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On 6/28/13, I was thrilled to make my second consecutive appearance at the Children’s Literature Conference at Shenandoah University in Virginia; this was the 28th annual.
It is one of my favorite conferences.
My schedule this year:
- 1.5-hour writing workshop with middle schoolers
- presentation to educators
- two breakout Q&A sessions with educators
- book signing
- turkey and cheese croissant sandwich
The hallmarks from last year all made welcome (except for the heat) returns.
Star-studded roster:Beautiful hand-painted banner (all by the same student!) representing every author:A mug with our names on it: Extreme bookselling:
Bathroom signs featuring author and book quotations:At first I read this as "You will agree to come with me," which is as lovely a description as any for a person surrendering to a good book.
Thank you again to Karen Huff, my kind right-hand woman Becky, and the rest of the crew for making this a must-attend conference. And thank you to the audiences, who were more than receptive and engaged throughout. I look forward to visiting as many of your schools as I can...and I look forward to (hopefully) seeing you at the 29th.
That “lives” could be a verb or a noun; we discussed both.
Me, two other cowboys, and two fine cowgirls (AKA Brian Floca, Chris Barton, Meghan McCarthy, and Shana Corey) moseyed on down old San Antonio way for IRA, where we did a panel called “‘But Kids Haven’t Heard of That!’: Why Teaching Unconventional Nonfiction Is Important.”
Moderated by the tireless Susannah Richards, Associate Professor of Education at Eastern Connecticut State University, each of the five authors did a fifteen-minute presentation, then collectively took questions from Susannah and the audience.
I was as much an avid audience member as participant. Adding to my excitement was the fact that I’d proposed the panel—twice actually (it was rejected for 2012)—stocking it with four of my favorite nonfiction picture book writers, not to mention friends.
Brian Floca, Meghan McCarthy, me, Shana Corey, Chris Barton Here is feedback on the proposal from IRA decision-makers:
- The panel of authors should draw a big audience.
- Appropriate subject matter for this symposia. The panelists are authors and have significant information to share with the audience.
- This proposal presents a clear evidence base and also is convincing and motivating. The content was detailed and gives a clear idea of what will transpire in the session. The objectives align with the content. This is an excellent proposal.
Here is feedback on the panel from an attendee:
I attended a panel meeting of nonfiction authors. One author in particular, Marc Tyler Nobleman, stuck out to me. … Mr. Nobleman’s book [Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman] is a must read. [He] is an excellent storyteller; it’s just, he’s not telling you a story—he’s telling you facts. I have never seen nonfiction this cool and interesting before now.
After, as we unwound at the River Walk, another author ally, Erica Perl, joined us. However, I was the only one who wanted homemade ice cream.
For diehards and readhards, here is the meat of the proposal:
For some students, nonfiction has a stigma: boring. This is perplexing: why would a true story inherently be less intriguing than something made up? In years past, nonfiction was often written in a dry manner. In addition, there was less risk in subject matter and style.
Today, however, the authors writing nonfiction for young people recognize the dual responsibility they have. First, they must continue to present accurate (and, when possible, new) information. And now, they must do so in an engaging fashion. The marked shift from “textbook” to narrative nonfiction is a considerable benefit for young readers.
In exercising creative freedom with respect to tone, chronology, perspective, and subject matter, contemporary nonfiction writers are boosting the excitement of teachers and kids alike. Such fresh material lures reluctant readers and further stimulates active readers.
We’ve seen an increase in nonfiction picture books described as a “first of its kind.” We’ve seen an increase in picture books subjects that have never been the focus of even a book for adults (The Day-Glo Brothers, Strong Man, Surfer of the Century, Boys of Steel). We’ve seen a rise in the level of sophistication of—and the amount of pages devoted to – back matter. The reason: there is an audience and an educational missive to support it.
