Recently attending a children’s book writers and illustrators conference in New York City gave me a lot to ponder. Speakers and participants in the conference and my other experiences around the City were inspiring and thought provoking. Like a tapestry woven of a thousand threads of memory, I thought of my experiences that connect me to these people and places I’ve encountered.
An African-American cab driver and I shared remembrances of 9/11, where he was driving in Manhattan with a passenger when the World Trade Center towers were attacked. I remember standing outside on top of one of the Towers in 1987 with my co-workers, visiting NYC from upstate. I could not imagine what the people went through within the Towers and the people there who witnessed it all, and the brave responders who charged toward the scene instead of running in the other direction. The 9/11 Memorial and Museum is an incredible tribute and place of mindfulness, if you ever have an opportunity to visit. So much to learn and absorb, and say a prayer or leave a rose at the pool on the plaza if one is so moved.
A hotel waitress told me about growing up in Poland, not having running water as a kid. I wish I could have learned more about her story. My life on the family farm wasn’t what one would call luxurious, but looking back, I had it made in our drafty old farmhouse even if the water exploded with sulphur gas when we turned on the tap and tasted horrid.
A cab driver from India told me he how experienced hunger back at home. I got the impression that his life here was an improvement. We talked about farming and more on our short ride.
Speakers at the conference told stories of their lives, not all “sunshine and lollipops” as the old saying goes. Their stories no doubt influence their storytelling.
Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke. Born in the Bronx, her parents came from Puerto Rico. Father had a third grade education, was an alcoholic, didn’t speak English and was a tool and die maker. Mother was a telephone operator and a practical nurse. They married during WWII. They lived in a South Bronx tenement before moving to better housing. The Justice was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age seven. She knew she wanted to be an attorney as early as age ten. No doubt her experiences, hard work and her determination made it possible for her to reach her esteemed post and carry the responsibility she holds today.
Elizabeth Acevedo, an Afrolatina whose parents came from the Dominican Republic, showed her grit and incredible talent as she spoke to the audience. She is a National Poet Slam champion, a teacher, and has a best-seller list book, “The Poet X” among other writings and accolades. I could hear the power in her voice. Her strength and her own story shine through in her work.
Christopher Paul Curtis, author of “Bud, Not Buddy” for which he was the first African-American to win a Newberry Award, and the award-winning “The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.” His recounting of some of his childhood experiences was amusing and no doubt shapes his writing. He lived in Flint, Michigan and worked in the car industry among other jobs, along with authoring several award winning children’s books.
Jarrett Krosoczka who’s mother died of a heroin overdose, was raised by his grandparents who took legal custody of him when he was three. He didn’t learn the truth of his mother’s addiction until he was in the fourth grade. His many books include the “Lunch Lady” series and “Good Night, Monkey Boy.” His graphic novel, “Hey, Kiddo” speaks of his own experience with addiction in the family, something so many young people can relate to.
Elizabeth Partridge spoke about writing “Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam,” including the personal stories of eight people. It is written for the age twelve and up audience, offering food for thought about this time in history and a long, brutal war. As a child, I remember seeing the casualty numbers told on the evening news broadcast, worrying about people I knew who might be drafted and have to go, and the reporting on the protests against the war. Her words brought me to tears.
Jane Yolen, author of hundreds of children’s books, has written “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” “Briar Rose: A Novel of the Holocaust” and “Mapping the Bones” about the Holocaust. She provides a voice through her fictional works for those who suffered and died from this real horror. My visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam showed me the place where a young girl wrote here diary, a moving piece of how a Jewish family suffered and died in the Holocaust.
I saw a blind man who became a lawyer but found his tenor voice that has made him famous and loved. Andrea Bocelli performed at the Metropolitan Opera along with their orchestra and other fabulous opera singers, to an enthusiastic audience. The years of dedication, study and practice that must have gone into being able to perform for us—I can’t imagine. Probably any of the people on the stage could have been anything else for a career, but they give us their gift of beautiful music.
I visited the Tenement Museum for a “Irish Outsiders” tour by our group’s guide, Kyle, following the life of an Irish family in 1869. The Moore’s lived on the fourth floor, without running water, a bathroom, and heat only from the kitchen stove. They used outhouses in the basement-level, outdoor area where the only water spigot was, and carried coal up to the fourth floor, three room apartment. They faced much discrimination, including from their neighbors, many of them German who disliked the Irish Catholics. Available jobs would have been as bricklayers, domestic servants and in the hotels. We learned from Kyle about the life of this one family that was typical of what many others experienced. I would like to visit more of the Museum to learn about the Jewish, German, Italian and other residents. How would I handle living as they did? What if I had to leave my homeland to live in a strange place of different cultures, lifestyle and languages? How would I handle the discrimination they encountered? I can’t imagine.
On last year’s visit to the Dunbrody Famine ship in New Ross, Ireland, it helped me learn what it would have been like for a family fleeing their home to try to escape disease and the 1840’s Hunger years when the potato crop failed. Many still lost their lives in their attempt to survive and cross the ocean. I wonder how it was that my Irish ancestors came to be in what was then the ghetto section of a city in Canada during the years of the Hunger. I keep searching for answers. Also a visit to the Kennedy Homestead in Ireland reminded about how an Irish family came to the United States and years later gave us a President.
The children’s book conference reminded me how so many talented writers and artists are creating books that may just entertain and delight kids but also are tools for kids to learn about history and navigate life. Someday they might write and draw their own wonderful stories.