Here’s an important message certain to be conveyed at this weekend’s DNA LitFest, the children’s literature festival:
Because who knows when you are hearing, seeing or even imagining a potential storyline for a book?
Luckily, author Clare Vanderpool’s antenna was up when her mother recounted a detailed dream about a young piano savant.
Vanderpool, a Newbery Medal winner from Wichita, grabbed a nugget from her mother’s dream and turned it into her middle-grade book “Navigating Early.”
For picture-book author and illustrator Jon Agee, an idea often starts with the “what if?” game. That’s a familiar story-sparker, except Agee takes his “what if?” reveries to distinctly absurd places.
What if a youngster walks out of a pet store with a rhinoceros on a leash? That became the award-winning “My Rhinoceros.”
What if a beagle named Stanley repeatedly disturbs the sleep of his human family as he noisily attends to home repairs? That’s Agee’s new book, “It’s Only Stanley.”
A hunger for books
DNA LitFest, hosted by Reading Reptile bookstore in Brookside, is back this year. The festival didn’t happen in 2014 because of scheduling problems, a hiccup after 17 annual events.
Six acclaimed authors are on the bill Friday and Saturday.
The event includes author presentations, book signings and a puppet show, plus a conference geared for teachers, librarians, writers and artists.
Besides Vanderpool and Agee, the authors are Brian Floca, Annie Barrows, Sophie Blackall and Christian Robinson.
Pete Cowdin, co-owner of Reading Reptile with his wife, Debbie Pettid, calls the response to the festival’s return astounding. A Friday event at Rockhurst University for more than 1,300 first- to sixth-graders is sold out.
“There’s a hunger for building a culture around books, and that to me is very gratifying,” he says.
An abundance of “screen time” for youngsters and the use of digital devices for reading results in a separation between children and book creators, Cowdin says. It’s important that young people know more about the creative process of books, he says.
“Whenever you can connect a kid with an author, that can change a life,” he says. “You hear it happening over and over again.”
The author lineup represents a variety of creative backgrounds.
For instance, LitFest presenter Christian Robinson, illustrator of the picture book “Last Stop on Market Street,” has animation experience at Pixar and other studios.
Robinson’s book with writer Matt de la Pena introduces diversity issues in a casual, unforced way, Cowdin says. He calls it a potential Caldecott Medal winner.
“There’s a dearth of such books, and he’s knocked one out of the park with this one,” Cowdin says.
Ideas are born
At the festival, visiting authors peel back the layers of their storytelling process.
Vanderpool, after hearing her mother’s dream, decided to write about a young savant. While researching, she came upon a biography of an autistic savant, a man with a fascination for the number pi.
And so emerged her character named Early Auden, a boy at a Maine boarding school so intrigued by pi that he believes the number tells a story. The novel takes place at the end of World War II, when most children like Early were simply considered strange, she says.
Early needed a compatriot, so Vanderpool imagined Jack Baker, a northeast Kansas boy sent to the boarding school after his mother’s death. Jack and Early embark on an unusual quest on the Appalachian Trail. For research, Vanderpool went on her own Appalachian Trail hike.
Vanderpool has four children, ages 14 to 20. She worked on her writing for 16 years, she says, before her first book, “Moon Over Manifest,” was published. It won the 2011 Newbery. “Navigating Early,” also an award-winner, was published in 2013.
Her books’ themes and historical settings have lured even adult readers, but Vanderpool says she feels a particular connection to her main audience.
“Mostly I’m in touch with myself as a young reader,” she says. “That’s really my barometer.”
For Agee, who lives in San Francisco with his wife, a story might start with a crazy “what if,” but his next step is to figure out how he can bring sense to that implausible idea.
The author says such pondering typically occurs while he’s reclined on the couch. He doodles on his sketch pad until characters take shape and a few speech bubbles sprout. Then he knows he’s getting somewhere.
In the case of “Stanley,” he needed to come to a logical, if ridiculous, conclusion about why the dog howls at the moon and gets industrious in the middle of the night. He wanted the answer to be both surprising and satisfying.
The text in the book rhymes, a choice Agee made after noticing the story’s rhythmic pacing. Plus, Agee loves wordplay of all kinds.
He has written several books of palindromes — “Go Hang a Salami! I’m a Lasagna Hog” was the first — although it has been more than 10 years since the last one.
His next project, a graphic novel written in palindrome, is due out in time for the 2017 World Palindrome Championship.
So what might happen, Agee asks, if a fellow gets caught in a palindrome loop, and every time he offers his delicious wonton soup, the answer is always “not now”?
Not sure. Seems like the solution could require a lot of couch time.
Reading Reptile hosts the two-day children’s literature festival. For more information, go to readingreptile.com/DNA or contact Pete Cowdin, firstname.lastname@example.org, 816-753-0441. Ticketed events may sell out.
5 p.m. Friday: Paul Mesner Puppets presents “It’s Only Stanley,” based on a picture book by Jon Agee, at Reading Reptile, 328 W. 63rd St. Afterward, authors Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall unveil the Ivy + Bean Traveling Museum, based on their chapter book series, “Ivy + Bean.” For ages 5 and up. Tickets are $3.
5:30-7 p.m. Friday: Six authors will sign books at Reading Reptile. Books will be available for purchase. The authors are Brian Floca, Christian Robinson, Annie Barrows, Sophie Blackall, Jon Agee and Clare Vanderpool. Free.
8 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday: Presentations by the authors at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza branch, 4801 Main St. The event is intended for teachers, librarians, writers and artists. Tickets are $40 for a half day, $80 for the full day.