This week’s lineup announcement is all about writers who craft great stories—from hair-raising horror and suspense to tales of magic, from elaborate revenge plots to true stories that trace the patterns of a life. Get to know our fiction and memoir presenters, and make plans to join their fascinating conversations—on screen or through your headphones—this October!
We will be producing this year’s memoir sessions as a series of four audio-only sessions consisting of brief interviews that will illuminate these writers’ captivating stories.
On the theme of Extraordinary Beginnings, memoirists Megan Margulies (My Captain America) will speak about her relationship with her grandfather, a pioneering cartoonist. Indie musician Mikel Jollett (Hollywood Park) recounts his childhood before and after escaping from a cult. And poet Honor Moore (Our Revolution) uses letters, scrapbooks, and interviews to reconstruct the complex, contradictory life of her mother.
Three memoirists recall their academic and professional development in Intellectual Histories. Novelist Claire Messud (Kant’s Little Prussian Head) uses a series of essays to interrogate her own childhood and to explore her relationships with family members and with the work of authors who have shaped her own writing. Influential psychologist Howard Gardner (A Synthesizing Mind) offers insights into his background as well as into the development and continued refinement of his famous multiple intelligences theory. And technology advocate Rana el Kaliouby (Girl, Decoded) writes both an immigration memoir and a passionate argument for her professional work: an emotionally informed artificial intelligence.
Three writers confront emotional trauma and resilience in Secrets, Lies, and the Mysteries of Youth. In her second family memoir, Helen Fremont (The Escape Artist) takes on her family’s history of hiding secrets at all costs. In his latest memoir, Nick Flynn (This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire) connects his unhappiness as an adult with his mother’s depression and eventual suicide when Flynn was a child and young man. And poet Betsy Bonner (The Book of Atlantis Black) addresses her sister’s disappearance in a dramatic and innovatively structured memoir.
And finally, three memoirists offer their unique reflections on race and identity. E. Dolores Johnson (Say I’m Dead) traces five generations of interracial relationships. Sejal Shah (This Is One Way to Dance) brings together linked essays on culture, language, and identity as she recounts her experience “growing up Indian outside of India.” And Issac J. Bailey (Why Didn’t We Riot?) combines personal memoir with social commentary as he calls out the racism and hypocrisy at the heart of what he calls “Trumpland.”
Just in time for dark and spooky evenings this fall, we have a star-studded horror/suspense fiction panel, featuring Stephen Chbosky (Imaginary Friend), Joe Hill (Full Throttle), Paul Tremblay (Survivor Song), and Jen Waite (Survival Instincts).
Continuing the Halloween theme, the session “Witches and Other Bad Heroines” brings together four novelists whose work explores female transgression, revenge, and empowerment: Quan Barry (We Ride Upon Sticks), Emily M. Danforth (Plain Bad Heroines), Layne Fargo (They Never Learn), and Alix Harrow (We Were Once Witches).
Three novelists take varied approaches to recasting fairy and folk tales in their latest work. Gregory Maguire (A Wild Winter Swan) sets a Hans Christian Andersen tale in 1960s New York. Andrea Hairston (Master of Poisons) weaves elements of African folktales into her latest epic fantasy. And SL Huang (Burning Roses) merges Chinese mythology and European fairy tales in her latest novella.
Finally, we present a riveting conversation between two novelists whose latest work grapples with the all-too-real emergency of climate change: Lydia Millet (A Children’s Bible) and Jenny Offill (Weather).
And, as an update to an earlier announcement, debut novelist Asha Lemmie (Fifty Words for Rain) will be joining our Reading Like a Writer lineup.
Stay tuned, and check back often on our presenters page for more announcements and updates!
America’s first public high school, Boston’s English High School, has a storied history and today it’s responding to the very diverse needs of its 21st-century student body.
In the hallways, languages from Spanish to Haitian Creole can be heard alongside many others with students coming from diverse Boston neighborhoods. For first-year librarian Dave Barry, the range of interests and languages at his school poses an exciting challenge for the school’s library–one he hopes to take on with a boost from Boston Book Festival’s Shelf Help Award.
