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Judy Freeman-Children’s Literature Consultant Reports Back From The ALA Conference

Back from ALA, having caught up on sleep but not e-mail yet. What a whirlwind, made all the more memorable by being in New Orleans.

Every store and restaurant had posters saying: "Welcome librarians. Thank you for coming to New Orleans." Everyone we met said the same thing. The cab driver at the airport took a local route into town so my husband and I could see the landscape of houses and businesses, most devastated, some rebuilt. Under the highway underpasses were hundreds of destroyed cars, not yet cleared away. Canal Street, where we stayed at the JW Marriott, was a combination of stores and restaurants, some up and running, others shuttered. You could see roof damage from our hotel room overlooking Canal Street.

People wanted to tell us their stories, too. The most harrowing was the cab driver who told us he got separated from his wife and kids after the storm and they didn't find each other again until NOVEMBER. And the store clerk in our hotel who told me her mother, who has Alzheimer's was airlifted to a hospital in Florida and didn't know her address. They were finally reunited. Heartbreaking stories. And still they thanked us for being there and asked us if we were having a good time.

We went to the aquarium, just reopened, where thousands of the fish have been donated by aquariums around the country. On a ride down the Mississippi River, we encountered that other familiar species–librarians. The town was full of them. Even without our badges hanging from our necks, we are easy to spot.

It was hot, but not unbearable–thanks to the Starbucks barrista who gave me a big cup of ice which I carried everywhere and refilled often. We walked through the French Quarter, which is so beautiful and historic. Lots of places need work, but it's no less lovely. Wish I had had more time there, though I did find some good presents in my brief bout of power shopping.

We ate well–at Bayona, the Palace Cafe, GW Finns, and, of course, the Cafe du Monde (open 24 hours) for beignets (square doughnuts) and cafe au lait. Saw famous authors and illustrators everywhere. Sharron McElmeel and I stopped for lunch at the Palace Cafe and sat across from a barefoot Kate Di Camillo, legs crossed on her chair. Saw Mo Willems, his adorable wife, Cheryl, and his parents, including his dad who's a famous potter well known in New Orleans ("MUCH better known around here than I am," said Mo), and, best of all, the irrepressible and effervescent 5-year-old Trixie, star of Knuffle Bunny.

I had a nice autographing session at the Libraries Unlimited booth for The Awful Book, my Books Kids Will Sit Still For 3, and some people actually bought copies to tote home. At 900+ pages and 3 1/2 pounds, this is not a small thing. (I carried a copy into New York City last month and that baby is dead weight!) And I collected books, posters, catalogs, and the usual array of pens and nifty objects which I somehow fit into our suitcases, much to my husband's horror.

Went to watch the Notable Books committee discuss their list of best books for 2006. Our own Lisa Von Drasek is on that committee, and she's so much fun to listen to–so animated and funny and fearless in her defense of the books she loves.

Went to a reception in the courtyard of Coleen Salley's (author of Epossumondas and a queen of children's lit. in NO) adorable apartment in the French Quarter. She has a door to her study which is covered with drawings and messages from all the famous folks who have visited her–David Wiesner, Janet Stevens, and my dying brain cells refuse to let me call up any other names, but there were lots.

Sighed over lots of famous authors & illustrators and gushed like a star-struck teen over Kevin Hawkes (love his new Library Lion), M. T. Anderson (Whales on Stilts was one of my favorite fiction books of 2005), Lane Smith (I wrote the teacher's guide–not yet on the Hyperion website–for his John, Paul, George and Ben, and he signed a poster for me. Way cool.), Kevin Henkes, and Rosemary Wells.

Numbers were down at this conference. It seemed only half full–where was everyone? But that made it more fun to go into the exhibits and talk with editors and authors. No huge lines and masses of people. That means the publishers lost money, so that was not good at all for them. If you've never been to an ALA before, what are you waiting for? It's SO much fun!

The high point for me is always the Newbery-Caldecott dinner. 1,000 librarians, all dressed up, like the library Prom. I was at the Hyperion table (because I did the teacher's guide for The Hello, Goodbye Window, which I saw for the first time at ALA and which will be on the Hyperion website soon, I hope–it's just beautifully put together with 4-color illustrations from the book), and sat next to Mo Willems and his wife & his editor, which was great. During the long introductory speech, Mo was fooling around making puppets out of our nametags, turning them into little monster heads with the help of his brown Sharpee marker. I'm betting I know what he was like in 3rd grade.

The speeches were terrific–you'll be able to read the texts in Horn Book in a few months. Chris Raschka illustrated and Hyperion designed the very striking programs, which opened up with die-cut windows, and there were small, engraved Hoehner harmonicas as favors, which was great. There were 2 amazing parts to Chris Raschka's speech. He talked about the lifechanging influence of one person, and how that person had come to see him at a NYC bookstore where he went to sign his then-new book, Charlie Parker Played BeBop. He talked about how this woman asked him how he had written this wonderful book, and that she had come to the store to see him read it.

So I was sitting there, listening, and I happened to glance over at Mo Willems and the person sitting to his left, Karen Breen, who is the editor of Kirkus Reviews. I noticed her shoulders were shaking. Huh? Why is she crying? I wondered. I mean, the story Chris was telling was very interesting, but I couldn't figure out what was wrong with her. And then Chris said, "And the name of that person is Karen Breen." Everyone gasped. Karen was wiping her eyes and looking stunned. It was a pretty intense moment.


  1. Where’s your report from ALA? It’d be nice to hear a vendor’s viewpoint.