Yet with library budgets in crisis, it can be difficult to get unconventional nonfiction into schools—and with test preparation time increasing, educators may struggle to make time to introduce it. In our increasingly blended world, however, it is critical to re-emphasize a diversity of subject matter. (No slight to Benjamin Franklin, Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, or the Obamas’ dog, each of whom has starred in multiple picture books.)
This panel may include but is not solely about multicultural subjects. Rather it focuses more broadly on subjects generally not taught in curriculum.
2012 IRA attendee feedback:
- Very appropriate subject matter! Nonfiction needs to be addressed, especially with Common Core being the focus!
- Informational text deserves greater attention, especially unconventional informational text. The panel format will be appealing to the audience. The panelists have valuable information to share. The topic is grounded in literature that is relevant and substantial. I believe this session will be of interest to a broad cross-section of IRA members.
Forty-five states have adopted the Common Core Standards.
Publishers Weekly (7/18/12): “By the 2014-15 academic year, the initiative calls for 50% informational text (including…nonfiction trade books) in elementary school and 70% in high school-on average, across all curricula. … [A]ccording to the Core: dull-looking nonfiction is out. … ‘Visual elements are particularly important in texts for the youngest students and in many informational texts for readers of all ages.’”
New York Times (3/11/12): “Children in New York City who learned to read using an experimental curriculum that emphasized nonfiction texts outperformed those at other schools.”
School Library Journal (4/1/12): “‘The advent of Common Core presents school librarians with both a great opportunity and a great challenge,’ says kids’ book editor and author Marc Aronson. ‘The emphasis on nonfiction from elementary school on puts them front and center, since few current homeroom teachers know nonfiction in their grades as read-alouds, as pleasure reads, or as opportunities to compare different narrative approaches.”
Horn Book (March-April 2011): Author Susan Campbell Bartoletti writes that in her teaching experience, fiction-reading kids would hold up a favorite book and ask for another like it. But nonfiction readers “wanted to read [books] about things they didn’t already know.”
Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, stated that an unconventional nonfiction “panel is a super idea and one that will draw a top audience.”
Increasingly, picture book nonfiction includes an author’s note about the author’s research process—a process that every student must learn in English class. And the best of these authors’ notes read like detective novels.
Sites such as teachwithpicturebooks.blogspot.com promote picture books in the classroom—even in middle and high school. Neither “short” nor “illustrated” automatically makes a book only for young people.
Reading nonfiction capitalizes on existing interests and generates motivation. Reading unconventional nonfiction challenges perspectives and brings fuller, often cross-disciplinary understanding to any historical period.
Reading nonfiction helps to build schema and vocabulary knowledge. Reading unconventional nonfiction empowers students to experiment with topics they may not presume to like or understand, and often enlightens them when they can make a connection between that material and curriculum.- end of proposal excerpt -Oh, and circling back to the cowboy theme: the last morning, I was almost trampled by a stampede…of teachers and librarians…headed to a booth for a free bag featuring Superman on one side and (for them) the bigger draw, Wonder Woman, on the other.
My second time at the Colorado Conference of the International Reading Association has surpassed the first. What some participants have called the best state IRA conference in the country gets such praise due to a strong selection of sessions, fun staff, fun authors, and a fun location. Special props to conference chair Mary Jo Ziegman for pulling this off with efficiency, sincerity, and a sense of humor.
I was born for this year’s theme, Heroes for Literacy. You could walk barely five feet in the hotel lobby without coming across a superhero-themed sign or other decoration.
I was heartened by the reaction to my two sessions; enthusiasm, appreciation, no nodding off.
Though I feel like I know author Chris Barton well, this was only my second time hanging out with him in person (first time was in 2009). Luckily, next time I will see him will be far sooner than four years—or even four months. We’re on panel together at the International Reading Association Convention in April. At my first CCIRA, I came away with Alan Katz as a friend, and he was here this time as well. Adding to the mix was Gordon Korman, whom I’d not met before. One night, a lively group of librarians from Colorado asked the three of us for our signatures…on ketchup bottles. I suppose that is a bond for life.
Bill Finger was born in Denver. This week, he came home:
You are a middle school teacher.