The English High School library is the recipient of our 2020 Shelf Help School Partnership, which awards two Boston-area public schools with at least 50 new, specifically curated books as well as a visit by a well-known children’s author or illustrator in collaboration with the Boston Book Festival’s October activities. This year, the visit will be virtual during BBF Online in October, and English High School students will be treated to a very special online appearance by Newbery Medalist Jerry Craft, organized by local literacy non-profit Wondermore.
“To have Newbery and Coretta Scott King award winner Jerry Craft visit us in October will be a joy and a fantastic way to get everyone talking about reading,” says Barry.
Craft is a New York Times–bestselling author-illustrator who has worked on numerous picture books, graphic novels, and middle grade novels, including the graphic novel New Kid, which is being made into a movie in collaboration with LeBron James. “To have Newbery and Coretta Scott King award winner Jerry Craft visit us in October will be a joy and a fantastic way to get everyone talking about reading,” says Barry. Craft’s next novel, Class Act, is a companion to New Kid and will be published this fall.
A school with heart
Getting kids talking about—and hooked on—reading is one of the reasons this long-time high school English teacher switched careers and got certified as a librarian. He saw the library as a place where he could really have a lifelong impact on students.
“I try to get them jazzed about independent reading, everything from fantasy to biography to graphic novels,” he says, “which will hopefully get them excited about reading and learning in general.” Barry is not short on ideas about how to do this. And if the students don’t come to the library, he’ll go to them. “I will also have a mobile book cart and will be visiting classes and taking high interest books with me.”
“I try to get them jazzed about independent reading, everything from fantasy to biography to graphic novels,” he says, “which will hopefully get them excited about reading and learning in general.”
This type of effort is one of many ways the English High School faculty and staff go “above and beyond” for their students. Barry says the school focuses a lot on making students “feel comfortable and inspiring them … and helping them find their dreams.” Teachers host after-school walks to show kids different green spaces like the Arboretum and Jamaica Pond that might be right around the corner, but that students may not have ever seen. English also hosts a Thanksgiving feast every year, where the faculty and staff serve the students. Barry says it’s yet another gesture to make the school into a place where students—many of whom are first-generation Americans—feel like they are part of a supportive community that cares.
Readers for life
For his own efforts, Barry has worked to make the library space lively and interesting. He hopes the Craft visit and new books continue to enliven the library and make it into a school centerpoint. “Once a student loves to read, they’ll have books to turn to life for solace, for inspiration, for information, and for current events,” says Barry. “I think it’s one of the best jobs in education to be a librarian. You get to turn kids on to something that once they see how great it is, then this will be something they can do for their entire lives.”
Quite some time ago, it sank in that the 2020 Boston Book Festival would take place just a couple of weeks before a crucially important presidential election. “What a wild time that will be,” we said, back in 2019 or 2018. Little did we know just how wild things would get. Even though this year’s festival is virtual, our commitment to helping inform readers about the political topics of the day remains essential and real. Today, we’re pleased to announce presenters in two urgently relevant sessions about politics, as well as one more fascinating session about activism and resistance by Black Americans throughout our country’s history. We also are announcing our lineup of poetry presenters, developed in cooperation with Mass Poetry.
In a year when politics are on everyone’s mind, we are pleased to feature two important panels that will prompt deep consideration of our American political systems and landscape.
Black Voters: Power and Promise offers a consideration of a vitally important voting bloc with two authors who urge us to reconsider assumptions about voting behavior among Black Americans: Tiffany Cross (Say It Louder! Black Voters, White Narratives, and Saving Our Democracy) and Chryl Laird (Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior). This session will be moderated by WGBH’s Callie Crossley.
Elections: Is This the Best We Can Do? brings together three authors whose works prompt reflection on everything from gerrymandering to the primary system to the electoral college itself: Katherine M. Gehl (The Politics Industry), Alexander Keyssar (Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?), and David Daley (Unrigged). This conversation will be moderated by WBUR’s Anthony Brooks.
For a glimpse at another pre-election BBF (and what seems like a lifetime ago), check out the audio archives from this BBF 2016 politics session, featuring McKay Coppins, Ellen Fitzpatrick, Alexander Keyssar, and Joy-Ann Reid, moderated by Anthony Brooks.
