, has been honored to serve on the 2019 Newbery Committee.
Writers: Ashley Young and Laurie Bradshaw
Contact: Shauna Valentine (801) 494-7043