Sunday, March 25, 2018

On advocating for diversity at kidlit conferences

(If you have time to read only one sentence, skip to the bolded action plan below.)

On 3/19/18, authors and other children's publishing professionals had a conversation on Twitter and Facebook about the first annual Asbury University Children's Literature Conference in Kentucky (a collaboration with the Mazza Museum of picture book art in Ohio) on 3/24/18.

The event scheduled four author speakers. All were white. All were male. One was me. (The others were Marc Brown, Peter Catalanotto, and Aaron Reynolds.)

The online conversation called out the dearth of diversity, and rightfully so. Though this is a conversation we need to have year-round, the timing was especially apt: March is Women's History Month and now also #Kidlitwomen Month.

After hearing me speak at Mazza the summer of 2017, one of the Asbury organizers invited me to speak at their 2019 conference and I accepted; I did not think to ask who else was presenting. A few weeks before the 2018 conference, one of the four authors backed out. (I later learned that the author was female.) My contact asked me if I would be able to switch to this year. Finding a comparable replacement for a conference speaker on such short notice is a challenge. I was able to rearrange my schedule so I said yes. Again, I did not think to ask or check who else was presenting. 

When the all-white, all-male lineup was announced, public reaction within our kidlit community ranged from disappointment to outrage. 

I take heart that creators of books for young readers have long embraced equality and tolerance on the page and are now empowered to identify mistreatment or lapses in judgment in real life. 

In this case, however, I was troubled by the approach that some people took in voicing disapproval. As one example, this anonymous comment:

I stand with all who are working to eliminate inequity in children's publishing (and I feel the other three gentlemen authors at the conference also do), but I do not condone doing so by casting aspersions on people you do not know. This can alienate those who already agree with you and who already speak up for others (five links). 

The goal at hand is fairness. The path to achieving it should exemplify fairness.

Unless proven otherwise, we must presume authors, illustrators, and conference chairs are human allies capable of exhibiting an oversight—and willing to fix it. We are all perpetually learning.

We must give the benefit of the doubt.

We must follow the Golden Rule.

We must Choose Kind.

Like many of our peers, I will now accept invitations only from events committed to gender and racial diversity.

In addressing the organizers and participants of events that do not represent diversity, I propose a simple course of action:

Rather than start with public shaming or snark, instead contact the event organizer and participants directly and privately to express the concern civilly. 

Takes the same amount of time as calling out on social media but is more in the spirit of our industryand of the movement itself. This good-hearted approach gives people the chance to course-correct because they want to do right, not because they were guilted. Stick to the mission: conveying the importance of maintaining a unified front on diversity at literary events. And stick to non-inflammatory language. 

I'm not saying we can't be angry. Anger fuels change. But it is most effective when it is controlled.

Nixing the negative while remaining positive is the way forward.

Case in point:

Two days after the lack of diversity was (directly, privately, civilly) called to Asbury's attention and three days before the event, the conference was able to add a female keynote, illustrator Erin Barker. (Remember that name. She's going places.)

And I have on good authority that if there is a second annual, it will be more diverse.

Thank you again to Asbury for inviting me, for listening to feedback, and for making a last-minute change. And thank you to those who discussed this issue constructively.

As we continue to insist on diversity, we must also insist on civility.

Side note of equal importance: 

I learned only after I presented that Asbury is a Christian university that has been accused of being anti-gay. As someone who has withdrawn from delivering a keynote in a state that had legislated LGBTQ intolerance, I was at first conflicted about this. 

But my perspective has shifted and now I would have ultimately participated anyway because of this. 

A story I commonly tell involves a gay man whom I mention during every talk for grades 3 and up (which the person who invited me to speak at Asbury knew firsthand). I do it even when I'm (sigh) asked in advance not to. Therefore, this would be a chance to speak about the issue plainly, as the non-controversial fact of life that it is (or should be). Marc Brown also touchingly discussed this by mentioning both his transgender son and a gay marriage in one of his upcoming stories.

We gave this community the benefit of the doubt and they did not let us down.

The way to promote tolerance is not to stay away from possible intolerance but rather to destigmatize it from within.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

University of Central Missouri Children's Literature Festival 2018

From 3/17-20/18, I had the honor of making my third appearance at this beloved UCM festival. (During my second appearance, in 2013, we ghost hunted. Yes, stuff happened.) Though this year was the 50th anniversary, the event felt young and vital. 