We are grateful to the James M. and Cathleen D. Stone Foundation and Plymouth Rock Assurance for sponsoring, for the second year in a row, a session highlighting winners and nominees for the MAAH Stone Book Award, which honors scholarship in African American history. This year’s session, moderated by 2019 Stone Award finalist Kellie Carter Jackson (Force and Freedom) also features Vincent Brown (Tacky’s Revolt), Kerri Greenidge (Black Radical), Garrett Felber (Those Who Know Don’t Say), and Jelani M. Favors (Shelter in a Time of Storm). Their discussion will focus on the many forms of constant, continued resistance by Black Americans against racism and racist policies and practices from the time of enslavement through to the present, the surge of particular Black radical movements at unique moments in history, and the wide range and diverse forms of activism cultivated in the Black community— from religious to academic institutions.
This is just one of several BBF 2020 sessions focusing on activism—read more about these sessions in our earlier blog post here.
You can hear last year’s MAAH-Stone Book Award session, “Black History Detectives,” here; it features Tera W. Hunt and Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, in conversation with moderator Rayshauna Gray.
We’re pleased to partner with Mass Poetry on two incredible poetry sessions for the BBF online:
A conversation with Boston’s Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola (i shimmer sometimes, too) and first-ever Youth Poet Laureate Alondra Bombadilla will consider the role of poetry in civic life. This event is co-sponsored by Mass Poetry and the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture.
Our perennially popular “Poems and Pints” sessions might be BYOB this year, but we’re excited about the possibilities of the virtual format for bringing depth and multimedia capabilities to readings by Diannely Antigua (Ugly Music),George Abraham (Birthright),Franny Choi (Soft Science), and Kay Ulanday Barrett (More Than Organs), in an evening hosted by Krysten Hill (How Her Spirit Got Out).
Stay tuned, and check back often on our presenters page for more announcements and updates!
This year, we’re rolling out our lineup gradually through the rest of the summer, along with blog posts, features, and more information about the dozens of creative authors and artists who will be joining us online this October. This week, we’re spotlighting the luminaries who will be joining us for solo/headlining sessions at the BBF:
Ayad Akhtar is a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and author of the novel American Dervish. His latest novel, Homeland Elegies, is a work of autofiction, called “a provocative and urgent examination of the political and economic conditions that shape personal identity, especially for immigrants and communities of color” by Publishers Weekly. At the BBF online, Akhtar will be interviewed by Suzanne Nossel, head of PEN America and author of the new book Dare to Speak.
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are a husband-and-wife writing team who have collaborated on a number of books, most recently Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope. The two of them also received a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for their coverage of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. WuDunn is a graduate of Harvard Business School and has worked in both journalism and finance; she is currently a senior managing director at MId-Market Securities. Kristof is a regular CNN contributor and has written an opinion column for the New York Times since 2001.
Michael Murphy is the Founding Principle and Executive Director of MASS Design Group, a nonprofit architecture and design collective that leverages buildings, as well as the design and construction process, to become catalysts for economic growth, social change, and justice. The group’s work, which includes the widely acclaimed National Memorial for Peace and Justice, has been collected in a new monograph, Justice Is Beauty.
Guy Raz is a radio host and correspondent who has co-created three NPR programs: TED Radio Hour, How I Built This, and Wow in the World. His new book, How I Built This, is based on the program and podcast of the same name. At the BBF, Raz will be interviewed by Linda Pizzuti Henry, the managing director of the Boston Globe and the founder of HUBweek.
Michael J. Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University. His wildly popular course “Justice” was the first Harvard course to be made freely available online. Sandel is the author of a number of books, most recently The Tyranny of Merit: What Becomes of the Common Good?
Natasha Trethewey served two terms as the Poet Laureate of the United States and received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her collection Native Guard. Her latest work is a memoir, Memorial Drive, called by the Washington Post “an examination of the Old South colliding with the new, a chronicle of one artist’s beginnings, and of a changing America.” For the Boston Book Festival, Trethewey will be interviewed by Callie Crossley on Crossley’s radio show Under the Radar on 89.7 WGBH, as part of the ongoing series “Bookmarked: The Under the Radar Book Club.”
As we announced last week, we’re thrilled to welcome two celebrated author-illustrators for children to our lineup (and to the virtual classrooms of our Shelf Help partner schools!): Jerry Craft, author of New Kid (which was awarded both the Newbery and Coretta Scot King medals) and of the forthcoming Class Act; and Juana Medina, the Pura Belpre Award–winning author-illustrator of Juana & Lucas and the creator of many other acclaimed works for young people.
