Award-winning authors spoke to a packed Forum, concluding the day-long Swiacki Children’s Literature Festival on Thursday, Nov. 3.
Several guest speakers were present at the festival, including former Boston Globe reporter Matt Carroll as well as Pat Keogh.
Carroll emphasized the importance of truth-telling in children’s nonfiction while Keogh spoke at the Mary Burns Memorial workshop about the new and upcoming trends in children’s literature.
A book signing preceded the keynote presentations of author Steve Sheinkin and illustrator Jason Chin.
Sheinkin’s books are characterized as narrative nonfiction. “When I go to schools, I tell them that means ‘not boring nonfiction,’” he said.
Growing up, Sheinkin never foresaw himself becoming an author of nonfiction books. From a young age, he and his brother dreamt of becoming a movie-making duo. They took classes, wrote numerous scripts and spent years channeling their creative energy.
Although Sheinkin’s film career never panned out, these shared experiences built the foundation for his current career as an author.
Sheinkin switched over from scripts and landed a job writing history textbooks.
“It was kind of a cosmic joke on me because I always hated these books and made fun of them … but now I found myself writing them and it turned out to be a tremendous blessing in disguise,” said Sheinkin.
He worked to bring interesting and uncommon stories into the textbooks. Sheinkin gave an example about George Washington, saying, “I was trying to make him come alive and tell stories. He comes across as so boring in textbooks, which just isn’t true.”
However, minimal creativity made it through the final edits and into the textbooks due to pressure groups. “Every time I tried to put in something lively, there was always some reason not to,” he said.
Since Sheinkin wasn’t able to express his humor and creativity through textbook writing, he began developing his own narrative nonfiction stories.
Sheinkin’s storylines are comprised of untold historical facts and raise questions of moral ambiguity. He attempts to appeal to all youths and challenge the stereotype of history classes consisting of boring memorization.
Rather than history, author and illustrator Jason Chin creates nonfiction children’s books relating to science and nature.
Chin was passionate about art from a young age. He was fortunate enough to grow up in the same town as his mentor, friend and accredited illustrator Tina Schart Hyman, he said.
“The most important thing that she gave to me was confidence. She believed in me which made it possible for me to believe in myself,” said Chin.
One of his books, “Redwoods,” is about a boy who discovers a book about redwood trees on the subway. After opening the book, the boy finds himself emerged in the forest, as if he somehow transported into the text.
Chin continued his “book-within-a book concept” for his other stories as well.
“I didn’t know how great it was until I started visiting schools and the kids – they love it. By far the most common question I get when I’m at schools is ‘Why is the book inside the book?’” said Chin.
However, in order to keep the mystery alive, Chin never answers the question directly.
Chin said he familiarizes himself with scientific topics through reading and research. He focuses primarily on “origin stories” that he can expand on imaginatively. He then translates the facts into an interesting story by using a fictional narrative.
“The thing about ‘Redwoods’ is that the narrative is what makes the book successful. Kids don’t gravitate to tree books, most kids anyway, but this narrative captures some kids’ attention,” said Chin.
Freshman Caitlin Baril said, “I really like how both of the authors understood kids’ interests … and how they were really just big children themselves.”
Both Chin and Sheinkin spoke about the importance of personal experience and imagination.
For Sheinkin’s book, “Dangerous Man,” he traveled to historical sites relating to Benedict Arnold. Chin ventured to the Galapagos Islands and the Grand Canyon for first-hand knowledge on his material.
The authors also stressed creativity and the direct effect it has on children’s ability to learn.
“The stories in the book are like the medicine that helps the science go down,” said Chin.