Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of ALA 2013

It has been almost impossible to describe the experience of attending this year’s American Library Association conference in Chicago. I try to explain what made it so wonderful and epically fail each time. I feel a rush of emotions, a Maria the-hills-are-alive kind of elation that makes me want to do a happy dance and burst into song. (Well, I guess since I did burst into song during ALA  (publicly, I might add), this feeling makes sense.) When words fail me, art helps capture the moment. I turned to my art form of choice, Modge Podge collage, to commemorate this awe-inspiring experience. I turned my end tables into ALA2013 tributes. That’s right; my living room is now tricked out with beautiful one-of-a-kind ALA tables. 

Creating a tangible symbol of this experience of a lifetime somehow makes it easier to articulate my garbled thoughts. So here are some of the highlights of my ALA 2013 experience:

Making Mischief

I could think of no better way to start off my ALA experience than attending "Celebrate the Life of One of Children’s Literature’s Luminaries: A Peter Sieruta Event." Peter D. Sieruta passed away a year ago. Like many, I followed his blog, Collecting Children’s Books, an endless resource for all things related to children’s literature and sought his insights for many a research paper. This event celebrated his life and legacy, and it was incredible talking with people whose lives he had touched with his critical scholarship, keen insight, and passion for children’s books. This event celebrated the publication of his book, Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, co-authored with Betsy Bird of Fuse#8 and Julie Danielson of 7 Impossible Things. “Secret lives, scandalous turns, and some very funny surprises – these essays by leading kids’ lit bloggers take us behind the scenes of many much-loved children’s books.” Due to be released in April 2014 by Candlewick Press, this book promises to, according to Bird, “effectively put down the notion of children’s authors as fluffy, silly individuals.” I already plan on adding this text to my future children’s literature class and can’t wait to read it. I was delighted to have the opportunity to discuss it with Betsy and Jules and learn more about the process of creating this important work. It felt incredibly surreal to be there among the crème de la crème of the kidlitosphere. I stood by while Helen Frost, author of the amazing Keesha’s House and recently Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War, chatted with them – and engaged me in conversation. I even briefly met Roger Sutton of Horn Book. Fortunately, in the children’s literature world, I have found everyone to be kind and welcoming of noobs and eager to share and listen.
Give Me One Reason

ALA provides so many incredible opportunities to take – take ideas, generate enthusiasm, and yes, grab free books, but this conference provides equally important forums for giving.  As a librarian, my natural state is to provide information, share resources, and give back to my community, so it makes sense that I am most comfortable in my role as a volunteer during ALA. I had the chance to give back to my alma mater, the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and help in their booth in the exhibit hall. I enjoyed connecting with staff, alumni, current and incoming students and swapping perspectives on librarianship. I am truly grateful for the excellent education I received at GSLIS and volunteering at ALA always reminds me of how valuable that experience has been.

My time at GSLIS reignited my passion for comics, thanks to Dr. Carol Tilley’s class, Comics: Advising Child and Adult Readers. Thanks to her, I had the opportunity to interview some of my favorite graphic novelists in the Artist Alley. In true geek girl fashion, I spent hours crafting questions to ask the graphic novelists about their books, craft, and the importance of comics. It was a huge honor to be able to film these interviews for ALA and connect with the authors in a more personal way. I will be sure to post the videos on the blog once they are shared on the ALA YouTube channel. But I will say that the videos include references to ancient storytelling in the modern era, embracing your inner geek, and why sisters and snakes do not mix.

Volunteering is all well and good, but it’s important not to melt into a puddle in the process. I had the incredible opportunity to volunteer at the Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder Banquet, otherwise known as the Academy Awards of children’s literature. Show me a Hollywood star and won’t bat an eyelid, but introduce me to an author of a coveted picture book and I will lose all respectability. As I directed people towards the banquet hall, a dapper author dressed to the nines approached me. He pointed to the Caldecott75 pin I sported and said simply, “I made that.” I was talking to Brian Selznick himself, author of the 2008 Caldecott winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, one of my favorite books of all time. I’d like to think I said something charming and appreciative because the logo is beyond beautiful, but it’s more likely that I sputtered incoherently in an epic fangirl moment. In the presence of these great artists and authors, it is almost impossible not to become verklempt. It was a surreal experience to share in an event that brings together the biggest names in children’s literature, and I am so grateful to be able to assist in my small way.   

Channeling my Inner Eleanor Roosevelt 

Standing in front of massive lines of people waiting for the exhibits, I had the stunning realization that I was an introvert preparing to sing in front of a crowd of people. I wanted to flee to a dark corner, but my inner resolve to do one thing that scared me each day would not let me slink away. I forced myself to embrace my fear Dune-style and thanks to a pep talk from a friend, I donned my stolen hat and prepared to take on the crowd. Together with a group of brave friends, colleagues, and even some strangers, we joined in a flashmob to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the Caldecott Medal. We sang the song I had written for the occasion, “Read Caldecotts from our Libraries,” and tried to convey how much we love and appreciate picture books. It was both a terrifying and electrifying experience. What started out as a whim, a crazy idea to spread the message about the Caldecott75, turned into a transformative experience about the endless possibility of a supportive community. My inner doubts faded away with the support of my fellow flashmob-ers, colleagues, friends, and mentors. I would name everyone individually here but for fear of accidentally omitting anyone, I will simply express my gratitude to everyone who promoted, supported, participated, attended, or watched the flashmob. Thank you for making this dream come true!

