Once a year, a conglomerate of children’s literacy-type people (librarians, teachers, museum workers, etc.) from the Pittsburgh area put together a lovely one-day conference featuring a bevy of children’s authors and illustrators. This year’s get-together featured Sharon Flake, Brian Pinkney, and Katherine Ayers. Not bad, eh? I took notes throughout the day’s lectures and workshops. Here are the highlights:
- What a classy lady! I don’t know if I’ve seen another author who manages to radiate warmth and humility the way Ms. Flake does. Even though she’s been a big author in the kidlit world for quite a few years now, she kept saying over and over again in her lectures how amazed she is that she is successful at what she does. It’s a “dream come true,” she said, but not from the success so much as the many opportunities she has to talk, laugh and hug children wherever she goes. Lucky lady.
- As a child, Flake didn’t particularly enjoy reading or writing — she was a “reluctant reader,” a category she hadn’t ever heard of until she became popular. How fitting it is that her books are frequently used to entice reluctant readers to the joys of the written word, eh?
- Last little bit: although I came to truly love Flake by the end of the day, the writing exercise she gave in her writing workshop is one of the most bizarre I’ve ever heard of. She broke the class into groups, then had each group imagine and list what they would do for children if they had $90,000 to spend. Then each group had to write a rap song about their list, and sing it for the whole class. Yeah, it was fun, but . . . whoo.
- Ah, our Pittsburgh native! (Yeah, yeah — Sharon Flake is a Pittsburgher, too, but she isn’t from here, she’s from Philly, a fact that we forgave her for some time ago.) Ayers is most beloved ’round these parts for her historical novel Macaroni Boy, which is set in the Strip District of Pittsburgh. (Ahem. The Strip is not the town red-light district. It’s a group of warehouses and international import shops that run in a strip along the Allegheny River.)
- What’s interesting is that the idea for Macaroni Boy was suggested to Ayers by her editor after watching a Rick Sebak documentary about the Strip District. (Sebak has produced many documentaries about Pittsburgh, hot dog stands, farmer’s markets, and the like for PBS). Ayers later met up with Sebak at a party while in the middle of writing the novel, and he immediately let her know about the Strip District’s Great Banana Explosion of 1936.
- You heard me. Banana Explosion. Yes, it really happened. It was caused by gas in the ripening room of a fruit warehouse. It blew out all of the windows of an entire city block? And who could pass that kind of a story up? Lo, and behold — it’s in Macaroni Boy! (Haven’t read the book? Go put it on your to-be-read list, ASAP. It’s fun.)
- What’s it like growing up with Jerry Pinkney for a dad? Full of self-confidence, apparently. Brian says that he never had any doubts that he wouldn’t be a successful artist, since he saw his dad painting every day, and it looked easy. Huh.
- Pinkney had the guts to show us his first self-portrait, made when he was thirteen. Here it is (although the picture I took of it is darn grainy):
- Ain’t it just groovy? I don’t know what I like better, the rhinestones on the jeans, or the “slow motion” lines around the left hand.
- Speaking of kung fu, Pinkney’s a pretty accomplished tae kwon do enthusiast. Ever read Jo Jo’s Flying Side Kick? Well, Pinkney does a pretty mean flying side kick, himself. He showed us a picture of it, and I wasn’t able to capture it, but dude. It was hot. Pinkney hasn’t made the pantheon of Hot Men of Children’s Literature, but he certainly, certainly should.
- Oh yeah, and there was something in his talk about illustration, the scratchboard process, and working with his wife, Andrea Davis Pinkney. But I can’t seem to remember what it was after the blinding coolness of the flying sidekick.
That’s all for tonight, folks! Thanks for staying tuned!