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Children’s literature, illustration, and the importance of context: Swiacki Children’s Lit. Festival

Ryan O'Connell / THE GATEPOST

By Ryan O’Connell

Associate Editor

The annual Swiacki Children’s Literature Festival featured a “What’s New In Children’s Literature” presentation and remarks from Nora Chan Nov. 2.

The festival also featured illustrator Ekua Holmes and author Dashka Slater.

The “What’s New In Children’s Literature” presentation, hosted by Education Professor Laura Hudock and Senior Curriculum Librarian Samantha Westall, showcased their recommended books written for audiences preschool to young adult released in 2023.

Hudock and Westall compiled a list of 89 titles - many of which they had physical copies to pass around - and them categorized into the themes “Standouts,” “Wonder,” “Self Love,” “Save Our Planet,” “Community,” “STEM,” “Changemakers,” and “Cultural Specificity.”

Hudock and Westall then began with their “Standout” picks, many being picture books.

Westall first highlighted “This Book Is Banned,” which she described as a humorous and accessible way to introduce the discussion of censorship to young readers.

She continued with “You Are a Story,” described as a depiction of how an individual’s story is always ongoing.

Hudock then touched on “This Is a Story,” which she said was an engaging and colorful book, sure to captivate young readers as they discover the joy of reading.

Hudock and Westall recommended other picture books “Something, Someday,” “In the Dark,” and “I Am a Tornado,” which they described as rhythmic, moody, and lovely, respectively.

Westall then surmised two young adult books, “Her Radiant Curse” and “Nightbirds,” both fantasy novels about young women facing issues caused by their magical powers.

Hudock gave her standouts next, led by the middle-grade novel “The Probability of Everything.”

Hudock continued with “The Labors of Hercules Beal,” a middle-grade novel set in Cape Cod focusing on a boy forced to reenact the 12 labors of Hercules, which she said was a “definite read.”

She added “Gather” is another great young-adult novel about a stray dog and a boy who is struggling with food insecurity and his mother’s recovery from drug addiction, an emotional read filled with figurative language and deadpan humor.

Hudock and Westall mentioned a shared standout, “An American Story,” a picture book they both loved for the difficult question it poses to educators - “How do we teach hard parts of American history, especially to elementary-age children?” Hudock said.

She added the book was inspired by a racially-charged incident which occurred in author Kwame Alexander’s daughter’s fourth grade classroom, and how the teacher was unwilling to have a conversation regarding the horrors of slavery and retained trauma.

Hudock and Westall then transitioned to the “Wonder” category, recommending titles “Dear Yesteryear,” “Every Dreaming Creature,” “Twenty Questions,” and other picture books they said evoke a strong sense of wonder.

Hudock said she and Westall noticed an embrace of diversity in review of the 2023 titles - not only in terms of positive representation of race and LGBTQ+ people, but also in terms of linguistic diversity.

“The Words We Share” illustrates how a recently immigrated daughter code switches to help her father’s business, and offers an authentic view into what their conversations sound like by printing Cantonese dialogue in both Chinese and italicized English, Hudock said.

Hudock added “Scroll,” similarly, introduces readers to the calligraphy-based Chinese language, and how “How to Speak in Spanglish” touches on the same code switching found in “The Words We Share.”

Westall introduced the “Self Love” category, featuring titles “Big,” “Barely Floating,” “Code Red,” and “Wepa,” among others, books of mixed reading levels which all focused on some aspect of identity and accepting oneself.

Hudock surmised “No World Too Big,” “The Day the River Caught Fire,” “Total Garbage,” and “Global,” which made up the “Save Our Planet” category, focusing on climate justice, the origin of Earth Day from fires on the Cuyahoga River, and the issues with how Earth’s garbage is handled.

She said “Community” was the best identifier for the next group of books, including titles “Our Pool,” “In Every Life,” “Mascot,” “Your Plantation Prom Is Not Okay,” and “Accountable,” among others.

“Mascot,” for example, illustrates how students of different races respond and argue for or against their town’s beloved mascot - as required for a school project - a racist depiction of a Native American, Hudock said.

“STEM” as a category featured “Big Tree,” “Fungi Grow,” “As Night Falls,” “Jumper,” and “Friends Beyond Measure,” she said, with other books which involved a science-related topic.

