In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Three book guys

Dear Annie,

This weekend was the National Book Festival on the National Mall here in D.C.  I went down for a few hours to hang out in the Teens & Children tent.  The audiences really make the event: it's always fascinating to see who attends, and how they react.

The day started with John Green, about whom we've written here, here and here.  And he definitely attracted a crowd: I couldn't even make it into the tent:
there he is in front of that green screen in the middle
The crowd was mostly female, mostly between the ages of 14 and 30, with more probably at the upper end, and wildly enthusiastic.  Green spoke mostly about The Fault in Our Stars, calling it "in some first novel -- the one I always wanted to write."  He spoke about wanting to "make it okay to look at death.  You have to be brought to a place that it's okay and not scary to look at it: a place of love and respect."  "I wanted to argue that a short life can be a good life, a rich life."

Green says he writes a book every three or four years -- Fault went through some massive revisions.  He so clearly cares about every aspect of his writing.  And as you've pointed out so well, imbues it with many layers of meaning.

Lupica - a little closer
Next up was Mike Lupica, sports writer and author of a slew of middle grade novels about sports -- most of them centered on boys.  There's a whole sub-group of parents who believe that their child (usually a son) won't read anything other than books about sports.*  So an accessible, action-packed series of sports books comes in handy.  He says he writes two books a year -- and they have that feel.

But Lupica, too, is a man who cares about what he writes.  "My books are about friendship, teamwork and loyalty."  His first kids' book was based on his own family's experience when his seventh grade son was cut from his basketball team because he was too short.  He pulled a group of rejected kids together into an independent team which went on to prove the redemptive power of trying hard and not giving up.  "I'm gonna have characters who get knocked down.  How they get back up is what my stories are about." His fans weren't the packed-together screaming crowd that Green attracted.  But the lines at the microphones for questions were heavily populated with boys grasping their copies of his books and asking about different characters in the stories.

Walter Dean Myers
Walter Dean Myers, who is currently national ambassador for young people’s literature, spoke of the transformative power of reading.  One felt all three of these guys hadn't prepared a speech for the event: they were giving their well-used stump speeches -- but they were still interesting.  Myers told the story of his life, which includes warm memories of sitting on his foster mother's lap as she read true romance magazines out loud, following the words with her finger.  He eventually learned to read and would read them out loud to her as she did housework. 

Myers is 75, and had a tough childhood, but spoke fondly of a number of teachers who steered him to classic books, and later to writing.  "I loved the Little House books  -- I loved them for taking me out of Harlem (which I loved) and putting me in the big woods."  One of Myers' predecessors as national children's lit ambassador was Jon Scieszka, a very funny and entertaining writer whose big focus is to get more boys involved in reading.    Part of Scieszka's schtick is that adults give boys too many old-fashioned "girl books" that they can't engage with.  The Little House books are the ones he tends to cite as not-for-boys.  It was a lovely contrast to hear Myers, whose books often focus on the difficult experiences of young men, appreciating how imagination can be fed.



*I think they just haven't found the right books yet -- but that's a discussion for another day.

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