By Peg Glisson
Yes, being at ALA Midwinter is work, but there are fun perks, too. A big one this year was a panel at the Seattle Public Library, hosted by Random House and moderated by Nancy Pearl, featuring seven (count them, seven) Newbery authors: Christopher Paul Curtis, Jennifer L. Holm, Kirby Larson, Louis Sachar, Jerry Spinelli, Rebecca Stead, and Clare Vanderpool! Talk about a stellar panel!
Nancy came with questions but then allowed the conversation to follow an emerging thread before going to another of her questions. This free flow led to a thought-provoking interchange among the participants, interspersed with laughter. It would have been illegal, but how I wish I had turned my phone on to audio record. Bits and snippets of what was said have been running through my mind this past week. Listening to these "ordinary" people talk about their lives and their craft has made me all the more conscious of the importance of truly excellent literature in young people's lives.
Each made it clear that writing involves discipline-whether it's Jerry Spinelli writing in the morning before one (or more) of his 22 grandchildren show up, or Clare Vanderpool's writing while her four are at school for the day. Jennifer Holm squeezes writing in around her young children's lives. Mixing real life boo-boos and soccer games with their writing lives keeps these authors grounded and of course provides fodder for their books.
Each also was touched by a particular book or author growing up. It wasn't necessarily a Newbery book or author, but for Jennifer Holm, it was. Her hero was Lloyd Alexander, to whom she wrote a fan letter when she was about 11 years old. One afternoon, her mother called to her saying, "A Mr. Alexander is on the phone for you." It seems Jennifer had included her phone number, but not her home address, so Mr. Alexander was calling to get her address so he could write back to her! When the Newbery Committee honored Jennifer in 2000, Mr. Alexander again got in touch, to congratulate his fellow Pennsylvanian and to tell her he definitely remembered the letter she had written!
And each shared what they are currently reading. I don't remember all their answers, but I do remember Christopher Paul Curtis sharing he's working on the same Mark Twain biography he was working a year ago. It made perfect sense to me to hear Rebecca Stead had a copy of Harriet the Spy on her hotel nightstand!
Certainly that's all good stuff and helps us know these talented writers as the people they are. It is their deeper observations, however, that make me know we have to find a way to allow good literature to be shared in our classrooms.
Observations like Clare Vanderpool's sharing a time when a boy stood before her in the book signing line after one of her presentations. His eyes locked on her and they spoke for a minute. He didn't like that someone died in her book. Clare gave her pat answer that life isn't full of happy endings, when he said, "You made me cry." That felt like an indictment and has made her increasingly aware of her responsibility to her readers to be honest in her writing. Readers of all ages deserve respect. Feelings can be explored in literature but should not be manipulated.
Kirby Larson's on-going pen pal exchange (via email) with a Beirut reader led to an invitation for Kirby to visit. Kirby replied that it wasn't safe to travel to that area, but she would come if the situation improved. It did and she did, to the great delight of both. Kirby was so moved that youngsters in Beirut not only read her writing, but also identified with her characters and their situations. City, suburb, war-torn area--that doesn't matter. People are people and themes are universal!
Christopher Paul Curtis couldn't let the night end without thanking teachers and librarians on the front lines and led the panel's applause for the audience!
Pair that experience Sunday evening with my conversations at a publisher's breakfast that morning. To a large extent, topics were centered on diversity and CCSS/testing. You can believe me when I say that while that hour was also thought provoking, it was not uplifting!
The key here, though, is that both were and continue to be on my mind. There is much I support about Common Core: common standards between states, documenting student progress, challenging students to think more deeply and read more carefully. Yet how I cringe when I hear teachers and librarians tell me they have had to give up read aloud time for instruction, that creativity is being taken out of teaching and learning, and that units remembered when students come back to say hello have had to go because "there is no time." We can't afford to give up all time for reflecting, for dreaming, for exploring vicariously. We need empathetic people, people who will want to right injustices, soar to new scientific heights, study the past to help us prepare for the future-minds exposed to a variety of people, places, and events through. How better to give our youngster all that than through wonderful literature.
Vanderpool shared her son had to be a book report on Moon over Manifest - and only earned a C on it. Hmm - we know Mom didn't do his homework! Another author's child had recently been in a literature circle reading Maniac Magee. Their teachers are finding ways to keep these and other great books in their curriculum. Yes, in the world in which most of us now live, it means taking time to connect the CCSS to these books; but isn't it worth it? Don't our kids deserve that from us?
If you have tips on hanging on to the good stuff as we all adjust to Common Core, whether it be in a school setting or public library programming, go to our Facebook page and post. Together we'll be better for it.
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