And finally, as previously announced, Grace Talusan will be featured at a lively town hall discussion focused on her story “The Book of Life and Death,” this year’s One City One Story selection.
Stay tuned, and check back often on our presenters page for more announcements and updates!
Boston Book Festival has launched a community writing project to capture this moment in history. We asked residents to send us stories of their experiences during the pandemic, from the acts of kindness by neighbors to the challenges in our biggest hospitals. Many people told us about their experiences as healthcare workers on the front lines fighting COVID-19. The following collection gives us a glimpse into a few of those stories.
To check out more At Home Boston stories, visit BBF’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. We will be sharing submitted stories through the summer.
Originally from Rochester, NY, Vinayak Venkataraman is currently a resident physician in both internal medicine and pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital who finds great joy in the experience of caring for others (and writing about particularly meaningful ones)
This week, I spent my days with patients who wouldn’t wake up. We patted. We prodded. We rubbed. We yelled. “Can you hear me?” Their lungs survived COVID’s rampage. Their ventilators weaned low, their sedation finally shut off. Their minds, however, failed to reignite. It’d take weeks to know if they ever would. Until then, we’d see squints or grimaces. They’re fleeting. We later see nothing.
This week, I spent my afternoons in devastation. Informing sheltered-away families about their lonely loved one’s day. Most weren’t getting better, or worse. They lived in a limbo of sustained slumber, able to breathe but not able to protect their windpipe. Explaining “Trach & PEG” by phone was a daily linguistic and emotional challenge I never want again. One’s sister asked, “Is he suffering?” I didn’t know how to answer.
This weekend, I await the parade of Zoom. One silver lining of COVID has been renewed connection with distant family and friends. They’ll ask how I am. I’ll deflect. I won’t tell about the nightmares, where I’m on the receiving end of those afternoon calls, being updated on them. The thought too grave for my imagination to bear. I wake up, sweating.
Katherine Kilgore is originally from Santa Fe, NM and moved to the Boston area with her partner and her puppy; she is currently a 3rd year psychiatry resident at Massachusetts General Hospital/McLean Hospital
It’s 5 o’clock in the morning. On any other day of any other year, I would awaken begrudgingly to an alarm whose sonorous melody was carefully chosen to peacefully rouse me from my slumber so as to prepare me for what would promise to be another busy day. A day filled with comforting patients, calling concerned family members, collaborating with other clinicians, learning about a new medication.
Today, however, day sixty-five of quarantine, I awaken without such urgency, my mind filled instead with worries about the unborn child nestled deep within my womb, the child I am working tirelessly to protect from the outside world, from the tainted breath of his father, who spends his days caring for those dying from the dreaded virus.
5 o’clock in the morning once meant coaxing my eyes open to a coffee-filtered reality sounding the alarm for the day; today it means awakening to a loud chorus of thoughts, thoughts which have surely raced through the night narrating the anxiety dreams of which I try to make sense. A question echoes, rings through the deepest crevices of my mind and heart: will I be able to keep him safe?
Elizabeth Sommers is a public health worker and advocate.
Although I wasn’t consciously seeking to read books about pandemics during my furlough from the hospital where I work, two books made their way to the top of my reading list. “Rush: Revolution, Madness, and Benjamin Rush: The Visionary Doctor who became a Founding Father” by Stephen Fried and “The Murmur of Bees”, a novel by Sofia Segovia.
Benjamin Rush, a public health advocate who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, has been called the “American Hippocrates”. During the recurring yellow fever epidemics of the late 18th Century, Rush treated patients in the Philadelphia area. Segovia’s novel is set in rural Mexico and begins with the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918.
It struck me that the same issues of need for physical distancing and temporary isolation, availability of protective equipment and social turmoil were common elements of all three epidemics. Just as temporary isolation is required for safety, it also strains families and communities. The effects of economic insecurity are recurring themes in each epidemic, as is the need to balance societal priorities in times of precarious uncertainty.
