By Robert Johnson Jr.
Newbury Award-winning author Matt de la Peña and award-winning illustrator Wendell Minor gave presentations regarding their work in at the 2018 Swiacki Children’s Literature Festival keynote address on Nov. 1.
Earlier in the evening, FSU English professor Jennifer De Leon, who wrote the forthcoming YA novel titled “Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From,” addressed the audience.
Linda Vaden-Goad, vice president for Academic Affairs at FSU, introduced the speakers and said, “Both have contributed to beautiful, moving, and valuable pieces of children’s literature in such important, lasting ways.”
De la Peña presented his life story in the form of a narrative, describing his childhood experiences living in San Diego, with his uncle and his father playing major roles in carrying the story along.
He told the audience a story involving him and his “super machismo” uncle on a trip he took to the Del Mar beach, which ended in an altercation between his uncle and a man who Yipped the middle finger at him as his uncle backed out of a parking spot on their way home.
De la Peña said his uncle attacked the man’s car with a sledgehammer, later commenting, “Suddenly, I was in the back of a police car, next to a police dog. ... How does that kid know that’s how to be a man?”
He also told the audience of his father’s trials in receiving an education.
De la Peña’s father, who lost his job for not having a college education, went through a rough patch of a few years where he would sit in front of the T.V. without speaking to anyone, he said. While De la Peña was an undergraduate student reading the book “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez, his father asked if he too could read the books De la Peña was reading.
De la Peña gave his father the book and it took him months to finish it. However, he said, it inspired his father to read more and eventually go to school to obtain his GED, graduate college, and become a third-grade Spanish teacher in a migrant community.
“I tell you that because sometimes when you give a person – not just a kid, sometimes an adult – the right book, you don’t just give them ‘the right book,’ you’re giving them a new path of possibilities,” de la Peña said.
Minor also told his life story – a retrospective of his 30-year-long career as an artist and a sneak peek into things to come for his work.
“I had a great bit of difficulty selecting the books that I would like to show you. [I’m] probably going to show you too many, but bear with me. ... I try to select the books that mean a lot to me,” Minor said as he began his presentation.
Minor showed off his greatest works on a projector as he talked about his difficult upbringing as a student with dyslexia, getting put in special education classes, and how he got on his career path, bringing up the late artist and jazz musician Paul Bacon as a person who helped him get there.
Minor recalled the time he collaborated with astronaut Buzz Aldrin for his children’s book, “Buzz Aldrin: Reaching for the Moon.”
Minor detailed their creative process. “Buzz is not a writer. He’s a talker, so we spent many hours recording his life story on tape. My editor and I helped with a lot of ghostwriting, and then he corrected it as he wished, all through the book.”
He then talked about his late, long-time friend and frequent collaborator Jean Craighead George, and reflected upon their work together, such as their first project, 1995’s “Everglades,” the three books they created for the “Outdoor Adventures” series – “Cliff Hanger,” “Fire Storm,” and “Snowboard Twist,” and their final project together before George’s death, “Galapagos George.”
Minor gave sneak peaks to two upcoming projects: “Hi, I’m Norman,” a book about Norman Rockwell’s life and career, and “Tiny Bird,” a book about the process of hummingbird migration, to be released inc2020.
Alum Brian Leonard said it was his “favorite event of the year.”
Alumna Jackie Carlson said she “loved hearing about the different perspectives about how literature can affect the lives of young people. ... They had different backgrounds as students in school and it’s cool to hear about their success and how they made it work in their own way. So, it’s good to hear that as a teacher, I think.”
The moral of the story? Literature is a powerful thing.