“Changemakers,” Westall said, included, among other titles, “Mexikid,” “Words of Wonder from Z to A,” and “How Do You Spell Unfair?” Books like “Mexikid,” she added, teach children it’s OK to be embarrassed, but it’s not OK to let it control you.

Hudock and Westall concluded with the “Cultural Specificity” category, with “Two Tribes,” “Chinese Menu,” and “The Antiracist Kitchen” alongside other books representing the unique experiences of culture separate from America.

Nora Chan, ’16, and an editor for Curriculum Associates, spoke at the Swiacki Children’s Literature Festival dinner prior to the featured speakers and following the “What’s New In Children’s Literature” panel.

Chan said she was honored to speak at the Literature Festival and be surrounded by educators, writers and students. She added she read many of her favorite books for the first time at Framingham State.

She said she initially felt unqualified speaking to an audience of educators about book banning.

“How can I summarize a wildly complicated topic that involves a lot of emotion and a lot of very personal identities? I am not a teacher, librarian, or school administrator. I’m not a parent, and I do not interact with kids in the classroom directly,” she said.

“I can guess that I was asked to talk tonight because every time I see my former professors and teachers, I immediately jump into this very subject at every chance I get,” she added.

Chan said as a biracial person, she didn’t see many books speaking to that part of her when she was younger.

She added when she was younger, she wasn’t aware of the censorship facing books because of how few books there were to challenge, and how quietly they were removed. She said now, with social media, and a boom in diverse books, there has been a loud response.

Chan said as an adult, seeing books like “Front Desk” - which depict microaggressions and racism - and the “Cilla Lee-Jenkins” series - which features a biracial, half-Chinese protagonist, like her - challenged deeply upset her.

She compared past campaigns against books to modern ones - in the past, she said, oppressors took pride in their familiarity with the petitioned work, and used their knowledge to limit the literacy of others.

Protestors today, she added, “are the new illiterates, achieving a rare historical distinction.”

Chan said the scary part of the attempted censorship on books is that it potentially causes librarians and educators to censor themselves out of caution.

She said in 2022, 27% of librarians said experiences with book challenges influenced their purchasing decisions, while in 2023 that figure rose to 37%.

Chan said the two main questions she considers when she sees book challenges are “Why are they being challenged?” and “What can I do to empower the authors, librarians, educators, parents, caretakers, and even kids to continue?”

She said she doesn’t think she has dominion over what children should be able to read, and censorship of any kind will be depriving at least one kid with an interest that is outside the “safety of the mainstream.”

Chan added the concern behind censorship is to “protect the little ones from pain, confusion, and hurt,” which she admits is a true concern - but said deciding this for children is echoing the dystopian world of “The Giver,” where there is no choice.

She said people can fight back against initiatives to ban books by reading the work themselves, getting the opinions of kids who have actually read it, and by being vocal against book challenges.

“All it boils down to is that we need more of every kind of book,” Chan said.

The Festival ended with presentations from illustrator Ekua Holmes and journalist Dashka Slater.

Holmes spoke about her journey to becoming a children’s book illustrator, and her artwork, which highlights resilience, Black culture, and family.

Holmes said her career as an artist was supported from childhood, and her inspiration too comes from children and nostalgia. “I think it’s because I got frozen at the age of 8 and … parts of me are still there.”

She said her household never had the budget for art, and she would buy a calendar every year from a gas station or beauty salon. She added this served as her only Black imagery until she saw “Street Children,” a painting by John Wilson, which was the first piece of art she saw that featured children like her.

Holmes said she found collage was her favorite medium, and discussed some of her artwork. “Golden,” is a collage of a Black girl jumproping, her favorite childhood activity, she said.

“Matter of Time,” is an image of a faceless father and son, which represents a common relationship between young Black men and their father figures, she added.

“Precarious,” and “Girl Literature,” she said, are two paintings - and parents sent her photos of their children in positions almost exactly like in the paintings.

Holmes said she got her first illustration job after her artwork was featured in a J.P. Licks in Jamaica Plain, where a publisher took note of her name and reached out. She added she never thought it would amount to anything, until she received a manuscript to review.

She said the illustrations were for a picture book about the life of Fannie Lou Hamer - a famous civil rights activist who’d only had one other book written about her.