You signed up for the Kennesaw (GA) State University Children’s Literature Conference.
You are excited for the three author keynotes spread over the course of a day.
You are especially excited for the first keynote—Chris Crutcher.
But only after you get there do you learn you will miss Crutcher.
Because even Chris Crutcher gets sick sometimes.
* * *
I was honored to be asked to deliver a Kennesaw keynote myself. The first day of the conference (3/20/13) was aimed at elementary educators, the second at middle and secondary educators. Three keynoters were scheduled per day; mine was on the first day.
The night before, Bryan Gillis, the infinitely thoughtful conference organizer, emailed to ask if I would also be willing to fill in for a keynoter from the second day. While en route, Chris Crutcher (whom I’ve not met) started to feel unwell and was advised to turn back.
When you’re asked to pinch-hit for a legend in your industry, you do two things:
- Say you’re not worthy.
- Say yes.
The first day, I was the second of three keynotes. I focused on two fliers—Superman and Nobuo Fujita.
The second day, I was the last of the three keynotes. The topic that time was Batman.
Being the last keynote of the day is typically challenging; people are tired and eager to go.
Being the last keynote of the conference amplifies the challenge.
And being the last keynote of the conference when people were expecting an A-list author is a challenge wrapped up in a Come to Georgia moment.
But with Batman on my side, I took on that challenge with enthusiasm.
And the audience was most gracious. (It helped that Bryan gave me one of the most humbling intros I can recall receiving.)
Plus I got to see my photo inside a waterfall:Even before my first keynote, Chris was feeling better, which I was relieved to hear. I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet him but did get to meet three other authors and spend time getting to know a fourth I already knew.Thank you to Bryan and his wife Nancy for their tireless efforts, genuine interest, and trusting manner. Thank you to the conference attendees for not running me off the stage—and for expressing considerable support for my work, notably my Fujita project.
And with full respect, thank you to Chris Crutcher for the opportunity you didn’t plan nor want to give me. I’ll sub for you anytime…though I’d rather meet you.
On 11/6/12, AKA Election Day in America, I made my second appearance at the annual conference of New York City school librarians. The day’s duties comprised a presentation on Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman (in the city where it took place), a book signing, and author speed dating. I’ve long wanted to do that. In this case, it was six or seven tables of librarians, six or seven rotating authors, sixty minutes of madcap Q&A.
The conference was held in a high school and the book sales/signings were in the gym. I was thrilled to see that a gym teacher there not only gets blood pumping but also gets minds whirring: s/he has the students write. In gym class.
If that had been part of my high school gym class, maybe I would not have been so anxious to be there.
Chris Barton.And, of course, books will be signed:I am signing two more times on Monday 4/22/13:
Me. (I am still in alphabetical order this way.)
On 4/21/13, from 3 to 5:45 p.m. (yes, almost three hours!), at the International Reading Association Convention in San Antonio, we five authors, moderated by Susannah Richards, Associate Professor of Education at Eastern Connecticut State University, will panel-discuss the importance of unconventional nonfiction...the stories that are not yet widely known, the people who are not textbook names.
Please join us. This group has never assembled before, and may never again. Therefore (speaking of nonfiction), history will be witnessed. Unconventional nonfiction will be glorified.
- Anderson's, booth 1003, 10-11 a.m.
- Overlooked Books booth, booth 2519, 11 a.m.-12 p.m.
On 3/24/12, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Georgia Children's Literature Conference in picturesque Athens, GA. I also got to catch up with author/illustrator friends Meghan McCarthy, Mike Wimmer, and Jody Feldman. People don't get much nicer than those people, and I got to hear two of them speak as well; sitting in on colleagues' presentations is always a particular treat at conferences.
I had only one session but you'd never know it by the quantity of books they brought in:
On 2/11/12, I spoke three times at my third Nevada Reading Week Conference in Reno. The theme was “Make a Date with History,” and I felt right at home because I do that for a living.