It was an especially great/impressive group of authors/people. I already personally knew a handful including Roland Smith, Chris Barton, Phil Bildner, Matt Phelan, John Marciano, Brad Sneed, Kelly Milner Halls, Antony John, Sue Macy, and William Anderson. Alan Gratz and I had been in touch online and finally met in person for the first time. And it was such a pleasure to make new friends including Obert Skye, Raul Gonzalez III, Mike Jung, Fonda Lee, Brandy Colbert, Mary Casanova, Jack Gantos, Beth Vrabel, and Mary Downing Hahn.

We were heavily scheduled (four talks a day) but I had the chance to sit in on parts of three author talks: Matt, John, and Alan. All top notch.

Contending with obstacles including a last-minute cancellation and heavy rain, organizer Maya Kucij tapped skill and summoned grace to oversee 31 authors, a fleet of volunteers, and approximately 4,300 students from around the state. She even kindly showed Batman & Bill the night most authors arrived, and I was touched that Matt, John, William, Raul, Mike, Fonda, and both Marys were among those who attended. 


 Phil Bildner, Chris Barton, me

 John Marciano, me, Matt Phelan

 Brad Sneed, Antony John, me

 Fonda Lee, Raul Gonzalez III, John Marciano, 
E.B. Lewis, Matt Phelan
(looks like a lost '60s British Invasion album cover, no?)

 I was pleasantly surprised to see this book in the 
library's fantastic collection of vintage children's books.
It shows diversity on the cover (and within)...
and it was published in 1969.

 The hotel phone had a direct line to pizza.
(Alas, it didn't work.)

 The hotel also had an apparently dangerous 
laundry chute.

 One rainy, windy afternoon, Matt, John, Raul, Fonda, E.B., and I 
explored downtown Warrensburg, in particular a multi-story
commission mart. The standout booth was a mini bodega. Yes,
someone was selling food at a flea market...

...the moldy bread was only $1.

(Though this horrified the six of us, we vowed to return 
the next time we come to the festival to see if it's still there.
3/18/19 addendum: E.B., Angela Cervantes, Laurel Snyder and I did. 
It wasn't. I reported back to the 2018 crew who were not there.)

Thank you again, Maya and UCM, for putting in such effort to promote literature. Everyone I talked to loved the experience.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

"Fuels suspense…unforgettable" - "Booklist" on "Fairy Spell"

"A seamless blend of both frolics and facts fuels suspense ... part accidental trickster tale, part unforgettable fairy tale, all true, this will have kids reaching for cameras of their own in no time"

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Charlotte S. Huck Children's Literary Festival 2018

In 2015, I was one of the author speakers at the Charlotte S. Huck Literary Festival in Redlands, CA.

My books sold out quickly so I was quickly invited back for this year (actually last year, but I had a scheduling conflict). This year, however, after I spoke, my books again sold out quickly, leaving some attendees disappointed and the bookstore stunned. They said they'd never seen books sell out that fast and asked me "What did you say?"

I love the structure of this event. Each featured author gets to hear every author speak to the entire attendance. (Often at book events, authors are scheduled against each other throughout.)

I had the added privilege of speaking with a group of 4th and 5th graders whose parents drove them to campus. They had done some impressive prep work…

Inspired by Bill Finger, the kids made gimmick books:

Inspired by Bill Finger, I used "bill," "finger," and "bat" puns throughout Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, and the kids discussed this (and alliteration):

They even made a timeline of notable events in comics history, which listed multiple Bill Finger events...including Bill the Boy Wonder and Batman & Bill! Granted they kindly did that because I would be there, but it was still cool to see.

Coolest of all: their nametags indicated their names twice…once correctly, once backwards. As for why, see Bill the Boy Wonder

Thank you again to Marjorie Arnett, my author "angel" Andy Mitchell, and all the committee members/volunteers who made the festival (and my participation in it) possible. It was an honor to meet James and Lesa Cline-Ransome, whose joint presentation was disarming, modest, and impressive. It was a similar honor to meet Kathi Appelt (and her husband) in person years after I "met" her as both a participant in the "kidlit authors read bad reviews" videos and a keynoter at a particularly dramatic SCBWI conference.

Side note: I started my California week in Los Angeles, where I had the pleasure of having lunch with Scott Valentine, the actor who played Nick, Mallory Keaton's boyfriend on Family Ties. He did not participate in my
Family Ties oral history but shared some startling stories over Thai food...