Michelle Heron is a Registered Nurse, Mama, and Yoga teacher
This is the face behind the mask, the face I want my patients to see. The social distancing, shielding, gown, gloves, tight fitting respirator, and mandatory mask wearing for every patient interaction is new world nursing. I have been a caregiver for half of my life, working in hospitals for 22 years. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been working as a relief nurse, which means I am floated to where I am needed. Floating is a challenge that requires adaptability, flexibility and courage to face the unknown. My kids are old enough to understand what I do for work and how important nurses are to the health of our communities. They know I work long shifts, overnight shifts, weekends, and holidays. They know I can’t hug them right away when I get home, and they know that meals without me are routine. We connect over video calls, catch up on homeschooling, and they send me love and smiles to cheer me on. I don’t know what the future of my nursing career holds, but I do know that nursing has always been a practice of hope, support, strengthening, caring and empowering others.
Samantha Fabian is a COVID Nurse
I am a nurse caring for patients with COVID-19. My unit was turned into to a COVID-19 dedicated unit when the storm raged in. I am also a mother to two babies.
I sit in the parking lot before my shift and I cry. I write my feelings down as an outlet and therapeutic tool. I need people to hear me. I want to scream at the top of my lungs for people to understand how hurtful it is to watch people not social distance while I sit with my patient as she cries and struggles to breathe after she watched her husband succumb to COVID-19, and now it is her turn to fight.
I want to pray. I want to cry. I want to do anything I can to make this better. What I do is go into work and care for patients. I nurse the hardest and bravest I ever have in my life.
I also need people to know I suffocate. I have to wear a tight-fitting mask that I cannot remove for hours at a time. Sometimes we are only allowed one. And now our masks will be sent off to be decontaminated, they tell us. They will be sprayed with chemicals and given back to wear over and over. We used to throw these masks out after we left each patients’ room. Every single time. I feel like we are being poisoned. By our own carbon dioxide. By our PPE.
Yet l feel lucky enough to even have something to protect me. I feel betrayed. How can this be real? How can we be doing “God’s work,” the most noble profession, but be treated this way. I make the choice to leave my family and be a nurse. Be brave for the ones who need me. I will save a life and, sadly, I will comfort as a life is lost. I am fiercely committed to my patients, as all nurses are. That is why we are putting our health on the line.
But we are worth more. Our lives and our safety are worth more than this. Please stand by us. Please help us by doing your part and staying home. And hear us. We are suffocating.
From a sad nurse.
Stephanie Collier is a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital.
I work with vulnerable older adult patients with medical complexity and mental illness. I also work with trainees in psychiatry who are demographically classified as lower risk. Although I worry about everyone’s safety, I worry most about the people with hidden risk factors.
We do not know whether the virus itself or the consequences of the pandemic will harm people with mental illnesses more. Similarly, we do not know whether the virus itself or the consequences of the pandemic will harm young doctors more. Although we have models illustrating how social distancing saves the lives of vulnerable older adults, we also understand that social distancing increases the neglected outcomes of malnutrition, child abuse, and domestic violence. We do not know the effects of isolation on vulnerable individuals, just as we do not know the effects of going into work on vulnerable individuals.
We do know that there is great heterogeneity within these groups and that staying at home, or going into work during an epidemic, will have profound effects on the mental health of individuals. This suffering will often remain hidden until a life is lost to suicide or illness.
Amrapali Maitra is a resident physician in Internal Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an anthropologist.
I often revisit the scene in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things where Ammu and Velutha meet at the riverbank. The Big Things are overwhelming—the caste differences that forbid their love—so they focus on Small Things. An insect has built a home out of rubbish and leaves. They tend to minutiae like life depends on it.
The pandemic is a study in Small Things. On a walk, I hear a blue jay’s liquid screech. Enjoy fuchsia eruptions of rhododendrons in the Arboretum. Inhale ash from my neighbor’s backyard, conjuring nights of s’mores and songs. Spy a family of squirrels relocate to the rain gutter.
COVID has transformed my identity as a doctor. In March, I cared for cancer patients. But while pregnant, every moment in the hospital became a negotiation between duty to others and obligation to the life inside me. So, I transitioned to virtual care.
Sitting at my dining table, I begin each phonecall, “This is Dr. Maitra! How are you coping?” The words are chalky in my mouth. I swallow the guilt. Sheltering in place, I’m no hero. Then I feel my daughter’s forceful kicks and realize, I’m exactly where I need to be.
Jane deLima Thomas is a palliative care doctor at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
My father had a massive stroke on April 13th. My mother called me and said, “If you want to see him, you should come now.” Without thinking about COVID or my mother’s fragile immune system, I leaped into the car and drove to their home. I looked down at the man who had raised me and I scanned his face and hands, committing them to memory. I told him I loved him and I believe he mumbled that he loved me, too.
