The Swiacki Children’s Literature Festival returns in-person with lectures from Mercier, Steptoe, and Blackall

Ryan O'Connell/THE GATEPOST

Simmons University professor Cathryn Mercier said the return to in-person teaching has been surprisingly hard for her. She’s had to fight the impulse to withdraw into the imaginary literary worlds where there is closure.

“I can withdraw into the fictional arenas where I can vicariously fight the battles of good and evil, and always win.” she said. 

On Nov. 3, Mercier gave a lecture on what’s new in children’s literature in the McCarthy Center Alumni Room. 

Mercier’s presentation was part of the annual Swiacki Children’s Literature Festival, which spanned the day and included book signings and lectures with Sarah Blackall and Javaka Steptoe. 


Mercier currently serves as the director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons University. She has contributed to a variety of publications and has advised the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant and the selection of the national youth ambassador. She also chairs the National Book Award panel for Young People’s Literature. 

Mercier said since 1950, the National Book Awards have aimed to honor writers who have shaped the foundation of literature. She said the committee consists of a diverse group of people who all have different literary preferences, critical training, and lives. Their goal is to distribute hundreds of thousands of diverse books to children in public housing. 

She began by introducing “Home is Not a Country” by Safia Elhillo, which follows a Muslim immigrant abandoned by her father and bullied by her schoolmates. Mercier described it as sensual, exquisite and immagestic. 

In “A Snake Falls to Earth,” by Darcie Little Badger, the takeaway remains a serious pillar of our society. The story weaves a plot where personified animals travel a dangerous world, and all the while, Badger makes clear how the choices humans make may lead all species to extinction. 

Mercier shared an excerpt of Melinda Lowe’s “It Takes Practice to be a Person,” on a Miss China beauty contest and the negative physical effects of these challenges on the women who participate in them. Also on the list was “Too Bright to See,” a coming-of-age story written by Kyle Lukoff.

She said the 10 books on the National Book Award long list expose American racism, and they “charge American readers with understanding as they issue a call to action.

“As a group, they disclose the risk of violence and violation when one lives outside heteronormative norms. They unveil the haunting qualities of identity and they invite readers across age categories into conversation.” 

She added the books celebrate trans, lesbian, and straight voices, and highlight the “beautiful” language of indegenous peoples through poetry, non-fiction, graphic novels – “all meaningful literary vehicles which engage in the faces and facets of being human.” 

Mercier then shared titles of new books such as “Time for Kenny” by Kenny Pinkney, “Zonia’s Rain Forest” by Juana Martinez Neal, and “Memory Jars” by Vera Brosgol, which she said use a variety of art techniques such as acrylic inks, dipped pens, and pastel liners to tell the stories of three childhoods lived differently across the globe. 

The catalogue of what’s new in children’s literature didn’t end with North American publications, however. Mercier also shared “I Am the Subway,” a Korean picture book written by Kim Hyo-eun, and “Wishes,” a 75-page narration by Vietnamese writer Muon Thi Van.

“I Am the Subway,” a warm watercolor picture book, allows the reader to see through the eyes of the train, witnessing all the different anonymous passengers who populate the cars, and a brief insight into their lives.

“There’s granny, who races to get home to cook for her family, a cobbler who recognizes people by their shoes, and the exhausted mom who gets a little quiet rocking all [on] her own,” Mercier said.

“Wishes,” while short, tells a tale of seeking refuge through inanimate objects, emphasizing the impact of the small choices made, regardless of the situation. The connection is also made that the third person perspective in “Wishes” “speaks to the universality of wishing for hope,” Mercier said.

“The passivity [Muon Thi Van] writes implies that the little choices we make matter in times of great change and turmoil,” she said about “Wishes.”

She also discussed the books that grapple with identity, “Starfish” by Lisa Fipps, which she describes as a “dirty middle grade novel” narrating the struggles of body image and “Black Boy Joy” which illustrates the effects of racism and microaggressions. 

“Imagine trailing your fingers to the tail of a comet that burns through space right beside you,” she read from an excerpt of “Black Boy Joy.”

Another common topic of the featured works was the modern drive for social justice in our society. “We Shall Overcome,” by Bryan Collier, catalogues the journey of one young girl and her friends’ journey to protest. 

“Collier’s watercolor and recognizable color style animate this journey set to an inherited song,” Mercier said, before adding the relevant connections Collier makes to remind the reader of the “importance of Rosa Parks, the 16th Street Baptist Church, Little Rock Central High School, and Black Lives Matter.”

