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Day of Dialog 2016 Recap: Chicago Edition!

Photo credit Laini Taylor

Photo credit Laini Taylor

I feel like it’s been a long time since I “reported” on anything. It isn’t just the move to the Chicago area. It’s more that subtly over the years I’ve pulled back from the rote typing that I used to engage in so often. Blame Twitter. Blame aging. Blame my left pinkie finger which, even as I write this, is slowly growing numb.

But when you are at School Library Journal’s Day of Dialog (held in Chicago this time around) and Richard Peck steps up to the podium to give the keynote speech then out comes the laptop, the fingers stretch and crack, and my wordplay becomes a bit more loquacious thanks in large part to the sheer osmosis of Mr. Peck’s presence.

His words don’t hurt either.

Before we go much further I would like to note that today’s reporting is going to have all the care and content of a sugar rush.  At first I did very well indeed.  Then, as the day goes on, the sleeplessness I encountered thanks to my small children took its toll and . . . well, let’s get back to Mr. Peck.  You’ll see for yourself anyway.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 11.25.28 PMHe steps up to the podium wearing an immaculate yellow pocket square, which sets off his blue tie. I should note that when I met him earlier in the day he not only remembered me (no easy manner) but said, “You reviewed my pocket handkerchief”, so now I almost feel obligated to continue.  It was a nice yellow, certainly, but of more interest is the fact that much much later in the day I would see Mr. Peck again.  Day of Dialog closed with all the authors of the panels signing their own books.  There I noted that Mr. Peck had changed both handkerchief and shirt. The man is meticulous in his presentation, no doubt about it.

Today we, the audience members, watched as he stepped up and addressed what he called “the people of the story.”  Part of any good speech comes in knowing your audience. And Peck, a native born Illinois boy, was in his element. He began by placing Chicago, its history and literature, in context. He got particular claps when he suggested that the Cubs will go to the World Series (which is apparently true, though I’ve heard conflicting reports recently). Honestly, what it really did was make me feel particularly good about moving here. “May all the sons and daughters of Chicago know these, their authors. And wait, one more, mine.” Then he holds up his latest title The Best Man.

Mr. Peck is the kind of fellow that can sound like he’s speechifying even in moments of casual conversation. So when he starts to read, it gives you a second or two to catch up. In today’s case, he performed the switcheroo so seamlessly that it honestly took me a moment to realize that he himself did not place rats under his Aunt Sally’s bed. “And the rats were doing what they could to keep the dull times off her.”

Eventually it becomes clear that all a writer like myself really wants to do is just quote him without cease. I mean, how can I resist? The man is practically built of one-liners. For example:

– “I marched into Kindergarten the day that Hitler marched into Poland . . . but I was better prepared. Because I had a mother who read to me.”

– Holds up a poster of Fair Weather. “This is my idea of a PowerPoint.”

– Twain influenced him heavily. “The same tobacco fueled turn of speech.”

– “Boys don’t want to make imaginative leaps. Boys want to make clear connections.”

– “All the best role models are dead. And all the worst role models are a year ahead of you in school.”

– “Boys in Decatur were not asked how we wished to express ourselves.”

– “My Jr. High students made a writer out of me. They kicked the autobiography out of me… but they taught me how to write. And here’s how . . .”

– “You take 6 drafts to erase yourself out of the manuscript.”

– “All fiction is historical fiction before the ink is dry.”

– “The only way you can write is by the light of the burning bridges behind you.”

Yeah. That last one got a lot of retweeting on the Twitter.

Of course he had to talk about his latest is book. The Best Man is about a boy. One of his role models wants to marry another one of his role models. Both are men. Peck wrote it to make a point that “they may not get in school.” Though, as he is quick to point out, kids today have watched far more episodes of Modern Family than he will ever watch. And when he read a little bit from his latest, and I was personally taken with this line:

“I’m 34. I’m too old to wear shorts in public.”

Said Mr. Peck, the right of whom to marry is a right we should all share. This point transitioned seamlessly into his particular bugaboos. Textbooks, mindlessness of worksheets, and standardized testing come to mind.

Peck touched on his discomfort with texting. “The young find new ways to limit their world . . . 250 texts a day, and not a semicolon among them.” And later, “… they are texting deep into the night, long after failed parents are fast asleep.” Burn.

He received a standing ovation. As Alison Morris next to me pointed out, there is no one more eloquent than he. But, naturally, that leads to jokes about how we should go about making him The Official Elocutioner of Children’s Literature . . . which sounds bad, right? Like you should give him a hood or something. “The Elocutioner of the Revolution is here!” So maybe not.

You can see some of his talk here, thanks to Colleen Seisser:

Next up, the panels! And it took me a little while, but eventually it became clear that panel #1 was a nonfiction picture book panel.

