(Please note this article has been updated to reflect that Ridley Pearson did not participate in Saturday’s public presentation.)
Acclaimed authors and illustrators gathered in Newtown over the weekend and crafted an atmosphere of wonder and excitement that seemed to come straight from a storybook. The two-day event titled “Turning the Page, New Stories for Newtown” featured 27 prolific and illustrious authors and illustrators, many of whom have won prestigious awards and honors such as the Coretta Scott King Book Award, Caldecott Medal, and The New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book award.
The event kicked off Friday, May 17, when two or three authors visited each of Newtown’s public schools and St Rose of Lima School, and concluded the next day at Newtown Middle School with an event for all residents. Saturday’s program was open to the public and was highlighted by five thematic panel presentations in the auditorium, and a meet-and-greet in the cafeteria, where authors signed copies of their books. The books were provided free of charge courtesy of nine book publishers. Professional illustrators led interactive art activities in the cafeteria as well.
Participants in the two-day program were Peter Brown, Nick Bruel, Michael Buckley, Bryan Collier, Bruce Degen, Tony DiTerlizzi, Neil Gaiman, Robin Preiss Glasser, Jeff Kinney, Ross MacDonald, Barbara McClintock, Paul Meisel, Natalie Merchant, Jane O’Connor, Christopher Paolini, Jerry Pinkney, Susannah Richards, Judy Schachner, Jon Scieszka, Brian Selznick, David Shannon, R.L. Stine, Jennifer Thermes, Mo Willems, Dan Yaccarino, and Jane Yolen.
Caldecott Medal winner and author of The Spiderwick Chronicles Tony DiTerlizzi came up with the idea for the event after making appearances at hospitals. His experiences comforting ailing children with his artistic ability resulted in a realization that storytelling had the potential to do more than offer a distraction.
“I quickly realized my ignorance,” Mr DiTerlizzi said. “The books we create are more than children’s entertainment. I saw children in profound pain smile as I drew for them.”
Mr DiTerlizzi’s plan to bring an all-star cast of authors to Newtown came to fruition with the support of the Children’s Book Council (CBC), a Barnard Foundation Grant given to the C.H. Booth Library, and C.H. Booth Library’s staff, lead by Children’s Librarian Alana Bennison.
Ms Bennison said she was pleased with the event, especially since it was made available to the entire town.
“I think for me knowing the teachers had a wonderful experience made it worthwhile. Opening it up to the town was a good idea,” Ms Bennison said. “There were a lot of teachers here today. It wasn’t just a children’s event, it was a community event.”
Newtown Middle School teacher Danelle Eagan was one of the teachers who attended the meet-and-greet Saturday to get books signed for her class. She emphasized gratitude on behalf of her colleagues and students.
“It was great; the kids appreciate the authors taking their time to talk to them, especially the aspiring illustrators and authors,” Ms Eagan said. “The educators are grateful these people took the time to come.”
Reed Intermediate student Jaden Craft, 11, echoed Ms Eagan’s sentiment and was so excited to meet iconic author R.L. Stine he was nearly at a loss for words.
“I’ve read all of his books. I’ve watched quite a lot of his shows on The Haunting Hour. It was great, I can’t even describe it really,” Jaden said.
A day earlier Jaden and his classmates got to meet singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant, who wrote a children’s book called Leave Your Sleep, and Barbara McClintock, who illustrated the story. Jaden fondly recalled how Ms Merchant sang for the students as Ms McClintock illustrated an impressive scene.
“We danced around and had a lot of fun. She drew this huge elephant with six people in two minutes,” he said.
Ms McClintock, illustrator of 37 children’s books, and recipient of four New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book Awards, found her time with the students to be inspired and lively.
“We did the twist, the frug, the jitterbug, and we had a wonderful conga line going,” Ms McClintock said. “The students were great dancers, and the teachers were good dancers, too. They all showed a lot of promise.”
Judy Schachner, author and illustrator of the Skippyjon Jones series, visited St Rose and was also impressed with the students, whose hospitality eased her anxiety.
“They were sweet, funny, good listeners, and asked good questions,” Ms Schachner said. “I was really nervous. They made me feel so welcome, I got over it quick.”
Nick Bruel, New York Times bestselling author and illustrator of children’s books, including the Bad Kitty series, said he came to Newtown with no expectations, but was encouraged by a piece of information shared with him by Reed Intermediate School Principal Jay Smith.
“The principal said something very telling. This was the first day his staff was having a normal and happy day. It was a sigh of relief,” Mr Bruel said.
The uplifting event coincided with CBC’s Children’s Book Week, a national literary initiative to encourage children to read and write. However, the authors made it clear that they not only wanted to promote literacy, they also wanted to reach out to a community that had experienced tragedy.
The Sisters Grimm and N.E.R.D.S. author Michael Buckley said he came to Newtown, like many of the authors, “to give them something else about this year to remember.”
Acclaimed illustrator Jerry Pinkney, recipient of a multitude of accolades, and whose works have been shown in art museums throughout the country, explained how stories are a great way to overcome any sense of isolation that may have arisen in Newtown after 12/14.
During his panel presentation titled “Reimagined Fairy Tales” Mr Pinkney spoke to the uniting force inherent in storytelling.
“We’re all reaching out,” Mr Pinkney said, “I would think especially in Newtown, to a linkage with someone else; with family, friends, whoever it may be, and stories help us do that.”
Some of the authors had a shorter distance to travel than others to reach out to Newtown. Four members of the program — illustrators Paul Meisel, Jennifer Thermes, Ross MacDonald, and Bruce Degen — all live in Newtown.
Mr Degen, best known for illustrating The Magic School Bus series, is a 23-year resident of Newtown. His experience working with Ms Bennison in the past in part inspired him to get involved.
“My aim was to help Alana. She is a fabulous librarian,” Mr Degen said. “Everything I’ve ever done with the library has been extremely professional and organized with great spirit.”
Mr Degen said the event reinforced his positive perception of Newtown.
“I’m very proud and happy to be a resident of Newtown,” Mr Degen said. “This was a beautiful experience, one more reason this is a great town.”
Even though authors had varying levels of personal connections to Newtown and different reasons for getting involved, one common thread that tied them all together was a willingness to have fun and be a part of an lighthearted atmosphere.
Goosebumps author R.L. Stine, who has sold more than 400 million books, and has been referred to as “the Stephen King of Children’s Literature,” said his main concern was entertainment.
“I just hope it’s entertaining,” Mr Stine said. “All I ever do is try to be entertaining and hope people have fun, scary good fun.”
Another common theme was appreciation for the deep well of talent pooled in one location. Even Christopher Paolini, whose Inheritance Cycle series has sold more than 33 million books, mentioned meeting authors as a personal highlight of the event.
“The kids have been really great. They asked great questions, it has been a treat. Plus I’ve got to meet some of my heroes,” Mr Paolini said.
Mr DiTerlizzi was also awed, and he anticipated he would need ample time to let the special weekend sink in.
“I’ll be processing this for weeks because I’ve had such a great time hanging out with authors I admire so much,” he said.
Despite needing time for reflection, Mr DiTerlizzi said his experience in Newtown made him readily aware of the importance of making a positive difference.
“You do these things because you love it. To be doing an event here for these reasons, it puts priorities in order,” Mr DiTerlizzi said. “Making money on a book becomes less important than making an impact on someone’s life for the better.”
According to Ms Bennison the event was made possible by the town’s preparedness and fondness for books, which led to a unique two days she said she would “never forget.”
“Every author was happy because everyone was prepared, the students were prepared. This is a book-loving town,” Ms Bennison said.