“Dream Street,” a collaborative effort between Tricia Elam Walker and Ekua Holmes, which “calls for a future where children can grow up to be whoever and whatever they want,” Mercier said. She added that both authors grew up in Boston, which emphasizes the potential we have as a community to help support the next generation’s dreams.

Mercier concluded her time at the event by suggesting “The Firekeeper’s Daughter,” by Anthony Bulli, which “reads like a compelling, intricate mystery.” She then read “Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun,” by Jonny Garza Villa, a coming-of-age story about the complications involving long distance in a blossoming relationship between two young boys.

“It is one thing to come out, even accidentally, and quite another thing to fall in love,” she read from the book. 

Mercier closed her presentation by saying she hopes we find joy and courage in the words and legacy that have been brought to us in the past year. 

Later in the evening, featured speakers Javaka Steptoe and Sophie Blackall dived deep into their creative processes and spoke of the major inspirations for their work. Earlier in the day, they were giving autographs and signing their books that were displayed. 

Senior elementary education major Julia Barry introduced Javaka Steptoe. As an author and illustrator, he won the Caldecott Medal in 2017 for his book “Radical Child: The Story of Young Artist John-Michel Basquiat.” 

Steptoe began his presentation talking about his experience in the field of children’s literature and mentioning previous works he had collaborated on and contributed to.  

He referenced back to a question posed previously in the day about how to find the point at which someone becomes a writer or illustrator – saying that point at which you take your work seriously is when you become a writer “because that is when you grow.

“You’re a writer because you’re writing,” he added, emphasising that it doesn’t matter how many books someone has published. “You’re an artist because you’re creating art.” 

He began clicking through his slideshow, featuring photos of children displaying each of the five senses, circling back to the center of his presentation, our bodies. He emphasized, “Our complete understanding of the world that we live in is through our bodies.” 

He shifted focus briefly, speaking of language and the long history it holds. He said, “The words that we speak were created hundreds of years ago – and some even thousands of years ago – and those people had a different understanding of the world.”

He added, “Your feelings become the way for you to understand the world, the way for you to express how you feel.” 

Expanding further on the subject of feeling, he shifted slightly to focus on the way children use their feelings to draw, and how he tries to emulate that when making his own art. 

“I’m still that little kid, and I’m still making the movements and the sounds and feeling, because that’s also what I do.” 

Steptoe moved on to speak on his book “Radical Child: The Story of Jean-Michel Basquiat ” saying how he had an emotional connection to Basquiat, despite never meeting him in person. 

He projected one of Basquiat’s pieces “Jawbone of an Ass,” a piece that inspired him to create his book because of his great emotional connection to it. 

When looking into Basquiat, he found that he was not excessively praised, but he contrasted that by saying, “I look at this piece of artwork and I say he was brilliant.” 

Steptoe broke down the illustration for the audience and revealed hidden gems within – like a small drawing of Bullwinkle in the background. 

Junior Julia Parabicoli introduced the next speaker, Sophie Blackall. 

Blackall emphasized that her presentation was centered around connection. “The connection between pictures and words, then between books and their readings, the connection between our childhood selves and the grown ups.”

She talked briefly about her childhood and how her love of illustration began early in life. She explained how she used to trace over images from “Winnie the Pooh” to learn how the lines connected. It was during that time that she decided that she wanted to pursue children’s literature. 

Blackall moved on to talk about her actual career and the works she had made. She focused on her book “Hello Lighthouse,” which focuses on a family living in a lighthouse, and how their home is a beacon of stability.  

She spoke of how she designed the illustrations for the book, emphasizing the circular shape of the inner part of the lighthouse and keeping it on the same spot in each page to show how rooted it is to its place. 

While a large portion of her presentation was on her bigger projects, Blackall also took the time to shed light on her smaller projects she did more for her own enjoyment, rather than her career goals. 

She explained one project she produced, which centered around people’s real-life stories about missed opportunities. She picked stories she enjoyed and drew an accompanying illustration to then post to her Instagram page. 

She discussed how she often drew inspiration from real life and made an effort to include real people within her stories, furthering the personal connections she felt to her works. 

Blackall closed her lecture by sharing about her soon-to-be-published book, “Things to Look Forward To.” 

She said, “It may be behind a cloud. But the sun will come up. And then I thought maybe there are other things to look forward to like a hot shower and moving the furniture around and writing a letter and drawing a face on an egg.”