It’s a Bird... It’s a Plane... It’s a Library Superhero

I am in deep, passionate love with comics and I don’t care who knows. I swoon at double-page spreads, sweeping action that happens between panels, and close-ups of characters’ faces, full of emotion. I am not alone in this love affair. Librarians and educators have taken on the torch to advocate for comics in their libraries and classrooms. ALA recognizes our devotion for comics and believes in the inherent value that this medium offers to all readers. Forums for engagement about comics included the Graphic Novel Stage, Artist Alley, Zine Pavilion, as well as sessions about comics by experts and artists. Not surprisingly, these were some of my favorite sessions at ALA. 

I attended this interactive game show where “volunteers are paired off with (or against) professional cartoonists in a series of fun-filled drawing challenges!” Hilarity ensued as Dave Roman hosted a chaotic session of fast-paced drawing by professional artists to create complete comics with little time to spare. Fabulous stories about a radioactive rat and a dangerous storm and dark tale of an octopus and mutant mermaid proved just how delightful and spontaneous this medium can be. I’d love to see this activity replicated in classrooms and libraries around the country to show the joy in creating and reading comics. 

Busting the Comics Code: Comics, Censorship, & Librarians

Moderated by the fabulous Robin Brenner of No Flying No Tights and Brookline Public Library in Boston, this panel focused on the issues related to intellectual freedom, censorship, and advocacy for comics. I was particularly looking forward to hearing Dr. Carol Tilley discuss her research on Fredric Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, a seminal text that devastated the comics industry. I learned that Wertham had received letters from young readers debunking his assertions that comics would lead them to a life of crime and sin. (He didn’t respond to these letters, but he did edit the grammar and spelling.) Dr. Tilley had been able to view Wertham’s papers and actually track down some of the writers of these letters, who shockingly had become upstanding members of society. I was gratifying to hear that a child who loved science fiction comics grew up to become a successful writer. She found that Wertham’s research was contrived, misleading, and falsified. Wertham’s legacy, the Comics Code, still has ripples in attitudes towards comics today. The panelists, Brian Azzarello, Carol Tilley, Charles Brownstein, Gene Yang and Raina Telgemeier, discussed how far the comics industry has come, but how are they are miles to go before we sleep. Comics are still marginalized and librarians need to advocate and support them. I have had many interactions with parents and educators who reject comics and want their children or students to read “real books.” It is up to us to change this mindset and get comics back to their rightful place. Fortunately, we have allies like the participants of this panel, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and Reading with Pictures to lead the charge for comics. 

We Want YOU for Reading With Pictures!

After missing a similar session with Dr. Tilley at C2E2, I was determined to attend this session about the Common Core Standards and comics, using comics for instruction, and comics curricula. Dr. Tilley illustrated (pun intended) how the Common Core’s call for text complexity means going beyond readability formulas to actual content in comics. Using examples from Toon Books and Isadora Duncan: a Graphic Biography, she showed how the images and text are examined together to create meaning. (You can listen to the C2E2 session here to get the full picture of her presentation.) Her advice for using comics was to read a lot, connect with other texts, look for natural fits, and most of all, to have fun. Josh Elder of Reading with Pictures shared their initiatives to promote comics, in particular The Graphic Textbook, which was funded through Kickstarter. It is a resource for teachers aligned with the Common Core that supports best practices in teaching. After seeing a sample of this text in action, I desperately wanted to pull a Billy Madison and head back to elementary school. Fortunately, I can incorporate this text as an instructor of pre-service educators and ensure that they know how to include comics as a vital part of their classroom. Another amazing resource that Elder shared was the teaching resource repository created by teachers for teachers. I can’t wait to submit my own comics lessons to Reading with Pictures. In addition, there is also a wealth of literature on the research and rationales for using comics in education. Jim McClain then shared how he created a comic to teach math called the Solution Squad, which was an ingenious concept and highly motivating to learn math this way. He produced the comic himself and digital version is available at Comixology. Armed with these resources, we will be unstoppable! 

90-Second Newbery

It’s no secret that I'm a superfan of the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. After submitting my interpretation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light, I was hooked. Since then I have supported the film festival by conducting research and managing its Facebook and Twitter pages. I was thrilled when the film festival was selected as a Conversation Starter at ALA.  As expected, festival host and author of The Order of Odd-Fish, James Kennedy, put on a hilarious and entertaining show to a packed room. (The supercut of submissions of The Giver release scene received a particularly positive response; I know I couldn’t stop laughing.) In between videos, Kennedy provided suggestions for successful video submissions like genre-twists and creative storytelling approaches. He also shared ideas for making videos on a limited budget with basic technology. After all, anyone can make a green screen with some bulletin board paper. The possibilities are endless with enough creativity, which we know our young patrons and students have in spades. 

