Chappaqua, NY, is the home of the Clintons and a town where the public schools are so good that they take the scores from the Standardized Testing with more than a grain of salt, as they should. This past weekend it was the site of their First Annual Children's Book Festival and the crowd of around 4,000 was well beyond expectations. As one of the 70 invited authors, sitting there pen-at-the-ready with my pile of books, I found it a heart-warming sight. Children, parents, children's librarians, teachers, grandparents all focused on making connections between children and soon-to-be-anachronistic (I hope not) print books.
In addition to authors ready to sign and chat, there were several scheduled readings in a quiet spot, and, as the only science author, I was asked to do my science trick of "blowing up toilet paper" at the booth of Regeneron, one of the Festival's main sponsors. But mostly there was a lot of conversation among authors and others who are invested in the future of children as educated people. I have no idea how many books were purchased but I sold out of at least two titles. It was truly a Utopian day.
Except for one small flaw. My genre--children's nonfiction, writing about the real world, was sorely under-represented. There were only about 5 of us present. This is especially troubling since the Common Core State Standards is mandating that 50% of all reading in elementary school and 70% in high school be nonfiction. One author who was there is my colleague Susanna Reich, who writes wonderful, award-winning books about the arts. She is also Chair of Children's and Young Adult Book Committee of PEN America. We greeted each other with a giant hug, both thankful to find another kindred nonfiction soul among all the story tellers, novelists, fantasy writers and picture book illustrators.
It's ironic that, just as we are starting to believe that maybe the CCSS is bringing our nonfiction books out of the shadows, we are confronted with the hegemony of fiction--not just at this Festival but in some late, breaking news. Susanna was steaming: "This year's Longlist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature was just announced. Of the ten books on the list, guess how many were nonfiction?" Before I could hazard a guess, she went on , "And of the 100 books on the NY Public Library's list of 100 Great Children's Books of the Last 100 Years, which was just released, guess how many were nonfiction?" She made a circle with her thumb and forefinger. "ZERO!, Can you believe that? They couldn't find even one!" (Last year, another one of our nonfiction colleagues, Steve Sheinkin, was a National Book Award Finalist in this category for Bomb! The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon. Needless to say, we found that encouraging.) Susanna added, "I'm all for the NY Public Library compiling a list of great children's books. But it's as if they turned the lights out in one whole section of the library. They should change the name of their list to 'Great Fiction for Children from the Last 100 Years.' And then they should do another list of great nonfiction." Hmmmmm...... Wonder if my book, Science Experiments You Can Eat, which has been continuously in print for 41 years, could make that list.....
On beautiful autumn afternoons, when the sun is shining and the leaves are glowing with color, people crave gatherings like this--an excuse to connect with people, ideas, beauty. It's impossible to imagine this kind of event with children's books only available on a screen. I think it's why there are also crowds at outdoor art shows and craft fairs. All these events embody the individual's need to know that, yes, there is a person behind a creative work, someone who has touched me or touched his/her pen to a beautiful book.