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Children's Literature Collection

Thirty-Fourth Annual Children's Book Festival
by Silvia Baille Judd

Crowds of appreciative librarians, teachers, and other afficionados of children's literature gathered on the campus of The University of Southern Mississippi to welcome their favorite authors and illustrators of children's literature. Acclaimed author Virginia Hamilton, recipient of the 2001 Medallion was joined by author/illustrator Denise Fleming, author/illustrator Vera B. Williams, storyteller Evester Roper, Dr. Patsy Perritt, and poet Jaime Levi Adoff.

The University of Southern Mississippi Medallion was presented to Virginia Hamilton in recognition of her outstanding contributions to the field of children's literature. There is not an award, prize, or honor given for writing that Hamilton, America's most honored writer of books for children, has not received.

Virginia Hamilton

This distinguished writer was born in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1936, one of five children, growing up within the warmth of a loving family. Her mother's side of the family was descended from a fugitive slave, Levi Perry, who settled in this southern Ohio Miami Valley town. Mother, father, aunts, and uncles were all gifted storytellers, giving Hamilton the foundation for the stories that she would later write.

A mixture of realism, history, myth, and folklore, Hamilton's writing is inventive, daring, and challenging. Critics applaud her accurate depiction of contemporary African-American life that reveals its true historical and cultural heritage. Her body of work now includes some forty titles written for children of all ages. From the retelling of folk and fairy tales to realistic fiction to painstakingly researched biographies, Hamilton's writing is reflective of her experiences as an African American. Her characters come to life through her skillful use of dialogue and, when appropriate, dialect.

Family is an important theme in Hamilton's work and familiar surroundings contribute to the mastery of her craft. In a biographical essay found on her Web page, Hamilton elaborates on the importance of place to her writing: "Here on the land is the best place for me to write. I love the old trees, the great old one in which brother Bill had his tree house. Being an Ohioan means that I have a long kinship with so many people here, with the landscape and the Ohio sky. For me, there is nothing quite like an Ohio sunset. I write books because I love chasing after a good story and seeing fantastic characters rising out of the mist of my imaginings. I can't explain how it is I keep having new ideas. But one book inevitably follows another. It is my way of exploring the known, the remembered, and the imagined, the literary triad of which all stories are made."

Hamilton's ideas are as stirring when delivered in person as they are when written in her books. She introduced the concept of rememory, which is our interpretation of what happened, rather than what really happened. This concept resonated with the audience and soon became a catch word repeated many times during the festival.

An enthusiastic crowd greeted Evester Roper, guest speaker at the Fay Kaigler Storytelling Celebration. In 1990, after eight years as a public librarian, Ms. Roper began her career as a full-time storyteller. She demonstrated this talent by delighting all present with her vivacity and charm, while adding much to her presentation with audience interaction. After an initial serenade, Ms. Roper told of a graduation exhortation that changed her life. The speaker had told the graduates that in the end ". you will die, be dropped in a hole, have dirt thrown on your face, and the people will go back to church to eat potato salad." He went on to explain that people would attend their funerals, not because of the degree they received that day, but because they made a difference in someone's life. Ms. Roper emphasized this message and encouraged those present to make a difference in children's lives. She then related several family stories as well as acting out a few stories written by Molly Bang, with the story of "Chicken Girl" bringing gales of laughter from the audience.

Award-winning author/illustrator Vera Williams entertained the audience with stories of her childhood. These early experiences greatly affect her view of the world and thus her writing. She related the importance of art, books, music, and love in her family, as well as the way in which imagination was worked into every situation. In this way, Ms. Williams felt that she grew up with the characters she encountered in the books she read. They were her friends and she related to them personally. Because of this, in her own books she puts herself in children's shoes as she reaches out to include them in her imaginary worlds. It is this manner of storytelling in which she excels; her stories contain so much that is not emphasized, but is simply there because it should be. An example is found in More, More, More, Said the Baby:Three Love Stories, where, though each child is a different race, it was not her intent to express a theme of racial equality. Her theme is simply that there can never be too much love. It became clear to those in attendance why Ms. Williams' work is loved by children and adults alike.

The work of Denise Fleming, children's author and illustrator, is unique in that she creates her own artwork mediums. By doing so, she can control how each element is portrayed. She literally makes each piece of paper, first determining what the illustration will be since this will influence the materials used. While demonstrating her papermaking technique, Fleming told stories of the unique ingredients used in her paper production, which included everything from horsehair and grains to leaves and coffee grounds. Her books, designed by herself and her husband, David Power, focus on animal characters rather than people, for the homemade materials make lines more difficult to control. Fleming and her husband are an excellent team, and if the energy seen on stage was any indication, there will be many more books to come.

Louisiana State University professor Dr. Patsy Perritt delivered the 2001 Ezra Jack Keats Lecture. Her slide presentation, "Learning to See," was designed to teach people to see what is truly behind an illustration. She conveyed the importance of examining an illustration with the full realization of what is before us. Not only does the illustrator have something to add to the story, we must also realize what we bring to the illustration ourselves, for our own experiences color everything we see. A striking remark made by Dr. Perritt was that, unfortunate though it is, book illustrations are often the only artwork that some children may ever see. Because of this, excellent illustration in children's books is a necessity. Dr. Perritt discussed balance, clarity, color, texture, and rhythm in illustrations, giving examples of each in children's books. She challenged everyone in the audience to become visually literate so that the powerful combination of words, illustration, and design can be fully understood.

Jaime Levi Adoff, son of Virginia Hamilton and poet Arnold Adoff, was the featured speaker at Thursday's luncheon. Filling in for his father, who was recovering from back surgery, Mr. Adoff first read familiar poems written by his father. He then read several poems from his first book, to be published in fall 2002. Mr. Adoff currently has two other books that are in various stages of completion. Participants were quite receptive to his poems, and a great future in writing is predicted for this second generation poet.

The audience was delighted with Chuck Galey's pre-Festival seminar, "The Illustrator as Storyteller." Galey, a graphic designer living in Jackson, Mississippi, has illustrated the covers of more than thirty books, the most familiar being for R. L. Stine's Fear Street series and several of Beverly Cleary's titles. He can now add children's book illustrator to his list of accomplishments with the September 2001 publication of Jazz Cats, written by David Davis. Galey instructed those attending on the various mediums used by artists, showing the varying viscosity and transparency of oils, acrylics, gouache, and watercolors and then moving on to pastel and graphite pencils. He demonstrated the different abilities of each medium and showed how various children's illustrators have used these differences to express the story in their own style.

The 2001 Children's Book Festival was indeed fortunate to have hosted such a group of talented and delightful speakers. Participants received a rare treat and left the festival with a greater enthusiasm to spread the pleasure of reading children's literature. Mark your calendars for April 3-5, 2002, and join us at next year's Children's Book Festival when our Medallion winner will be author/illustrator Rosemary Wells.


The de Grummond Children's Literature Collection
Box 5148
Hattiesburg, MS 39406
(601) 266-4349
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