On November 4, authors and illustrators, librarians, editors, and other members of the children’s literature community gathered online for BookFest @ Bank Street, an annual event hosted by the Bank Street Center for Children’s Literature, in partnership with KidLit TV, dedicated to the celebration, discovery, and discussion of books for children and teens.
This year’s program featured a keynote presentation by Sonia Manzano, Emmy Award-winning actress and writer on Sesame Street for over four decades and author of several children’s and young adult books. During her keynote, Manzano discussed her recent novel titled Coming Up Cuban: Rising Past Castro’s Shadow, which follows the lives of four children who represent different intersections of race and class during the Cuban Revolution.
“People often ask how book ideas come about. Well, they come from everywhere—mine come from all my life experiences,” said Manzano as she shared that the inspiration for the book stemmed from a conversation at a party with a person who experienced the revolution as a child in Cuba during the late 1950s. “I started reading about the Cuban Revolution and what effect it had on Cuban children…I was curious about their lives.”
Manzano spoke about the various characters in the book, explaining that “different lives were changed in different ways because of the revolution depending on the children’s social and economic group.”
She added that this made her reflect on her own story as a first-generation mainland Puerto Rican. “Learning about the many Cuban stories that resulted from the revolution made me see that there are surely as many Puerto Rican stories to be told…. My story is just one of them.”
Additionally, Manzano shared the personal origins behind some of the tales in her books. For example, Miracle on 133rd Street is a picture book inspired by her family’s Christmas story of finding an oven large enough for a suckling pig.
As she concluded her presentation, Manzano highlighted how books can foster connection and empathy, noting that “books bring people together, especially when you read about people who are not like you.” She emphasized the importance of literature in teaching children about history, such as through the stories of Anne Frank and Ruby Bridges.
Manzano said, “People say we should ban books to protect children’s innocence. We can’t protect children from the environment that we’ve created.”
Next, a conversation featuring Sophie Blackall, Caldecott Medalist and illustrator of over 50 books, including the New York Times best-selling Ivy and Bean series, and Jenny Brown, Senior Editor, Shelf Awareness, explored Blackall’s new picture book, Farmhouse. Their discussion shared insights about the creative process—from writing the text as one long sentence to creating the illustrations with real materials from the actual farmhouse the story is based on.
“Some of my favorite books when I was a kid were about houses,” said Blackall as she reflected on the early stages of the book’s development. “I think I’ve always been drawn to that kind of book—The Little House, Virginia Lee Burton; even though it isn’t specifically about a house, the Ox-Cart Man. They both share that rhythm of life on a farm or a house, and the family within, and the passing of time.”
The next panel featured childhood friends and notable authors Meg Medina, Newbery Medalist and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature 2023-24, and RJ Palacio, best known for Wonder and White Bird. Moderated by Maria Russo, Editorial Director, Minerva, the discussion began with a question about growing up together in Flushing, Queens, before exploring the idea of kindness in their work.
“Alongside kindness … is the question of character. And I think that’s important to talk to kids about: your sense of fairness, your sense of manners, your sense of being able to stop and imagine how it’s going to be received, creating a space to listen, and to be able to disagree respectfully and still advocate for the things that matter to you,” said Medina. “It’s like all of those things are how we build character and kindness.”
For the final panel, authors of the She Persisted series gathered for an empowering discussion about the biography collection, which highlights women who persevered through challenges and made contributions to various fields. Panelists included Chelsea Clinton, author and creator of the series; Traci Sorell, She Persisted: Wilma Mankiller; Kelly Starling Lyons, She Persisted: Dorothy Height; and Kekla Magoon, She Persisted: Simone Biles.
In response to a question about the inspiration for the series, Clinton reflected on the January 2017 moment when the phrase, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” was used to criticize Senator Elizabeth Warren as she attempted to read a letter written by Coretta Scott King during a debate in the Senate.
“As if that were a bad thing. As if we haven’t always had to look to persistence, often particularly from women in our country, to help move us forward on not only women’s rights but also civil rights, and human rights broadly, and in sports, and in arts, and in science, and every dimension of life,” said Clinton as she spoke about wanting to share the stories of important women with young readers, including her own children and others. “That was the beginning of the series and I’m now so grateful that there are so many chapter books in the series for children.”
“We would like to thank our wonderful roster of women authors and illustrators for sharing their time and insights with us, as well as applaud them for their great contributions to the canon of children’s literature and efforts to allow all readers to see themselves within pages,” said Cynthia Weill, Director, Center for Children’s Literature.
Access the BookFest 2023 virtual gift bag through January 15, 2024. Use password bookfest23.