9:45–10:30 am | Panel I: Some Nonfiction! Dynamic informational books for young readers Room DEF

Candace Fleming & Eric Rohmann, Giant Squid (Roaring Brook Press)
Julia Kuo, The Sound of Silence (Little, Brown)
Mara Rockliff, Around America To Win the Vote (Candlewick)
Jane Sutcliffe, Will’s Words (Charlesbridge)
Melissa Sweet, Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White (HMH)

It was hosted by Deborah Stevenson and it was mentioned briefly at the beginning that the largest collection of children’s books outside of the Library of Congress is found at the Center of Children’s Books at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Really? Who knew? Someday I’m going to write The Hardest Children’s Literature Quiz in the World and this fact is going into it.

Once we got into the gist of things it was discovered that Giant Squid is Eric Rohmann’s first piece of nonfiction, and Candy’s first science related nonfiction. The book is, as you might imagine, about giant squids but it was Eric who initially had the idea for it and handed some pictures to Candy he’d storyboarded, saying, “Here are the pictures. I need some words.” But not so many they’d clutter up the pictures. Naturally.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 11.25.47 PMAnother panelist was Jane Sutcliffe who wrote Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk about how Shakespeare’s language has permeated the world. It reminded me a lot of that Greek words book that Gareth Hinds illustrated a while ago, written by Lisa Lunge-Larsen, called Gifts from the Gods: Ancient Words and Wisdom from Greek and Roman Mythology. There before us was Melissa Sweet and her new bio Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White, a book that Alison Morris informs me is worth reading. Panelist Julia Kuo illustrated The Sound of Silence, which may be the first philosophical picture book I was able to successfully read to my daughter. That kid really and truly found it interesting, that rare combination of cute images with sophisticated content.  And the panel was rounded out with Mara Rockliff and her recent title Around America to Win the Vote. I’m a big time fan of another 2016 release of hers, Anything But Ordinary: The True Story of Adelaide Herrmann, Queen of Magic.

If there was a topic to discuss this day it was “truth”. There must be something in the air (possibly the upcoming presidential election, if I don’t miss my guess). In any case, both this panel and the following one on middle grade fiction (moderated by yours truly) thought long and hard about truth and how it relates to children’s literature. In the case of children’s nonfiction, it’s often my go-to topic for Literary Salons. In today’s panel, Melissa Sweet tackled the notion of the word “true” as it related to her art in her E.B. White biography. For instance, she really wanted to draw his home so she collaged it with a photograph of the actual house itself. The end result is part photo / part drawing. And as Sweet says, there’s a lot of interpretation in the art of what happened when you’re drawing images of the past.

Are there clear boundaries between fiction and nonfiction? Candy actually spoke eloquently to this topic at my Lit Salon (and now I’ve a really lovely recorded version here):

In this case, Deborah pointed out how lyrical and lovely the language of Rockliff’s book is, while still staying true to its subject. Rockliff then quoted Deborah Heiligman and the horse poop quote (which I always use as well!). It’s such a good line. Basically, it’s from when Deborah was writing her Natinal Book Award winning Darwin title Charles and Emma. During its creation it was pointed out to Deborah that when writing about true events in the past, if you want to say someone stepped over horse poop in the road, that’s okay because everyone would have done that. But if you wanted to say someone leaned against a lamppost, you can’t actually say that. In an interesting twist it was pointed out that historical picture books can never meet those nonfiction standards because artists still need to make up what you see. It’s something we have to remember. Though, as Mara said, “I don’t worry too much about the lamppost in the yard.”

All this brought to mind the old discussion of why writers are held to such strict standards while illustrators almost have carte blanche in nonfiction picture books.

Rohmann agrees, by the way. He says he can’t really call what he’s doing nonfiction. “The picture being worth a thousand words works against you in this case.” That’s a good line. Why does he feel like this? Well, when he asked two scientists for the color of the giant squid, one expert said that giant squids are red and other said that they’re silver. So, being the guy that he is, he just made them red AND silver in the art. Kuo understood what Rohmann was saying and built upon it. Turns out, The Sound of Silence is actually based on a true story the author heard from her dad. After she wrote it, she asked her dad to tell her the story about the koto player, who starts off the book. But her dad didn’t remember the guy. So what you end up with is a story that’s based on another person’s memory but has blurred and blurred. There’s always something that’s interpreted about any illustration, after all. Because Kuo had to draw Tokyo she used Google street view to aid her. The Tokyo featured in this story, she pointed out, is different from her author’s, particularly since she included her own favorite stores.

