The following post was co-authored by Monica Valentine, program specialist in the Library’s Young Readers Center.
Student groups, children, teens, and readers of all ages at home tuned into a special day of programming at this year’s virtual National Book Festival. Video interviews with such favorites as Mo Willems, Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed, Nic Stone, and Megan MacDonald became available on demand on Friday, September 25, and are still available on the National Book Festival virtual platform. Many National Ambassadors for Young People’s Literature made an appearance, including the current Ambassador Jason Reynolds, as well as former Ambassadors Jon Scieszka, Kate DiCamillo, and Gene Yang. The audience was treated to Q&As with authors who were bursting with excellent book recommendations, writing advice (Nic Stone, author of “Dear Justyce” and “Shuri” says: “Read, write, and eavesdrop”), honest conversation, and of course, pure silliness and fun.
Kwame Mbalia, author of the middle grade fantasy “Tristian Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky” featured on the Hearing Black Voices Thread, was a favorite with students. Third graders inquired about his favorite super hero (answer: The Green Lantern), and a seventh grader asked if he liked Black Panther (“It’s absolutely fantastic!”); Mbalia shared that he even developed his own superhero in in third grade and named him Emawk – clever! When asked for advice for aspiring black writers, Mbalia responded: “You have to get out there and tell your story, whether or not someone else understands it…Tell the story that you believe in, and make other people believe in it as much as you do.”
Jon Scieszka and Steven Weinberg, co-conspirators behind the AstroNuts series, offered a wicked balance of off-the-wall silliness and a call to action. They arrived “on stage” without any gravity to hold them down! Scieszka shared his predictably unpredictable memories as the inaugural National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and Weinberg showed off his battalion of illustrated sea monsters. But they came with a poignant message to children, too: our Earth is struggling, but we can help her by trusting science and talking about the problems we all face together.
The AstroNuts series is one of many graphic novels featured at this year’s festival. Authors spoke about the validity of this medium that captivates and represents all kinds of kids. Gene Yang continued to encourage everyone to “Read Without Walls,” and to write stories based on their own lives – like he did in his new nonfiction graphic novel “Dragon Hoops.” In a moment of raw honesty, Mike Curato, author of the semi-autobiographical “Flamer,” shared why he writes: “To empower youth to be able to make that decision to stay in this world and… find out who they are. I’m glad I stayed. I’m glad I gave myself a chance.” Jerry Craft, the author of the first ever Newbery Medal awarded to a graphic novel “New Kid,” summarized the debate simply: “Any book a kid wants to read is an important book” – and therein lies the triumph of a graphic novel, a picture book, or any other book.
Books and stories, after all, help us find a place to belong. Sabaa Tahir, the best-selling author of the Ember in the Ashes series, shared the struggle with her identity as an immigrant: “So many don’t[…] believe that I love this country… And that can create a schism between me and the country that I love.” She has shared her life with her readers, and their admiration was obvious in the questions they asked, regarding her representation of “brown kids” in every book, complexity of characters, and meticulous research. Tahir attributes books in helping her feel less alone, and we hope she sees her own impact on the readers who find a friend in the pages of her work.
Stories are powerful, in both fiction and nonfiction. Picture book author and biographer Barb Rosenstock is a frequent user/researcher of the Library of Congress. Her book “Leave it Abigail! The Revolutionary Life of Abigail Adams” was featured on the Fearless Women Thread. Rosenstock became interested in Abigail Adams after visiting the home that John Adams grew up in, as well the house next door where Abigail set up housekeeping. There Rosenstock saw “her real objects and the real environment where she lived; her life, her tools, her kitchen stuff, her clothing.” She noted that she is “drawn to human stories” and wants her readers to gain “a sense of the importance of their own history” from her work. “I want every child to realize that history… is what you’re doing right now. It is kind of like a giant river and we’re all a drop of water and there is no such thing… as important people and non- important people. Things in history are moved along by all kinds of people, known and unknown.”
The diversity of stories and experiences elevated this year’s festival higher than ever, and the online platform made this event accessible to a wider variety of audiences. This past weekend, authors showed that our stories are our superpowers when they shared their hearts with their readers. Everyone hopefully came away seen, heard, and inspired.
If you missed any of the authors’ Q&A or their pre-recorded talks, or if you want to re-watch your favorites, find them on the National Book Festival virtual platform and the Library’s YouTube channel. Also check out the Teen Special: Grab Your Mic: Tell Your Story and the Children’s Special: Be You! for a condensed version of the author and illustrator talks, hosted by Jason Reynolds and Jon Scieszka, respectively.
These were some of the highlights for us, but what were your favorite moments? Let us know in the comments.