Monday, April 02, 2007

Busman's Holiday

Most teachers and librarians I know truly enjoy taking a "busman's holiday" -- that is, spending time on an activity relating to their professional lives even though it doesn't fall within their work week or direct job responsibilities. Saturday, March 31st was such a day for me: first a day-long children's literature conference at U Mass Amherst and then a brief tour of the Emily Dickinson Homestead and Museum in the center of Amherst town. I attended four sessions at the conference. Author Julius Lester reflected on the scope of his writing life -- from his early recognition for the ground-breaking To Be a Slave (winner of the Newbery Honor award in 1968) through his collaborations with Jerry Pinkney and others on Brer Rabbit stories and other tales, to his recent Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue (2005) which chronicles the largest slave auction in American history. I was inspired, when returning home, to search the online archives of the Federal Writers' Project to understand better the extent to which the U. S. government sought, during the 1930s, to document the experiences of largley unheard populations (such as migrant workers and former slaves). Illustrator E. B. Lewis caught Lester's theme of courage when he spoke of the moment in his 6th grade year when he understood abruptly that only he himself could be responsible for reaching for a goal beyond class clown, moving beyond the expectations normally held for young Black boys like him. He followed his artistic skills and instincts, attending art school and, through discipline and resourcefulness and some good luck, now finds himself a prominent, successful creator of children's books. He has illustrated a significant number of books, including Jacqueline Woodson's The Other SIde and the African American spiritual This Little Light of Mine. Jane Yolen and Patricia Lee Gauch are both accomplished children's book authors and editors. Today they spoke about their work as editors invested in the process of identifying and nurturing the heart of a story and the passion of its creator in order to produce a book that has appeal and integrity. It was fascinating to listen to their wise observations, increasing my already-significant gratitude for good editors!

I managed to catch the last tour of the day at the Emily Dickinson Museum nearby in the center of Amherst. A distant relation of Emily, Allan Dickinson led us up and down and around the Dickinson homestead, reciting verses in each room, bringing alive visions of the poet's life and times. He ended the tour under the huge old oak tree in the yard and asked each of us to read one of her poems, linking us uncannily to the poet's sensibilities.

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