‘Passion for Picture Books’: Cathryn Mercier discusses importance of children's literature

By Raena Doty

Interim Asst. Arts & Features Editor


As part of the Swiacki Children’s Literature Festival, Cathryn Mercier visited FSU Nov. 2 to talk about different children’s books that were published in the past year.


The Swiacki Children’s Literature Festival is an annual event hosted at Framingham State. Each year, a children’s literature writer and a children’s literature illustrator are featured throughout the events.


Mercier is the chair of the communications department and the graduate program director of children's literature at Simmons University.


“I’ve started to think about bookkeeping as ways in which books support and develop a literate society,” she said at the start of her lecture.


“Bookkeeping means keeping the faith. It means keeping our own flames burning. It means striving to do good in the world because books are about social good,” she continued.


She started off by talking about bookkeeping as a form of social good, and how bookkeeping is being continuously challenged by people opposing and banning books, even children’s books. Many people don’t realize how prevalent of a problem it is in Massachusetts, she said.


“More than a few of these books will risk being banned,” she said, referencing the books she would talk about later in the presentation.


She related this to the contents of the books, and how certain subjects are considered inappropriate for children even when they’re only intended as a reflection of the world.


“The pages of the books that I share with you today are populated with greater diversity than I’ve ever seen in children’s and young adult literature before, but they have also shown us that we have just barely begun,” Mercier said.


She started her presentation on children's literature of the past year with two books about libraries because bookkeeping - and, by extension, libraries - are important for democracy across the world.


“Nour’s Secret Library” by Wafa' Tarnowska and Vali Mintzi is about young Nour and her cousin going to a library as a place of refuge when their home is under attack, she said.


In a very different take on libraries, “Love in the Library” by Maggie Tokuda-Hall takes place in a Japanese internment camp in World War II, Mercier said. It tells the story of two Japanese immigrants to the U.S. who were detained, and how they managed to find solace and love in a library.


Mercier said the book conveys “the disconnectedness in this shameful chapter of American history, even as this book celebrates resilience and connection.”


Mercier praised the visual beauty of “Our Fort” by Marie Dorléans, a book about three friends creating a secret fort, completely hidden from anyone except themselves.


“Marie Dorléans’ lush illustrations capture the change in the air when the wind decreases, captures the sound of the crows when they start to call more rapidly, captures the sky darkening,” she said.


While presenting “The Line in the Sand” by Kim Jihyun, Mercier said that she was “more than a little obsessed” with the author. The story is about a monster who draws a literal line in the sand and how the other monsters respond to it. Do they ignore it? Do they cross it? Do they turn it into a game?


“Powwow Day” by Traci Sorell and Madelyn Goodnight is about a young girl who’s sick and can’t dance for the powwow. The girl, River, is isolated from her community due to her illness. “As she learns how to rehabilitate and heal slowly, she also has to fight her patience,” Mercier said.


The book also explains the significance of powwows to indigenous peoples across the U.S. and Canada, she said.


Several books by Raúl The Third, who has a collection of art currently on display in the Mazmanian Gallery, were mentioned in the lecture, including “My Party, Mi Fiesta” and “My Nap, Mi Siesta,” which are bilingual books told both through Spanish and English.


Jacqueline Woodson and Rafael López have previously worked together, but this past year they created “The Year We Learned to Fly,” a collection of poems set to mixed media illustrations.


Altogether, the poems and pictures tell the story of two young Black siblings. Mercier said the poem took its name based off of “The People Could Fly” by Virginia Hamilton, which is cited as inspiration for both Woodson and López.


“There are a lot of informational picture books this year,” she said as she moved on from fiction picture books. “Narrative nonfiction continues to grow as a market and it continues throughout the market because there’s a real audience out there.”


“Keepunumuk: Weeâchumun's Thanksgiving Story” by Danielle Greendeer, Anthony Perry, Alexis C. Bunten, and Garry Meeches Sr. tells the story of the first Thanksgiving from the perspective of Wampanoag people, who are indigenous to Massachusetts.


“This tribute to the Wampanoag re-addresses our celebrations of the heroic pilgrims to celebrate instead the native people who made this winter survival possible,” Mercier said.


Angela Joy and Janelle Washington’s “Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement” is about a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and how one mother made a decision that changed everything.


“Janelle Washington’s red, black, pale yellow, and silver palette, the cut paper collage, and the arresting silhouettes in this book capture the tenor of the language and provide an unsettling stability in turbulent times,” Mercier said.


Mercier said she had a personal fondness for stories about rabbits when she introduced “Sato the Rabbit, a Sea of Tea” by Yuki Ainoya. She said while reading the story, the reader should question whether the story is “Sato’s reality, or is it just fantasy, or is it just a unique understanding of reality?”


She also introduced many middle-grade novels, which are aimed toward older elementary and younger middle school-aged children.


“Isla to Island” by Alexis Castellanos is a wordless graphic novel. The story starts out in vivid color while the main character, Marisol, lives in Cuba, but turns black and white when she has to move to the United States.


“As Marisol slowly reclaims aspects of her Cuban upbringing, especially from music and food, the color slowly returns, and the book ends with resources and also recipes as they track back to the author’s own upbringing,” Mercier said.


Nancy Werlin is generally a young adult author, Mercier said. But this past year she published her first middle-grade book, “Healer and Witch,” about a young girl in 16th century France learning to control her magic.


“The Language of Seabirds” by Will Taylor is an LGBT+ story about a boy taking a trip to Oregon just after his parents’ divorce.


“The book is filled with the awkwardness of adolescence and the thrill of first love. Taylor, throughout, keeps the promise of being known to oneself before others,” Mercier said.


She ended her lecture by showing the audience many young adult books that came out in the past year, though she didn’t elaborate on any of them.


For students interested in children’s literature, she said there are many ways to get involved.


Taking children’s literature classes or making use of the extensive children’s literature curriculum library at the University are both great ways to start engaging, she said.


“Getting involved with children’s literature means being unafraid to be an adult reading children’s books. Oftentimes, we enter that space as if we have to apologize for it,” she said.


“Picture books are new forms for artists to express their art - their frameworks, because a 32-page picture book is very limited. They really test a writer’s use of language. And for young readers, they’re an education in art literacy and visual literacy as well as verbal literacy,” Mercier said, explaining why it’s important for students to care about children’s books.


“As a culture that moves increasingly toward visual culture, that beginning in the children’s book is really important for students to know,” she said.


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