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STEM Read on Location: SCBWI Presents “How Children’s Books Will Save Us”

By Gillian King-Cargile, Founder & Director of STEM Read 

57th Street Books, Chicago, Illinois

Chicago’s Hyde Park is home to an amazing independent book store called 57th Street Books. The store is nestled in the lower level of a red-brick apartment building. You duck down the steps and enter into a book-lover’s paradise. The store meanders through the maze-like walls of the building’s basement so each time you turn a corner you discover a new room or alcove with a wide selection of titles. In a world of online everything, it’s a treat to run your fingers along the spines of real books.

STEM Read was at 57th Street Books on September 28 for The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ (SCBWI) panel discussion, “How Children’s Literature Can Save Us.” Author and SCBWI member Kate Hannigan hosted the event with authors Michelle Falkoff, James Klise, Patricia Hruby Powell, Suzanne Slade, and Natasha Tarpley.

The event was a great way to meet these Chicago-area authors, to see how they created their stories, and to hear what they really want to accomplish when they write for children and young adults.

Image Credit: 57th Street Books

Kate Hannigan, whose book The Detective’s Assistant is a STEM Read Selection for Spring 2018, moderated the panel. She called books “life simulators” and discussed how helping young readers share experiences of people who are different than them can generate a “force field against evil like Wonder Woman’s bracelets.”

The panel called for diversity in children’s literature, but noted that the push for diversity couldn’t end with authors, characters, and book covers. They argued that all areas of the publishing process—from creators to agents, editors, and publishers—need to encourage more diversity in their ranks.

James Klise said that his first novel, Love Drugged, a high school coming-out story set in Chicago, was initially rejected by some straight agents and editors, not because they objected to gay characters, but because they didn’t believe that a teenager growing up in Chicago in 2009 would be worried about coming out. It was not until Klise found an editor who shared his experiences that the book found a publishing home.

The panel also talked about the rise of “issue” books and whether young readers really want to read them. Michelle Falkoffnoted that some books can seem forced. She called these books “medicine books,” as in, “take your medicine!” James Klise said, “What your reader really wants is a good story. The story has to rule.” They cautioned against pushing books that were too bogged down with messages at the expense of compelling stories and characters.

The authors shared how they came to be writers. Michelle Falkoff said she wanted to write books that her “kid self” would want to read, something that would have made her put down her copy of the latest Stephen King novel.

Suzanne Slade, who describes herself as “an engineer by degree,” said, “Science is my thing. Non-fiction is my thing.” She wanted to share her love of STEM with children through books like Out of School and Into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story and The Inventor’s Secret.

Natasha Tarpley wanted to write stories that explore the lives of children of color, but when she created The Harlem Charade, she also wanted to create fun, engaging mysteries with children of color as main characters.

Tarpley said that some librarians have told her they don’t include her books like I Love My Hair in their libraries because they don’t have any black students. Tarpley responds that having hair is a universal experience and that messages of accepting and loving yourself are important for all kids.

Kate Hannigan had similar barriers to reaching students. She said that at some schools, teachers would plan to send only the girls to her talk about The Detective’s Assistant because the main characters were female. She said when that happens she usually plays up the fact that there are murders and spies and puzzles in the book too, so the teachers will send the boys. “Isn’t it important for all kids to see women solving mysteries, taking charge, and impacting history?” she asked.

Central to the night’s discussion was the idea of using books to help students build empathy. Whether students are going to become school teachers or scientists, pet groomers or politicians, one of the most important things we can do is help them understand and respect the feelings of others.

Patricia Hruby Powell, who has written books about Josephine Baker and Loving v. Virginia for young readers, said, “you learn about who you are by writing,” but you learn who other people are by reading.

Books allow readers to explore the lives of people who are different than them. It’s important that kids see themselves in the stories they read, but it’s also important that they look outside of themselves too, and understand what it is like to be someone else.

Now, as much as ever, we need to continue to read and write and share stories. We need to foster empathy. We need to help young learners see similarities and celebrate differences. If we can do that, perhaps we can begin to heal our communities and to continue striving for peace and progress.

-Gillian King-Cargile
STEM Read Director

Learn More about the Authors and Their Books

Learn More about SCBWI (scbwi.org)

If you’re not familiar with it yet, SCBWI (The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) is a great resource to get to know. SCBWI is a professional organization for writers and illustrators. They have regional and international chapters and they create and curate resources for educators and aspiring writers. SCBWI works tirelessly to foster a community that supports creators of children’s literature.

If you’re an educator looking for guest speakers, check out SCBWI’s Speaker’s Bureau database. You can search by topic and by region. You can also find authors and illustrators who offer Skype visits.

If you’ve been working on a picture book or a YA novel and you don’t know how to get it off your computer and into the hands of readers, SCBWI coordinates everything from workshops to conferences to local critique groups. Professional authors and editors often host events to give feedback on works in progress.

Great public events like “How Children’s Literature Can Save Us” show SCBWI’s commitment to changing the world one reader at a time. When educators, librarians, and children’s literature creators work together to get the right book into the hands of a reader, we really can make a difference.