I am a palliative care doctor, and during the pandemic I’ve had to call families and tell them they couldn’t come to the hospital to see their dying loved ones. I have withstood their anger, tears, and begging, knowing it was safest for everyone – patients, staff, and families themselves – if they stayed away. I did my best to be compassionate, but it wasn’t until I felt the primal need to see my father one last time that I truly understood the terrible loss families experience when they are denied the same. And now I feel the heaviness of it deep in my chest every time I reach for the phone to make another call.
Katherina Thomas Medical case manager, medical humanities practitioner and researcher on epidemics
On a night shift caring for Covid-19 patients in May, I found a flock of origami birds that someone—a colleague, or perhaps a patient—had made. The hospital was quiet, most patients asleep, and so I sat arranging the birds as one of the hospital cleaners walked by. I’d come to admire them, these huge guys in double respirator masks and industrial gear, risking so much for such little recognition. What drove them, I wondered. Was their work also a form of love, like ours?
One of them came over. He cradled a delicate bird in his double-gloved palm, and in Spanish he called his colleague over. They towered over me, they held the swans so tenderly. And although we’d never really seen each others’ faces, for a moment we were no longer under fluorescent lights and layers of plastic, but outside, in nature, with friends. Afterwards, as the cleaners walked away, I grabbed a pen. I wrote LOVE IS POWER on the wings of one of the birds, and I went back to work.
Joanne Cassell is a mother, nurse, patient advocate and life long student.
Who are the Real Heroes?
They are calling me a superhero but I don’t feel like one. The superheroes are the people fighting for their lives. Like the psychotic person keep alone in isolation at a time when he needs counseling and group therapy or the person who is dying and the family has to talk to them by phone or the patient who just got extubated and her son is still intubated in the next room.
Before I go to work in the morning I have to make sure I eat and drink something otherwise there is just not enough time. Caring for Covid-19 patients is physically and emotionally challenging. Wearing an N95 mask, the suits and shields all day is a nightmare. I often get overheated, my throat gets dry and I become lightheaded from sweating and breathing in my own CO2.
Finally, when I get home I don’t recognize myself in the mirror. My face is marked and aged from wearing a mask for twelve hours and my body weak from the long day. I take a hot shower wishing for peace and quiet – no beeps, or phone calls. I mindlessly watch TV and cuddle the dogs. I struggle to get some sleep, but it often evades me because I am filled with guilt and fear that I could have done more.
Earlier this week, the Boston Book Festival announced that the Rafael Hernández K-8 Dual Language School in Roxbury and the English High School in Jamaica Plain are the recipients of our highly competitive Shelf Help grant for 2020. The grant helps two school libraries fill their shelves with brand-new books of their choosing—many of which are crowd-donated by BBF festival-goers. In addition, the winning schools are each treated to a memorable visit by a well-known author or illustrator in conjunction with their festival appearance.
The magic of these school visits happens because of our partnership with Wondermore, a local nonprofit dedicated to children’s literacy. Wondermore specializes in curating author school visits, and we’re excited to see what they have in store for this year’s virtual sessions.
The Hernández School will enjoy a visit by celebrated kids’ author and illustrator Juana Medina in October during the Boston Book Festival Online, which will run from October 5–25. Medina is the author and illustrator of the Pura Belpré Award–winning chapter book Juana & Lucas, as well as for Juana & Lucas: Big Problemas, 1 Big Salad, ABC Pasta, and Sweet Shapes.
The school visits are an integral part of the Shelf Help Program and a way to bring our festival fun to children that may not otherwise have the opportunity.
Students at the English High School will enjoy a session with Jerry Craft, a New York Times–bestselling author-illustrator who has worked on numerous picture books, graphic novels, and middle grade novels, including the Newbery Award–winning graphic novel, New Kid. It was just recently announced that Universal Pictures is teaming up with LeBron James on a film adaptation of New Kid. Jerry is also the creator of Mama’s Boyz, an award–winning syndicated comic strip. He has won five African American Literary Awards and is a cofounder of the Schomburg Center’s Annual Black Comic Book Festival.