Facts suggest a way to tell a story. But in the Shakespeare story Will’s Words there are two sets of facts. Facts about the Globe and Shakespeare’s world and the facts about his words and literature. Sutcliffe said that though facts come first, kids deserve to know where the line is drawn and where fact and fiction lie. Her view is that fact and fiction are “friendly neighbors that borrow from one another.” But people need to be honest with children and always say what is fact and what is fiction. If only in an Author’s Note.

In terms of the Giant Squid book, Deborah said, “We have so few books that talk about what we don’t know.” Good line. Another good line was quoted from the book itself – “It is dangerous to be bite-sized.” Interestingly there’s no early title page in this book declaring “Giant Squid” loud and proud. This was a conscious choice on Candace’s part. She pretty much figured that it would ruin the book. If you start with the word right at the beginning, it destroys the mystery. Instead, you’ll find the title page buried, so to speak, on page 10. Likewise, you don’t see the whole squid until the very end, before it escapes. It was a great panel but I was particularly taken with the random little facts I picked up along the way. Like the fact that apparently giant squids are plentiful, but the only reason we know this is because so many of their beaks show up in the bellies of sperm whales.

Since these are picture books we’re talking about, there was a nice section on the use of color in stories about history. Mara put in a word for it. As she said, picture books have an amazing advantage when it comes to sucking children into the past. Adults think of the past as grey. Kids now are facing loads and loads of historical picture books ablaze in bring colors. That’s gotta make a difference, right?

Deborah turned the conversation to the art in Will’s Words and design. Jane Sutcliffe mentioned at this time how her artist “sacrificed” some birds in his illustrations for the inclusion of the story’s text boxes. Deborah then recounted a Trina Schart Hyman story about the time someone commented to her what a pity these text boxes were when it came to covering up parts of her art. Her tart reply: “That’s why the art was made, you know.”  Eric pointed out that as a children’s book illustrator, “you’re not making art to hang over the couch”. A good illustrator finds a way to do more than the text is able to say. “Our audience doesn’t look at a picture. They inhabit a picture.”

We ended with a little discussion of backmatter. Mara Rockliff, a self-described “Research Junkie” brought up an interesting point about it that I’d never heard before. In her Adelaide book Mara didn’t have room to include the explanation of how the bullet catching trick worked. So, instead, she put it on her website. Now that it’s getting hits and she’s getting a real sense of how many people actually read the backmatter of a nonfiction title.

By the way, during the course of this panel Alison and I noticed that Eric has a very nice voice. Very radio friendly. So, and this is bad, we started talking about what we’d call Eric’s radioshow. You may want to cover your eyes for this one. You ready? Okay. It would be called . . . Friends, Rohmann, Lend Him Your Ears.

Oh, it could work.

Not long after this panel came my own:

11:15 am–12:00 pm | Panel II: Truth Be Told: Big questions in middle grade fiction and what adults keep from children Room DEF

Kelly Barnhill, The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Workman)
Adam Gidwitz, The Inquisitor’s Tale (Dutton)
Jennifer Holm, Full of Beans (Random)
Jason Reynolds, As Brave As You (Simon & Schuster)
Raina Telgemeier, Ghosts (Scholastic)

Moderator: Betsy Bird, Collection Development Manager at the Evanston Public Library

Looked something like this:

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 11.24.26 PM

They were a good group, as you might imagine.  However, moderating cuts down significantly on my reporting skills.  To hear what was said you’d have to lean heavily on another reporter.  Or find the video that may or may not have been recorded at the event.  *stares longingly at the SLJ logo on the top of this page*

Our lunchtime speaker was Laini Taylor.  Good old, Laini.  I like that gal.

Now comes the tricky part.  A YA panel was up, and I did make an effort to record what I saw, to some extent.  It was:

2:15–3:00 pm | Panel III: Mind-bending Women of YA Room DEF

Sharon Cameron, The Forgetting (Scholastic)
Roshani Chokshi, The Star-Touched Queen (St. Martin’s Griffin)
S. J. Kincaid, The Diabolic (Simon & Schuster)
Laura Ruby, Bone Gap (HarperCollins)
Laini Taylor, Strange the Dreamer (Little, Brown)

Moderator: Janice Del Negro, Associate Professor and Follett Chair at Dominican University

I should warn you that at this point my note taking began to take a turn for the sleepy.  So what you’re going to see here are thoughts that might not be quite as connected as they should be.  You have been warned.

The whole kerschmozzle started off with a bit of a small bang.  “We conferred prior to this panel and decided I wouldn’t ask the sex question first.” Now THAT is moderation, people!

What I liked about the panel in particular were discussions of how women are portrayed in YA novels.  For example, Laini Taylor pointed out that for many people Katniss is the norm and that any girl or woman without the physical ability to protect themselves in a YA novel is considered a bad role model. Yet we need these books for the girls who don’t have their dad’s samurai sword in the closet and they need to find ways to protect themselves in different ways. Laini’s characters in her new novel don’t fight. She didn’t want people to be able to defend themselves all the time. There are other ways to be strong than to be able to fight.

