The heat, the librarians, and me, in Washington, D.C.

I’ve always loved being around librarians. Growing up, the Elmont Public Library was my bookstore, my intellectual playground, my safe space. I went there twice a week with my mom, a retired teacher and gigantic book enthusiast. So E.P.L. was the place where all the adults shared my book lovin’ ardor, and no one felt threatened by it or vaguely censorious (should a little boy REALLY like books so much? Why isn’t he outside PLAYING?)

So my appreciation of Librarians persists. To this day I never feel so in my element as when I’m surrounded by Librarians – folks who really care about the quality of the writing, who notice production values, who have opinions about illustration. These are my peeps.

When I went to my first A.L.A. I was most excited about attending as a spectator, the meetings of the Notable and BBYA committees. I was working for Putnam at the time, and I was given excellent instruction about how I was to comport myself from Refna Wilkin, our wonderful, experience, and British Executive Editor:

“Arthur,” she said, “You may listen, but you may not react. You must keep your face neutral and your comments to yourself. We editors are not supposed to INFLUENCE the proceedings and we are invited guests.” Perhaps I looked uncertain because I remember her cocking her head at me, maybe sighing a little and saying, “Well, do your best.”

The day came and the committee members sat around a table piled with books. The discussion of each book started with the book’s advocate who would hold it up and speak to the qualities that the librarian felt made it Notable. Then the others would either agree or disagree. The publishers and other lookers on would surround the discussion table in rows of straight chairs. I sat in one of them practicing my neutrality of demeanor, and I remember thinking that I was doing fabulously, or at least well. There was a vigorous discussion about the efficacy of a design element in one book, the order of the poems in another, whether or not a character in a book I’d had reservations about was stereotypical or not. This was THE STUFF. This was what I cared about. And so did THEY. But I was a fly on the wall. My face was like a robot’s with the power off. I was a sphinx, a stone.

Afterward a colleague came up to me and said, “It was fun to watch your face during that discussion. When so and so said X you flushed bright crimson. And then I thought you’d fall off your seat when Mr. So-and-so made that remark about the plot of Y.”

So I guess I’m not a poker face. Who knew?

Well, I knew, actually. Hiding my emotions was never my strong suit. I am, as they say, an open book.

This year at A.L.A. I had the pleasure of accompanying two of my authors, Francisco Stork, whose generous, surprising novel MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD won the Schneider Award, and Erin Bow, whose stormy, intense debut, PLAIN KATE makes its debut this year. And they were wonderful. Erin read a section of plain Kate at Scholastic’s Literary Brunch, in the company of Blue Balliett, Mathew Kirby, Cynthia Lord, Lucy Christopher, and Deborah Wiles. In the audience were pals who made me think of lovely ALA-dinners of year’s past: Susan Faust, Deborah Taylor…seeing their faces reminded me of what great allies we have (we STILL HAVE) out there in the world for quality books.

The Newbery-Caldecott Banquet was terrific too this year. I’m sure many folks will blog about how moving Rebecca Stead’s speech was (four speeches in one!!) And how satisfying it was to see the great Jerry Pinkney recognized. (I did a book years ago with him when I was at Dial; Sonia Levitin’s THE MAN WHO KEPT HIS HEART IN A BUCKET; I still remember it fondly.) But I was happy to be there, sitting next to Erin Bow, there for the first time. And hey, even the food was decent. ☺

Just this morning I had the pleasure of attending the awards ceremony where Cheryl Klein and I accepted the Batchelder honor for MORIBITO: GUARDIAN OF THE DARKNESS, then dashed over to have lunch with the Schneider Award Committee, honoring Francisco Stork for MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD.

So it’s been a terrific, satisfying ALA – not even the awful heat and humidity could dampen my spirits. Did I keep a poker face? I doubt it; but who cares?

6 thoughts on “The heat, the librarians, and me, in Washington, D.C.

  1. “(should a little boy REALLY like books so much? Why isn’t he outside PLAYING?)”
    That phrase generates so many thoughts I just had to comment on a few.
    One thought is generating by the “playing outside” idea. Right now, I have a young kid, unrelated to me, reading through the manuscript for what I hope will be my first book. He generates the most interesting comments and in fact, it is much like an installment story in its own rite. But like most kids now a days, his summer days are filled with *activities*. So my summer consists of pining away, waiting for the next installment, while *activities* sets my reading schedule.

    I am sure there are number of kids around the country, whose *activities* include spending time at the library. And I am sure they share the same passion that you did and would love to comment on books. And unlike me, who has communicate down an occasionally read contorted email pipe, the librarians have direct access to these kids who love books. So it seems to me that some of these librarians could motivate some of the kids to write reviews of the books and that a select few of these reviews could be read along with the adult commentary. Not only would the commentary be somewhat of an eye opener (kids think very differently) but this ALA convention would be turned into a huge motivation for kids to *write*. If a kid knew that their review might get read at huge convention, I can’t think of a bigger motivator. Anyway, this is just a random summer thought on my part, while I am waiting and editing.

  2. Thank you for sharing your ALA conference. Last year I attended Annual for the first time and was really glad that I went to the session with you, Cheryl Klein, Karlijn Stoffels, and the translator of Heartsinger. Besides what I learned about translation, I remember so clearly what fun you all had talking together. It was a delightful panel.

  3. Arthur and the Librarians of The Round Table!

    I mean no disrespect Mr. Levine. On the contrary, I count you amongst the knights of today’s world, as the defender of literary quality that you are. Thank you for sharing the anecdote. It made me laugh and relax and remember that every one of those knights was once the young observer I am today.

  4. Hi Arthur, congrats on joining the blog world! I just spoke to Jackie Davies and she was at ALA also — wondering if you ran into her?

    Glad to know about this blog and I will check back often!

  5. MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD is a wonderful book; so authentic and engaging. It’s great to see Francisco Stork being recognized for it.

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