The school visits are an integral part of the Shelf Help Program and a way to bring our festival fun to children that may not otherwise have the opportunity. We were delighted to be able to speak with Wondermore’s executive director, Rebecca Coll, about the organization’s mission and impact, some memorable school moments, and its partnership with BBF.
Could you talk about Wondermore’s mission and how you approach your programming?
Wondermore is a children’s literacy organization. We have been around since 1983, and for the past 15 years we have focused our literacy work on bringing authors and illustrators into Boston-area schools for curriculum-aligned author and illustrator visits.
Wondermore envisions a world in which all children have the opportunity to see themselves in the books they read and are inspired to become lifelong learners. It is well documented that children who love to read become adults who have more opportunities available to them. Our mission is to inspire a love of reading and a love of good books by introducing students to authors and illustrators who reflect our diverse and vibrant communities.
Wondermore envisions a world in which all children have the opportunity to see themselves in the books they read.
Our work has never been more important than it is now. The collective desire for positive social change and the resulting anti-racism protests are on the news every night, dominating social media, and a constant theme of discussion in our communities. Given this recent heightened interest in social justice and the natural alignment with our work, Wondermore will prioritize and emphasize working with Title 1 schools this year. Literacy and sparking a love of reading remain our primary mission, but we now have a unique and timely opportunity to inspire children in the midst of this social turbulence with role models they can relate to and with books in which they can see themselves. We strive to be a part of an anti-racist solution to the social inequities we are currently experiencing in our society.
Students interact in small groups with author Andrea Davis Pinkney.
Wondermore programming comprises a three-part approach: 1) enrich curriculum by selecting books and authors that support academic objectives; 2) motivate and inspire students by creating an environment where students can directly interact with authors and illustrators; and 3) add to school and home libraries by donating copies of the authors’ books to the school and to each participating student to take home and keep.
Note that given the realities of COVID-19 and its impact on schools, we have a plan in place to run our program 100% remotely this school year.
Why is it important for children to connect with authors and illustrators? What impact do you hope that has?
Something magical happens when a student meets an author. Sure, there is the “wow” factor we all feel when we meet someone famous, but an author visit in a school is not about that. Author visits make academic and cultural connections (“mirrors” or “windows”) that enable students to see themselves in the wider world. Students recognize that anyone can be an author or an illustrator if they wish to and if they work at it. Students engage with the curriculum in a deeper, more meaningful way, directly connecting their experience with the experience and work of an author.
Juana Medina on an author visit. She will be head to the Rafael Hernández in Roxbury this year (virtually!).
The impact of this kind of connection is limitless. The most immediate and obvious impact is that when a student meets an author, and particularly an author (or illustrator) to whom he or she can relate, they are motivated to read more of that author’s works. Perhaps students find they want to read more books written in the same genre as the author’s books, or maybe they want to read more books from that particular time period, or books about the same specific subject. Whatever the motivation the student has, the author visit is the catalyst.
There are other, less obvious impacts, as well. When a child sees herself or himself in the books they read, they are empowered to imagine themselves in that world, or better yet, they can imagine themselves creating a world that they previously may not have considered. An inspired and motivated student opens doors for herself or himself as they move forward. The empowerment that comes from a confidence in reading can be pivotal in the decisions that a student makes as he or she moves forward in life.
How do you work with schools both before and after the school visits?
Wondermore author visits are unique. The fundamental requirement for Wondermore to work with a school is that the school must commit to having every child read at least one book by the author prior to the author’s visit. This ensures the students are familiar with the author’s work, and most of the visit can be focused on what it means to be an author or illustrator. How do authors conduct their research? Where do they find inspiration? How long does it take to write or illustrate a book?
In preparation for an author visit, teachers (or librarians) work with Wondemore to select a book and an author or illustrator that supports their specific grade-level curriculum. Our aim is to add value to the work educators are already doing with their students. If they are studying civil rights, perhaps we select (author) Carol Boston Weatherford’s Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, or maybe (illustrator) E.B. Lewis’The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial. Perhaps the school has a large Latinx population, then (bilingual author-illustrator) Juana Medina’s Juana & Lucas series would be a perfect fit. Each author visit is planned specifically for that school based on academic connections.
Our aim is to add value to the work educators are already doing with their students.