Holmes said she was thrilled to work on the project, but felt a lot of new responsibility after agreeing to do the illustration. She added the first five illustrations were easy to conjure, but after that, the ideas dried up.

She said she thought about giving up, until she remembered what her mother would tell her to remember when she got overwhelmed - “just do the next thing.”

After she completed the illustrations for the picture book on Hamer, she made the illustrations for “Black is a Rainbow Color.”

“‘Black is a Rainbow Color’ is a powerful anthem that celebrates all things black - the colorful and the cultural,” she said.

She said she developed the style from a child’s point of view and drew it as a coloring book - Holmes added when she was a child, there was no crayon for her skin color, and she would need to overlap several colors to get a skin tone similar to hers.

The book depicts cultural icons, such as the black train tracks of the southern migration, the blues of Billie Holiday, and the shiny black shoes that walked to work during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

She recommended that to combat book bans, people read more books - including children's books. She added people also continue to share and gift books, as well as to support authors, illustrators, and to write their own books.

“I believe everybody has at least one novel in them,” she said.

“These children’s picture books that you and I will write or illustrate, read or give to others, are a gentle yet powerful form of activism. The images we make and the stories we tell are our own contemporary cave paintings where we celebrate what is, and we cast our aspirations into the light,” she said.

Slater, a journalist and the author of “Wild Blue” and “Accountable,” two books on the 2023 “What’s New” list, spoke about her experience writing “Bus 57” and the importance of context in writing.

Slater started her lecture by telling a story of a time she was punched in the face.

She said Sven, a boy in her class, punched her in the face, it hurt, and was surprising - after Sven was sent to the principal’s office, her teacher asked her, “What had happened just before Sven punched you in the face?”

Slater used this question to reflect on her troubled home life at the time, and a key into her own behavior. She remembered, she said, teasing Sven before she was punched. She described what it was like to watch his fair skin turn red with every comment she made.

She added before this piece of necessary context, she seemed like a victim and Sven seemed like an aggressor - but after revealing this, they were both to blame.

Slater then introduced “Bus 57,” a story involving an event that happened in her neighborhood on Nov. 4, 2018, where Sasha, an agender student, had their skirt lit on fire by a Black 16-year-old named Richard.

Slater explained the burns Sasha suffered and the felony charges Richard received, but added more to the context of both of their lives which changed the narrative of the story.

She said Sasha was questioning their gender and was autistic, with interests atypical to other teenagers in the area. Richard too, she said, did not fit in. It had been at his third high school that year, and had just suffered the loss of his best friend, who was murdered earlier in the year.

Slater said Richard was instantly deemed irredeemable by the public for identifying himself as homophobic at 16, but said it wasn’t possible to know the circumstances in which he had said it.

She added it was just as possible he said it after being interrogated for several hours, or labeled himself that voluntarily, but wasn’t convinced it should define him forever.

“If you’re homophobic when you’re 16, is that the same as being homophobic when you’re 26, or 36, or older? What does the research tell us about bias crimes committed by juveniles versus adults?” She asked.

Slater added research found many juveniles who commit hate crimes do so because they are following the lead of a more biased peer, and not because they are particularly biased themselves.

She said Sasha and Richard are actually more similar than they seem.

“When you dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that Richard and Sasha’s context is the same context, a context in which people who aren’t white, straight, affluent, Christian, csigender men, are less likely to be safe, less likely to be freely who they are, less likely to receive the help they need,” she said.

Slater connected this idea of context to “Accountable,” which tells the story of a racist Instagram page, the white and asian boys who followed and created the account, and the Black girls it targeted.

She said she worked closely with those involved in the case for years, learning about their contexts and the hidden relationships not elsewhere reported - that the two groups were good friends before this incident, having sleepovers and spending time together frequently.

Slater said that complicated stories like the one in “Accountable” grow hearts and minds.

“When people learn a complicated story, one that doesn't lend itself to easy answers or snap judgements, their hearts expand along with their minds. Context and shades of gray make the world a fuller and better place. One in which most of us are imperfect, but not evil,” she said.

“Working together is never easy. Sometimes we’re going to punch, sometimes we’re going to be punched. There will be tears and there will be blood, and places where our understandings of the world collide,” she said.

Slater added, “And I’m saying this as politely as I can - we have no f*****g choice.”


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