The kind organizers of the conference send the presenters feedback from the attendees; it comes anonymously on thin handwritten slips.
This year, I gave a diverse, hourlong keynote; a small part of it was my story of trying to publish a story I’m particularly passionate about.
Of all the topics I covered, I was thrilled to see that many people enthusiastically singled out that story, Thirty Minutes Over Oregon.
Here are some of my favorite comments about the book-to-hopefully-be:
Selected transcriptions (Thirty Minutes Over Oregon):
"Very interesting—this is great history no one knows about. I hope it will be published soon."
"I am interested in Thirty Minutes Over Oregon. Hopefully it will be published."
"Want to read Thirty Minutes Over Oregon."
"Especially poignant was the publishing process story of the Japanese [pilot] who bombed Oregon."
"The Japanese bomber story was amazing."
"Hope the Oregon book goes public."
"Loved his story about Thirty Minutes Over Oregon and hope it gets published."
"Interesting Oregon bombing story!"
"The sad story of a great story not yet finding a publisher."
This round bodes
Sometimes a career highlight can be summed up in only three letters.
When I heard that TED, the prestigious conference devoted to “ideas worth spreading” in the areas of technology, entertainment, and design, was holding its first-ever talent search across the globe, I hastily submitted my one-minute video pitch on Bill Finger and the tragedy of superhero creators. (It ran a bit over, which would be the beginning of a pattern with me.)
That was in April. In late May, long past the time I thought decisions had been made, I got a surprising email. Of the hundreds who nominated themselves, I was one of 30 chosen to give a short TED talk in New York on June 7.
I travel the country (and, of late, the world) speaking to audiences of all kinds. I love doing it and I rarely get the jitters beforehand.
This was not the case with TED.
Perhaps only TED can make someone nervous about telling a story he has lived and breathed—and shaped and spoken on—for five years.
Part of the reason TED amplifies anxiety is obvious: it is on a world stage. But the biggest part of the reason is that the talks are timed…and you will be cut off.
Speakers could choose a talk length between two and six minutes, but TED said the shorter the better. I went with three minutes.
If there was no fixed time, and instead they’d simply said “Just give a short talk,” I would have been much more comfortable. But it was the fear of being cut short that threw me. So I prepared a talk that could be delivered in just under three minutes…if I didn’t screw up.
At rehearsal I screwed up.
But after, TED curator Chris Anderson and Director of Content Kelly Stoetzel graciously said that it would be okay if I ran a bit over now that they’d heard my approach. In other words, since they knew I would not run, say, three minutes over, I had the leeway to run 30 seconds over.
As for my screwing up, I am not making excuses…except for these two:
1) My afternoon rehearsal took place in the middle of Joe’s Pub in New York while what felt like 50 crew moved equipment around us frantically trying to get everything set up for the live event that evening.
2) I thought that the talk we prepared should be just a teaser since most TED talks I’ve seen are close to 20 minutes. I didn’t realize till the day of that we were expected to present a full, if succinct, talk. That last-minute recalibration also threw me a bit.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that I knew one of the other speakers: writer Joshua Prager, who entered my field of vision with his riveting Wall Street Journal piece on what happened to the royalties for the classic picture book Goodnight Moon. (Go read it.) Josh was one of the evening’s highlights and I am going on record to say he will get invited to TED 2013.
Because that’s what this salon was about: finding new blood for the next Big One. A follow-up email from TED explained that fewer than 10% of TED speakers from this talent search would be so honored.
three photos above © TED; used under Creative Commons license
A TED tenet that I didn’t realize existed: ties are taboo for TED talks. Not outright banned but discouraged. At least two speakers who arrived in ties did not go on stage in them. TED = Ties Equal Dry.
My TED talk (which ended up running nearly a minute over):
Comments are being collected under the video of my talk on the TED (not YouTube) page, but only until 8/31/12, so please don’t delay in going there and letting them know if you think I would add something worthwhile to TED 2013 (with a more polished delivery, of course)!
I won’t screw up twice.