Bookfest 2007 @ NYPL
Sadly, I was unable to go to Book Fest at New York Public Library. But my friend Nicki went, and agreed to allow her report to be posted in full here at Pop.
I had the pleasure of attending Bookfest at the New York Public Library’s Humanities and Social Sciences Library on 42nd street this past Saturday. Librarians, publishers, and teachers gathered in the Celeste Bartos Forum for a light breakfast at 9:30 am (at which time I consumed too many scones to mention).
After a brief welcome, M.T. Anderson [Tobin] took center stage as the keynote speaker. I was surprised to learn he received his MFA from Syracuse University… my alma mater.
Though Tobin claims to feel faint at the task of speaking publicly, he eased into his speech after only a brief reliance on his notes. His speech focused on the genre of Historical Fiction and history’s role in educating today’s youth.
He opened by reading two notes written by teenagers for their peers: one a gossip piece passed around a contemporary classroom and the other a picnic invitation written and shared many years past. The notes revealed a gap. While they were equally vivid and accomplished their intent, the note from the past appeared quaint.
Anderson suggested authors should “lean into the past” through detail — that the real interest, and the hook, lay in accurately detailing the world past. Tobin also discussed the use of rhetoric, pointing out that U.S. texts, regarding the revolution and events afterward, are mostly mythical. Citing examples, he illustrated that the rhetoric undercut factual history. He also noted glaring absences from historical texts, such as the role of African Americans during the Revolutionary War.
He then posed, “In what ways are historical novels effecting us all? What are the mechanisms of the genre?”
Historical novels effect us privately, either through Direct Identification — binding readers to the text as in Chic Lit novels for example, or through Empathetic Relation — rechanneling information… a simulation. Fantasy genres do this. In the case of a historical novel, teens might identify with the slaves because both feel objectified and undervalued.
Historical novels also effect us politically, through Genealogical Relation where there is a direct cause and effect (a situation in a novel directly effects today’s atmosphere, such as the civil rights movement), or through Analogical Relation which uses analogies (satires for example or 1984 by Orwell and The Time Machine by H.G. Wells).
Anderson concurs that the emphasis on ambiguity in literature is rightly praised but points out that books do contain messages/lessons and encourages authors who know what they stand for to include messages in their writings, asking “Why is there a necessity to disavow?” His impetus, “The world is on the brink of crisis… an age of ease is coming to a close… current systems are malfunctioning.” The children need to be prepared for the future, their inheritance. He briefly mentions resource consumption, global warning, the demand for resources leading to war, etc.
He ended with some powerful lines:
We cannot escape history.
We are all mired in our own circumstances, a single unit in a huge trend we cannot see until it becomes the past.
Literature in time of war is different than literature in times of peace. We are at war. In difficult times, writing cannot be neutral.
We cannot ignore that we are on the brink of disaster and must explore the complexity and understand the long term consequences.
We must question invasive, misrepresentative media!
He then recommended a few excellent titles, many not nearly as heavy as his recent book (and National Book Award winner), The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. Two mentioned were Fever by Laurie Halse Anderson, and When my Name was Keoko by Linda Sue Park. He also mentioned The Magic Circle by Donna Jo Napoli as a book that draws you in only to find some ways through you are SMACK in the middle of a very familiar story.
Things wrapped up at this point and people headed to their book discussion groups. I was very fortunate to be in Young Adult II, in which we discussed Octavian Nothing at great length as Tobin was on hand to answer questions. Other books discussed, briefly, were Saint Iggy by K.L. Going, Firestorm by David Klass, Undine by Penni Russon and The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga.
All returned to the Celeste Bartos Forum for a snack box lunch before launching into the Go Graphic! afternoon panel discussion. I didn’t stick around for this section but heard it was entertaining (”cute”) and informative (esp. publisher Calvin Reid, Co-Editor of PW Comics Week).
Cross posted at Dog Ear.
Thank you, Nicki!