Bank Street Bookfest 2020


Yesterday I attended one of my favorite book events of the year. I have attended Bank Street Bookfest almost every year since I discovered it through my mentor, Lisa Von Drasek. Every year Bank Street assembles some of the most potent authors of and thinkers about children's' books for real and sometimes unpredictable discussions. What follows is a summary of some highlights of the day. This is a little long, but there was so much to take in!

This year's Bookfest was a Zoom event. I know that many of us are exhausted by the constant demand for virtual meetings! Kudos to the Bank Street team for making these meeting feel real and personal. Although the panel discussions were filmed earlier this week, there was a real time Q and A with the participants after each panel discussion. I also noticed that several participating authors contributed to the chat threads on the other panels, fully participating in the Bookfest, not only in their own discussion.

Diversity and Own Voices were threads throughout the day, in all the panels, not only where it was overtly part of the topic. The first panel of the day was about Early Readers, a format with fewer diverse and own voices authors than most. (A statistic mentioned by the moderator, Caroline Ward - the Denver Public Library found through a diversity audit that 91.7% of their early reader book were by white authors.) The panel was moderated by Caroline Ward the chair of the first Geisel award committee and included Lulu Delacre, Kevin Henkes, Jerdine Nolen and James Yang; a diverse group each with their own distinct writing style and experiences. The group talked about the tension between writing for children who are practicing reading independently and writing picture books for adults to read to children. Lulu Delacre spoke about the additional complication of writing the same text, or almost the same, in both English and Spanish. James Yang spoke about drawing for kids and respecting kids sophisticated visual vocabulary, which was an interesting foil to Jerdine Nolen's anecdotes of her children using sophisticated language after being repeatedly reading Amos and Boris by William Steig.

The most moving panel of the day was titled "All American or Forever Foreigners." This panel of Asian-American authors from a broad variety of cultures including Korean, Hmong, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese. An issue that came up was a shared questioning of their own legitimacy - wondering if they were the right people to tell their stories. They also talked about true-life super heroes. Min LĂȘ spoke of his grandmother who was responsible for getting much of his family out of Vietnam. About legitimacy he said he has decided that his "experience is as legitimate as any others."

Another emotional panel was the Middle Grade Authors: Putting Yourself on the Page. This panel also wrestled with having the "right" to tell a story. An important topic they brought up was how to protect yourself during the process of writing emotional and personal stories. There was a lot of concern that writing historical fiction could lead to being challenged about not getting it "right." Veer Hiranandani, author of the Night Diary, an historical novel about India and Pakistan reflected that the historian's job is to tell the facts and the novelist's job is "to tell what it felt like."

The day ended with a Keynote by Linda Sue Park. She spoke about who is visible in historical stories both fiction and nonfiction saying, "If a story is incomplete enough it is not true." She modeled a lesson for introducing historical stereotypes, asking us to imagine a group of cowboys. Then showing pictures and citing statistics that one in four cowboys were black. Then asking us to imagine settlers out west and talked about Chinese emigrants and settlers. This connected to her most recent chapter book, Prairie Lotus, which is on my "must read" list! It was moving to hear Linda Sue talk about reading and re-reading the Little House books by Laura Ingals Wilder as a child. She knew when re-reading that there were sections she didn't want to re-read and held the pages together as she turned the page to skip the racist behavior and language. It hurt her to realize that Ma's behavior to the "Indians" in these books made her fantasy friendship with Laura unrealistic. Ma would never allow Laura to be friends with someone with black hair and darker skin.

Every attendee also participated in a smaller breakout session for a live discussion with a small group about a themed set of books. I chatted with seven other ladies about a set of picture books on science topics. I have been hungry for this type of interaction! The issue of diversity and own voices was also raised in this group discussion.

Thank you Bankstreet! It was a very full day!