Cameron concurred. There’s something in her that backs off from writing to an agenda, even if she agrees with that agenda. “I want to write human characters that are the way the world is.” The quiet rebel.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 11.26.29 PMLaura Ruby mentioned, “I would like to retire the word strong. ‘Strong female characters’. No one talks about ‘strong male characters’.” This ties in pretty directly to Bone Gap, where Ruby wrote about a trapped female character and gave her agency.   When she mentioned that maybe she hasn’t been given crap about not having a “strong female character” because she splits her narrative between a male and female character, and one of the female character is aggressive. “But she tends bees!”

Chokshi talks about the degree to which female characters garner criticism. She spoke to the Twitterverse to a certain extent about how we view female writers as well.

Janice mentioned that she wouldn’t mind retiring the word “feisty”. I think it’s ironic now, so I’m unwilling to retire it.

The sex talk came next. Laini mentioned that romance novel type sex in YA novels makes her super uncomfortable. Chokshi said she honestly would have written more sexy scenes but she was living at home with her parents. She’d be sitting at the table typing and her dad would say, “Hey, you want to watch John Oliver?” But she moves out in June so maybe that’ll change. Kincaid discussed her comfort level as a writer. It’s important to be true to the characters’ experience. Laura discussed her “hazy magical bee sex”. She also said that you can get away with a lot more in fantasy than in realistic books.

Of course, the true advantage of YA is time.  Kincaid pointed out that unlike a TV show where characters declare their love and immediately have sex, YA novels are allowed to be a bit more thoughtful, to take time, and to speak to their emotional development.

After this, Janice Del Negro spoke to the “These are boy books / These are girl books” divide that occurs in a lot of places (even library programming!). Kincaid called it an “artificial divide.” Cameron said she’s seen some amazing changes in this over the last few years. We’re moving away from the girl in the dress covers. We’re seeing a lot more graphic covers (ala Hunger Games). When she first started writing, people told her her character should be female because they were the ones who were reading and they don’t want to read from a boy’s perspective. She’s seen that notion dissipate over time. Chokshi then said, “reading books doesn’t emasculate you, it strengthens you.” Ruby said she likes tweeting the picture of LeBron James reading Hunger Games when this comes up. Laini likes her newest cover because it could speak to anyone. She likes frilly dress covers too but if it can speak to both genders then let it (I’m paraphrasing here).

So that was that.  And the way I figure it, if you’re running an all day even and the plan is to end the day with a panel, make it an interesting panel. Make it a BIG panel. Make it a panel that will make folks want to stick around. It’s 4 p.m. The attendees are tired. They need a little jolt of something

3:45–4:45 pm | Panel IV: What Comes First, the Idea or the Image? Creativity at Play in Today’s Picture Books Room DEF

Kate Beaton, King Baby (Scholastic)
Michelle Cuevas & Erin Stead, Uncorker of Ocean Bottles (Dial)
Richard Jackson & Jerry Pinkney, In Plain Sight (Roaring Brook Press)
Oliver Jeffers & Sam Winston, A Child of Books (Candlewick)
Brendan Wenzel, They All Saw a Cat (Chronicle)

Moderator: Elisa Gall, Librarian and Department Co-chair at the Latin School of Chicago

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 11.26.08 PM

At this point the fingers went out entirely.  Sorry about that.  Particularly because Elisa just killed it as a moderator.  If I taught a class on How to Moderate Panels, I’d find a tape of what she did with that ginormous panel and just show it.  Honestly, it was a work of art.  When I moderated that day I asked a single solitary question and my panel ran with it.  I never asked another.  She, however, not only asked a ton of questions but she was so skilled at drawing out some folks to speak more and others to elaborate on points.  Marvelous stuff.

Many thanks to SLJ for asking me to be there.  And thanks too to everyone who participated.  And for more fun, check out more scenes from SLJ‘s 2016 Day of Dialog below:


About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Wow–so many great panels! I would have loved to have attended the nonfiction one. I LOVE Mara Rockliff’s work as well as Melissa Sweet’s art–I cannot wait for the EB White book! And I loved Will’s Words. The Sound of Silence somehow escaped my radar, so thanks for letting us know about it. Will remedy this right away!

    The MG panel looks great too. Sorry you weren’t able to ask more than one question. I had no idea Jason Reynolds wrote MG too. Turtle in Paradise is one of my all-time favorite books, so I am eager to read Full of Beans.

    Betsy! 🙂

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Reynolds has TWO middle grades out this year, actually. If he starts producing board books he will officially take over the world.

      And I quite liked only asking one question. Less work for me, I assure you.