Talking code and the alphabet – the Swiacki Children’s Literature Festival goes virtual

By Robert Johnson Jr.
Arts & Features Editor

At this year’s Swiacki Children’s Literature Festival, the McCarthy Center was not a mecca for all things children’s literature, due to the COVID-19 pandemic blocking off the potential for large, in-person gatherings.

Instead, that honor was given to a Zoom link in which many members of Framingham State’s community, as well as other spectators, gathered to hear presentations Nov. 5 from Cathie Mercier, as well as the two featured speakers, Joseph Bruchac and Melissa Sweet.

This year’s iteration also served as the 35th anniversary of the festival, which was held in honor of Tomie dePaola, the festival’s first-ever guest, who died earlier this year in March.

Mercier, a professor at Simmons University who is chair of the children’s literature department, hosted her annual lecture as part of the Pat Keogh Memorial Lecture, “What’s New in Children’s Literature?” at the 4:30 p.m. timeslot.

The presentation, similar to those in past years, discussed the advancements and strides made in the industry in the year since her last presentation, while also recommending some of her favorite titles.

“I am deeply honored to be invited back after being with you, last year,” Mercier said.

She continued, “‘Last year.’ Remember that? This festival was on a dismal, cold, rainy November afternoon and evening. And, yet, we were warm in our bookish comforts, and we were warm together, gathered in one place. Without masks, without gloves, and without vats of hand sanitizer.

“This afternoon, we meet virtually, surrounded by the uncanny ordinaryness of COVID-19, by the daily hazards of racism, and by the unimaginable disruptions that threaten to unhinge our very democracy. … We gather here today in the indefatigable belief that literature, and especially literature for young people, has the capacity to affect change – has the obligation to affect change. Has the opportunity to affect change,” she said.

“We gather here today to celebrate with each other, in this community, the knowledge that good books make for good people.”

Mercier began to delve into specifics, regarding the realm of children’s and young adult literature.

“With over 5,000 books published for children and young adults, but with closed warehouses and expert distribution of e-titles for preview, and closed libraries and bookstores, 2020 has also meant decreased access to new titles,” she said.

In her presentation, Mercier recommended books such as Rita Hubbard and Oge Mora’s “The Oldest Student,” Duncan Tonatiuh’s “Feathered Serpent and the Five Suns,” Reimena Yee’s “Séance Tea Party,” and Carson Ellis’ “In the Half Room.”

Later on in the evening, Bruchac and Sweet spoke to the audience, as part of the Mary Burns Memorial Lecture. While it was plagued by connection issues at first, audiences were engrossed in what each creator had to say about their works and their creative processes, as well as their life stories.

The lecture was introduced by F. Javier Cevallos, president of FSU, and Ellen Zimmerman, interim provost/vice president of academic affairs.

“[The Children’s Literature Festival] is truly one of the great academic events of the year – we look [forward] to it every year with anticipation, because it is such a wonderful, wonderful event,” Cevallos said.

Zimmerman said, “I want to end my welcome to you all with this following acknowledgement: We would like to acknowledge that the land on which we live, work, learn, and commune is the original homelands of the Nipmuc Tribal Nations. We acknowledge the painful history of genocide and forced removal from this territory.

“We honor and respect the many diverse, indigenous peoples still connected to this land on which we gather,” she said.

After a brief introduction by Lisa Eck, professor and chair of the English department, Bruchac, an author of over 170 books for children and adults, took the “stage.”

Bruchac focused on one book, “Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two,” during his talk, but he also spent a large part of his time talking about his life and upbringing.

“I should point out that as a storyteller and a writer, I always try to make sure that whatever I share does two important things: First of all, it should be entertaining, because, then, people will pay attention and remember,” Bruchac said.

He added, “But secondly, it should contain within it a useful lesson. Something that will be worth having heard, or read, a story.”

Speaking of stories, he shared one with the audience: “I want to tell you a story that, I think, may mean something to those of you who are trying to write, who aspire to write. You see, there will always be people who will tell you that what you want to do, you cannot do.”

He spoke of his experiences at Cornell University as a wildlife conservation major and a varsity heavyweight wrestler for the school.

“I had a mind and I had ideas I wanted to share, and, because of that, I decided to take a course in creative writing,” Bruchac said. “My professor was a man named David Ray, and David took one look at me when I walked into the room – I had matte burns, I had a cauliflower ear, I had a very short haircut, and I was pretty muscular carrying a gym bag, and he immediately said, ‘This is the creative writing class – I think you’re in the wrong place.’”

He continued, “I said, ‘No, this is it. This is the course I want to take.’”

Bruchac described his struggles in the course, noting how after he turned in his first assignment, Ray “tore it apart,” as well as the second and third assignments, prompting Ray to inform Bruchac that he “could drop this course.

“But I did not give up. I continued writing. … I ended up getting an ‘A’ in that course,” he said.

After that, Ray and Bruchac became close, personal friends.

Later, Bruchac talked to the audience about the Navajo Code Talkers Association, as well as facts regarding his novel, “Code Talkers.” This is also paired with experiences – both serious and hilarious – from his career, such as attending a dinner at the Library of Congress during the George W. Bush administration.

Sweet, the second featured speaker at the festival and illustrator of over 100 children’s books, came in after Bruchac. She provided the audience “an overview of her process and what she thinks about picture books,” with a concentration on biographies.

“For me as an artist, you have the opportunity to get these great manuscripts, or write a manuscript, that [searches] for who these people are, what they did in their lives, and how to bring it, visually, to the page – what was hard for them? All those small details – I want to find out everything,” Sweet said.

“Of course, in a children’s picture book, we don’t have room to do everything, so we synthesize, and I think that’s the challenge and that’s, really, the fun for me,” she said.

From there, she talked about her upbringing as an artist in New Jersey, the toys she played with as a kid that helped her develop as an artist, as well as how she got her discipline, which she notes is “nine-tenths of the artist.”

“Before I got published, I kept busy taking classes,” she said. “And I learned calligraphy and hand-lettering. I knew I wanted to learn it, I thought it would be interesting, and maybe something I could use in my art.”

In her presentation, she delved into the process of creating some of her latest books, namely “Alphamaniacs: Builders of 26 Wonders of the Word” alongside Paul Fleischman and her own book, “Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White.”

“The slowness is important to me, working slowly and meticulously,” said Sweet of the process behind making the cover of “Alphamaniacs.”

Sweet closed her presentation with a quote from E.B. White: “All that I ever hoped to say in books, is that I loved the world. I guess you can find it in there, if you dig around.”