Memory and children’s literature intersect in the Swiacki Children’s Literature Festival

The McCarthy Center was a mecca for activities and events involving the future of children’s literature during this year’s Swiacki Children’s Literature Festival, Nov. 7.

Writer Nikki Grimes and artist David Wiesner were the featured authors for the day’s events. Wiesner also had a complementary exhibition in the Mazmanian Art Gallery, that coincided with his appearance.

While one event was focused on the sale and signing of their books, there were also lectures and keynotes from respected names in the realm of children’s literature.

The first lecture, “What’s New in Children’s Literature?,” held in the McCarthy Center Forum, was given by Cathryn Mercier, a professor at Simmons University who is chair of the children’s literature department.

As the lecture was part of the Pat Keogh Memorial Workshop, Mercier talked about Keogh, the person for whom the workshop is named, in her opening remarks.

“I met Pat very early in my career in children’s literature studies, where she was my student in a number of classes,” Mercier said. “Now, I’m sure that Pat learned some critical theory and probably a whole lot of critical jargon from me, and I know that she considered young adult novels a unique engagement with subjectivity and identity.”

“As much as Pat was my student, I was really her student,” she added.

In her 40-minute talk, Mercier informed the audience about picture books – within the graphic novel, young adult, and the children’s book form – released throughout 2019, providing her thoughts on what was innovative and how children’s literature is evolving in terms of representation and art styles.

Mercier said, “2019 saw over 52,000 books published for children and young adults. We can talk about them if we had all night, and all week, and all month, and all year, but there’s not enough room for all that time to attend to them all – not even just the good ones.”

“Not even just the very, very, very good ones,” she added.

Mercier began her showcase with a quote from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll – “What use is the book without pictures or conversations?”

“This phrase attracted me to this talk because it immediately captures two trends in publishing for young people that have dominated 2019 – the pictures in conversation in the graphic novel as a creative form that crosses genres and the pictures in conversation of beginning, independent, transitional books,” Mercier said.

Books such as Maulik Pancholy’s “The Best at It,” Randy Cecil’s “Douglas,” Kwame Alexander’s “The Undefeated,” and Isabel Quintero’s “My Papi has a Motorcycle” were praised by Mercier during her presentation.

In a post-lecture Q and A session, Mercier was asked about what the future of graphic novels would be like in 2020.

“One thing you should know about me is that my glass is half full and half empty at the same time,” Mercier said. “I was shocked by how many graphic novels of quality across age levels, there were this year. … The form itself is getting better for young readers.

“I think we’re going to see more graphic novels, and I think we’ll see better graphic novels. I hope we also see some graphic novels that are directed to how one reads graphic novels,” Mercier said.

Carol Goldenberg, the next speaker, is a frequent collaborator of Wiesner’s and freelance book designer, spoke about her career, delving into the processes that go into making a picture book look legible and organized.

“I found that most readers express surprise when told that books are an art,” Goldenberg said. “Design is at its most successful when it’s not immediately apparent to the reader.

“Here’s the twist: we live in a world full of visual stimulation, and in order for a book to be noticed, good book making must draw the reader in, or that book will never be read. It, then, must relinquish that role, sort of like the host at a dinner party – it’s a form of creative non-interference,” Goldenberg added.

“The ultimate role [in book design] is not to get in the way of the reader.”

Goldenberg discussed the role of typography in the picture book, as well as the role of the revisional process in designing a book’s cover, what goes inside the book, how the text should be displayed, and how to ensure that everything reads nicely.

“It’s sort of like being a master chef, working with all the ingredients,” Goldenberg joked.

Grimes, despite being a little under the weather, gave her talk and opened up with a poetic piece from her memoir, “Ordinary Hazards,” regarding the topic of memory and how the recollection of memories can create great books.

“A work of a perfect memory / In which you meticulously capture / All that you can recall / And use informed imagination to fill in what remains,” Grimes recited as she read a poem titled “Memoir.”

Grimes said the book itself went through “several permutations,” in answer to the question, ‘How long does it take to write a book?’ in this case, there are two answers.

“The first, of course, with memoir, is ‘all my life,’ and the second is almost as bad – 39 years,” Grimes added.

“‘Ordinary Hazards’ is easily the most difficult book I’ve ever written for a variety of reasons, but the primary reason accounted for the lies of memory. … And there is nothing more complex, more fickle, more mysterious than human memory,” Grimes said.

“I have always believed the most important story I had to tell was my own.”

To close the festivities, Wiesner went up to present his talk on a similar theme, “The Persistence of Memory,” which acted as an autobiographical account of how he got his start in making art, as well as the things that inspired him to become a professional children’s book illustrator.

“It’s amazing how we see particular images as a child, and how they can affect you, and it’s different for everyone,” Wiesner said. “Every child is impacted in a different way, but you never even know what it

[the image]

could be – it could be some very random thing that you could see and, yet, it can just take hold of the mind and remain there.”

Wiesner supplemented his talk with archival images from his childhood, as well as pictures that corresponded with specific pieces of media that inspired him.

Art pieces such as “The Changing Earth,” by Charles R. Knight, comic strips and books such as “Peanuts” and the “Fantastic Four,” and the television work of Jon Gnagy were displayed to the audience.

These displays were not for naught – he later explained how he incorporates those influences into his works, such as the B-movie-influenced 2020 release, “Robobaby.”

Wiesner said, “I just feel incredibly lucky that I have picture books as a form to turn around and reinterpret it in a way that those kids out there can see my version of it, and maybe, in some way, inspire themselves to take that childhood memory and make something of it.”

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