Summer institute, final post, part two

The last event of the day on Saturday was the speaker’s reception in the Trustman Gallery, where there was a special installation of art by Karen LaFleur and Tommy Simpson.  Karen LaFleur gave a brief talk about their artwork before we had fifteen minutes of book signing downstairs prior to moving up to the gallery.  As I waited in the enormous line to have David Small sign my books, I had a chat with Sara Pennypacker who was right behind me.  We talked about how much the library’s third grade book group has consistently loved reading Clementine (we’ve used it several times over the last few years), and she very graciously and very sincerely thanked me for doing what I do.  Wow.  That made me feel good.

Susan had to cut off the line for David Small way in front of me, so I headed upstairs to the gallery to wait my next chance.  Twelve years ago, I remember having a fabulous time at the gallery reception, gossiping with my friends and eating the yummy food and getting a wee bit tipsy on the champagne.  This time, I felt like the awkward, friendless old lady, as I watched the current batch of students having all the fun.  It was actually good for me to be so anonymous and so, well, lonely, since I spend most of my days surrounded by children and parents who know and like me.  My daily life is so public that it’s almost impossible for me blow my nose without a child or adult coming up to talk to me mid-snort and sniffle.  Even when food shopping I run into folks that I know – even when I try to disguise myself in grubby clothes, sunglasses, and a baseball cap – and it was definitely healthy to be reminded that I’m “not all that.”  Although it didn’t feel particularly fabulous in that moment, I’ll admit.

So as I stood awkwardly in the small gallery, looking at a drawing for the third time while wondering whether I really needed to get my books signed (and Jean, if I hadn’t bought a copy of Stitches for you I might well have headed home), suddenly David Small and Sarah Stewart appeared and sat down a signing table almost directly in front of me.  And, suddenly, I was third in line to have my books signed.  O happy day, that ends with meeting an amazing author and illustrator, and then being able to get on the road and head home to my even more amazing husband!  I don’t even remember what David Small and I said to each other, but I was once again impressed by his grace and kindness.  And then I left, ducking by the so-young current grad students on my way out (and feeling once again a bit jealous of that graduate school bond and the joy of being in the middle of an intense educational experience).

Sunday morning it was tough to haul myself in to Boston for “just” one speaker, but Jim raised his eyebrow and suggested that I might regret it if I didn’t (wise, wise husband), so I did.  As I waited at my solitary table (the tables in the conference center sat three people), feeling once again like an old fuddy duddy, my old – or should I say “former”? – professor and independent study advisor Cathie Mercier sat down next to me to say hi, and I finally felt once again like maybe I’m not too stupid for this world of children’s literature stars.  Cathie is smart and cool, and it was really good to spend a few minutes catching up with her and hearing about how the children’s literature program at Simmons has grown and changed.  It’s much bigger now, she said, and the average age of the students is indeed much younger – an encouraging thought for me, leaving me feeling much less old.  Cathie didn’t say this, but I’m guessing that the lousy economy is driving this young women and men directly from college to graduate school, unlike when I attended all those years ago and 99% of my classmates and I had spent several years in the working world before coming back to school.  I do think there is a definite benefit to having spent time in the real working world before engaging in advanced study, but today’s twenty-somethings don’t really have much of a choice in that matter, if they are unable to find work.

M.T. Anderson was the speaker of the day on Sunday, and he gave a terrific and enlightening talk on books and ebooks.  I should have taken notes, but of course I didn’t, but what I took away from his talk was a renewed hopefulness for the world of books and publishing.  He pointed out that ebooks lend themselves to all kinds of innovation and experimentation, like non-linear plotlines in which readers can choose plot direction for themselves as they read.  But he did also talk about how any aspiring authors and illustrators in the audience might want to “keep that barista job,” as authors and illustrators are bound to suffer from lowered incomes due to the pricing of ebooks.  And I do wonder about something that neither Anderson nor any of the other speakers mentioned when discussing ebooks: that ebooks, for the most part, cost money, since publishers are not too friendly about making ebook copies available for library circulation.  I worry that this will cause a societal stratification – those who can’t afford to purchase ebooks might be pushed out of the reading world, and soon only those people with money will be able to read.  And with what appears to be the disintegration of the middle class, this could mean that only the very wealthy will be reading.  Please, let’s keep reading and books alive and viable through our public libraries, whether it be in traditional book format or ebook format or a combination of both; our country’s intellectual health depends upon it.

But back to the institute.  After a concise and intelligent closing by Cathie Mercier and Megan Lambert, in which they highlighted each speaker’s thoughts and contributions to the institute, we headed down to the cafeteria for a lovely brunch.  Being one of the first to head down, I got my food and sat a table alone, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t remain alone; but the two women with whom I’d forged some connection over the weekend were not in attendance at the brunch and I, again, felt like an extra wheel.  But then Susan Bloom, bless her lovely soul, called me over to her table and I re-met one of my former classmates (whom I hadn’t known very well at all, but it was good to talk to her), and Susan then asked me why it was that she knew that I had worn long white gloves at my wedding and been married at a church in Concord.  I finally figured it out: my sister’s friend Marie, who used to work at Simmons, had come to our wedding and taken lots of photos – she must have shown those photos to Susan and Cathie.  How small our world is!

And last, but certainly not least, I asked Susan whether it would be ok to for me to ask M.T. Anderson to sign my books, since I really needed to be heading home.  And with her blessing, I did.  I told him that all of the librarians in my library were jealous that I was meeting him, and he asked which library, and when I told him, he stopped, looked me in the eye, and said, “I used to live there!”  Yes, indeed, he lived in the town in which I work for a couple of years, and spoke quite fondly of the town and the old library, and told me that he even wrote a story about the time he spent in that town.  (A story which I have since found and read, and he does a lovely job describing the town in the first paragraph of the story.)  What a neat coincidence, and what a happy way to end this inspiring, humbling, and intellectually stimulating weekend.  I’m so glad that I went, and so glad that I have so much mental fodder to chew on and digest for a long time to come.  It’s good to step outside my “comfort zone,” and even better to step back and look at the larger view of children and books than I see in my daily life.