Lessons Learned

Attending a conference with 26,361 other people is daunting, to say the least. Think of it as a conversation with thousands of people and I have no idea where to put my hands or to maintain eye contact or not. Navigating the sea of social interactions makes attending conferences challenging, but after the fact, I remember to be kind to myself - and so should you. While I had lots of good advice in my pocket, I didn’t take much of it. I have accepted the inevitability that I couldn’t do everything despite my uber-planning. I would have loved to see Julie Jergens of Hi Miss Julie! perform at the Guerrilla Storytime (Fortunately, someone did record her New Adult panel song here.) Maybe next year I’ll even work up the courage to present something myself... I will definitely seek out other opportunities like the Networking Uncommons, Makers events and Zine Pavilion during the next conference. While I did attend the Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder and Printz Awards, I hope to attend the ALSC Awards Presentation for the Batchelder, Carnegie, Geisel, and Sibert Awards, as well as the Odyssey Awards. I also hope to have the opportunity to give back to the divisions like ALSC, YALSA, and AASL, who were instrumental in making my ALA experience a success. 

I also know what I will not do next year.  As Suzanne Walker said in her ALSC blog post about ALA, the exhibit hall is “really more like Wonderland than any Hunger Games Arena.” True, the exhibit hall offers glorious wonders and experiences, from publishers, authors, artists, and vendors, but at some point, the masses of people make the experience take a dark turn. Instead of focusing on grabbing the latest ARC or freebies, I plan on taking advantage of more sessions, more learning opportunities, and more chances to connect on a human level with my fellow librarians. In the end, it is the wonderful conversations and encounters, the lunches catching up with friends, the shared sessions with colleagues and the moments with strangers, that make ALA an unforgettable experience. Knowing I am not alone in our profession – and I have the support of the divisions to achieve my mission- is the true takeaway from this experience. And all I have to do is look at my tables to remember it. 


Whether you attended ALA 2013 IRL or virtually, here are some resources for you to continue the celebration of our profession and bring it back to your libraries or schools. 

Creating Collage Table
For DIY fans and people looking for creative programming, you can try something similar in your library. Grab a collection of comics, magazines, old art catalogs, etc. and a supply of modge podge and brushes. Select an item to be decorated that you will want to seal – like a table or even a picture frame. To seal the images, first make sure the images are all glued down completely. In a very well ventilated area, use epoxy resin to cover the table. The options are endless, as you can see here

Caldecott 75 Resources

The amazing ALSC Caldecott 75th Anniversary Task Force has pulled out all the stops to create a yearlong celebration of all things Caldecott. Here are some of the incredible resources available: 

The "75 Years of the Caldecott Medal" scrapbook

Caldecott Resources from TeachingBooks.

The video below was played during this year's Newbery-Caldecott banquet and celebrates the 75th Anniversary. I confess I got choked up while watching it. 

If you are in the Chicago area, make sure to check out Caldecott exhibits that are currently being hosted by Skokie Public Library and the Art Institute. 

Comics and Graphic Novels

The ALA Comic Book and Graphic Novel Member Initiative Group works to support the inclusion of comic books and graphic novels and “advocate for wider incorporation and acceptance by the profession and the Association for comic books and graphic novels in library services, programming, and collections.” Start participating in their initiatives here.

During ALA, there was a live recording of the extraordinary Kids Comics Revolution podcast with hosts Jerzy Drozd and Dave Roman, who were joined by Aaron Renier (Walker Bean) and Mary Ann Scheuer (Emerson School Librarian). I can’t wait to hear this podcast when it’s released. Take advantage of this amazing resource and listen to the archive of podcasts with the likes of Alexis Fajardo (Kid Beowulf and Peanuts; two podcast appearences, for the win!), Jarrett Krosoczka (Lunch Lady), Ben Hatke (Zita the Spacegirl), Scott Robins  (A Parent’s Guide to the Best Kids’ Comics) and many more! 

Dr. Carol Tilley’s research about Wertham was featured on io9, the New York Times, BleedingCool,  Comicsbeat, ThinkProgress, Boing Boing and so on. And then this happened! 

What an incredibly powerful video about comics! It's definitely going on my course syllabus - and favorite videos ever list. 

Arianna from the amazing Wandering Librarians created an in-depth post about Busting the Comics Code: Comics, Censorship, and Librarians. Read it hereListen to the Integrating Comics session from C2E2 with Josh Elder, Carol Tilley, and Jim McClain.


  1. Stupendous post, stupendous work in the world. You are magical.

  2. Thank you so much for your incredibly kind comment, Esme. It means so much to me :)