I think this event (the kid-centered portion of it) initially came across my radar because the Scholastic facebook was promoting Selina Alko and Sean Qualls' appearance to do a reading of their (really lovely) new book Why Am I Me? And when I dove into the listing on the Brooklyn Book Festival site and saw their was a panel with Ellen Oh, Jacqueline Woodson, Rita William-Garcia, and Gene Luen Yang, my decision was made. I texted it to my best best friend (the one who already met Rita at our local bookstore), saying, listen, I know this event is in Brooklyn and breaks the two rivers rule (we live in New Jersey, so anything in the outer boroughs involves crossing two rivers in some kind of way, and requires careful consideration and a really good reason why), but check out this panel. She immediately wrote back, "I would SWIM to Brooklyn for that panel." Excellent perspective, friend! We didn't swim, we just took the PATH and the subway and it wasn't bad at all. The adventure, however, was a Best Day Ever kind of day.
It was a super hot September day, but luckily there were tents to keep things covered and cooler. The first thing we did was catch part of this panel:
This panel was called "Unforgettable Characters," and these awesome writers talked about making their "middle school aged characters unflinchingly funny, achingly honest, and incredibly memorable" (from the press release, but so true!). Tom Angleberger is the author of Origami Yoda and its companions, and Booki Vivat had just come out with the second Frazzled, both of which have become in such high demand in my pal's middle school class that she got the rest of both series. Celia C. Perez is the author of The First Rule of Punk which I had been coveting since I first laid eyes on its joyful rad cover.
I know, right?!? Anyway, this panel was terrific and inspiring, especially hearing relatively new writers talk about their craft and their connection to their characters. Immediately after the panel, we beelined for the book table for the necessary purchases: the books we wanted to have signed by this group, and the ones we already knew we would want from the next group. (Spoiler alert, we underestimated and absolutely went back for more after the next panel. No one promised this free event would be cheap.) I bought The First Rule of Punk and met Celia Perez and told her how excited I was to read this as she stamped the title page with the coolest Dia de los Muertos-style skull. I could barely handle it.
But I couldn't lose my head over the coolness of Celia Perez and The First Rule of Punk, because next up was the decision-making, worth-swimming-to-Brooklyn-for panel, "Reading Without Walls." That title was also the theme of Gene Luen Yang's tenure as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature (a position which was awarded to none other than Jacqueline Woodson shortly after this event). My goodness, these humans were every bit as magical as I anticipated, and then some. I'd heard Gene speak once before, at the Horn Book conference in Boston a couple of years ago, and I based my assumption on the magic of the others simply on their work and their presence in the world. To hear them talk about their struggles with writing, their desire to tell stories and to give young readers the opportunity to see themselves in books, to listen to these brilliant and passionate people ask and answer thoughtful questions...I could have stayed there all day, basking in the magic. Afterward, it was back to the table for more purchases, and into line to meet these folks. My no-brainer from this group was Jacqueline Woodson's brown girl dreaming, which I'd been eying from afar as it won a Newbery Honor, and a Coretta Scott King Award, and then a National Book Award, but I never rationalized buying because it's a bit too grown-up for my kids. No such excuses now, with the author sitting in front of me! Jacqueline has a quiet sort of magic about her, the kind that makes you pull in closer, but also not want to disturb her peace. "Dream big," she inscribed, to me and my class. Oh, my heart. My extra purchase was Gone Crazy Alabama. This would complete my collection of the series, and give me an excuse to meet Rita Williams-Garcia myself, who while absolutely not old enough to be my grandmother, has a similar energy and joyful silliness that reminded me of my nana. Plus we got to tell her about participating in her event at our local bookstore, and about (gladly, but not swimmingly) crossing two rivers to get there. That was the end of my purchases (thank goodness, sighs my wallet), but not of meeting magical humans. My pal had picked up Ellen Oh's Spirit Hunters, thinking one of her middle schoolers would like it, and I tagged along with her on the signing line. I'd actually missed a chance to talk to Ellen earlier, when she sat down for a rest at an empty table where I was checking out the festival newspaper (she was recovering from foot surgery, I believe). She asked if the seat was taken, and I glanced up to smile and say no...and think that she looked awfully familiar. As she sat, she placed a large envelope on the table, which had ELLEN OH printed on it in bold capital letters. I had a massive but internal geek-out, but couldn't bring myself to say anything more. And totally regretted it. So when I saw a second chance, I jumped on it, and had the chance to tell Ellen how grateful I was for the We Need Diverse Books movement, and how it had both inspired me and changed my teaching life. She was so gracious, and said she was thankful for teachers like us doing our work in classrooms, but I mean, I wouldn't be here if it weren't for her and WNDB, so I'm really glad I got to thank her. Last but certainly not least, while my friend was waiting in line, I sidled over to where Gene Luen Yang was signing posters from the ambassador program. I felt guilty for going without a book, but thought it couldn't hurt to ask about the posters, and his enthusiastic reply was, "How many do you need?" He signed one for each of us (with a little drawing because he's such a cool artist) while I geekily told him I'd heard him speak at the Horn Book. By the way, his next project is a graphic nonfiction account of a high school basketball team that sounds incredible.
This was all A Lot. We needed a breather after all that excitement.
Although we needed a minute to catch our breath after the awesomeness, our adventure wasn't over yet. Not long after, Selina Alko and Sean Qualls were reading at the children's tent, so off we went. Why Am I Me?, their newest, is a deeply lovely picture book about identity and all that we have in common. Creating my only disappointment in this amazing day, I fell absolutely in love with the other two books they shared, only to find that they weren't being sold, so I couldn't buy them or get them signed. The other books were The Case for Loving, about the Loving v. Virginia case that legalized interracial marriage, and Two Friends, the story of the connection between Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Both of those are so rad and gorgeous! And I just went to Seneca Falls this summer, so my admiration for and inspiration by Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, and all of their fellow abolitionists and suffragists, was fresh on my mind. Actually, I'd forgotten how much I wanted these in the time that's passed, I'll have to go move those up on my list. Add to the collection for Black History Month? I think so.
What a day! And while it was kind of ages ago now, it was so much fun to relive it. Still to come, a post about the books themselves, specifically brown girl dreaming and The First Rule of Punk.
Writing about practicing literacy and freedom with my small humans.