Once an author is selected, teachers prepare the students by reading the books together and assigning projects that further enhance the students’ understanding of the work. Taking the civil rights example above, students may prepare a timeline of events that have taken place on the march toward civil rights and perhaps place where the book falls within that timeline (yes, we have had schools do this and it’s amazing!).
The Wondermore program is a connection that does not stop the moment the author leaves the room. Wondermore follows up with educators to see how we can learn and grow from the experience. Many times we will return to the same school year in and year out, carrying forward what we have learned from working together the year before. For example, students will often write us letters telling us what they liked about the experience, or educators will reach out to let us know how they continued on a theme the author mentioned.
Could you take us inside a school visit? What are some of the magical elements? Do you have a few memorable moments you’d like to share about from a Wondermore session?
Wondermore typically does not conduct “assembly” style visits. We prefer for author visits to take place in a library or classroom where smaller groups of students can have a direct interaction with the author. The ideal size is 40-60 students. An author visit is 45 minutes long and an author or illustrator will conduct up to three of these visits in one day. The first 30 minutes are a presentation by the author followed by Q&A.
Three examples of “magical” moments:
Last year, at the BBF Shelf Help winning Orchard Gardens Pilot School, the librarian and teachers went above and beyond in preparing their students. Not only had the students read all of author-illustrator Brendan Wenzel’s books, but the art and the music classes got involved, as well. The younger students created brightly colored animal sculptures in the style of Wenzel’s illustrations in his book Hello, Hello. When we walked into the library, these amazing sculptures were on display creating an atmosphere of celebration and creativity. Inspired by the same book, the older students worked with their music teacher to compose a stunning original strings composition, recreating the sounds of the animals with music. The day ended with the older students performing their original score to the delight and joy of not only the other students, teachers, and visitors in the room, but to Brendan Wenzel himself, who was blown away. Read more about this school visit here.
What followed was a robust conversion about research, primary sources, technology, and integrity in data. A remarkable topic to have the rapt attention of so many young students!
During a visit to the Dudley Street School, Raúl the Third, illustrator of bilingual graphic novels and picture books, was asked by a second-grader “what kind of materials do you need to be an illustrator?” Raúl explained that he only needs four things: a red pen, a blue pen, a black pen, and a piece of paper. He told the students that he didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but he always carried his three pens with him (pens he often found lying on the ground) and drew and sketched whenever he could. He shared that these are still the materials he uses for many of his illustrations. The kids in the room were all smiling at each other after that answer, because they realized that every one of them had the tools and the potential to become an illustrator.
Raúl the Third, illustrator of bi-lingual graphic novels and picture books, reads with students from the Dudley Street School in Roxbury.
A final “magical moment” example was during a visit by author-illustrator Oge Mora to the Nathan Hale School. While discussing with first graders what goes into researching a book, Oge explained how, in order to illustrate the book The Oldest Student, she would have to fly down to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to learn more about the main character, a former slave who learned to read at the age of 116. Since there was almost nothing about her available online, Oge worked together with a librarian at a Chattanooga library to find old newspapers and articles that were stored only on microfilm. “Microfilm? What’s that?!?” the kids shouted. What followed was a robust conversion about research, primary sources, technology, and integrity in data. A remarkable topic to have the rapt attention of so many young students!
What do you like most about collaborating with BBF’s Shelf Help program?
The BBF Shelf Help program is an ideal complement to the work we do in schools. Both our organizations work towards increasing exposure and access to books for children, and both are Boston-based organizations reaching out into our local communities.
Partnering with BBF Shelf Help is always a joy, as it often gives us an opportunity to work with authors who are in town for the festival who we may otherwise not be able to work with. The partnership exposes us to new authors and illustrators, affords us the opportunity to work with a new school, and gives us the chance to be a part of a vibrant annual event on the Boston calendar.
On March 17, 2020, Ana Carolina Brito, less than a year into her tenure as principal of the Rafael Hernández K-8 Dual-Language School in Roxbury, got official word that the school needed to shut immediately as the COVID-19 outbreak began to spread across Massachusetts. Kids had to stay at home, and teachers needed to figure out a way to continue teaching them.
With just hours to go before shuttering their doors, Brito and her staff decided their students–over 70% of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch–could not be sent home empty handed. In the days before, school administrators had been conducting phone-tree surveys to understand what the kids did and did not have access to at home. Of the school’s 413 kids, 300 of them reported needing a computer.
“I just remember thinking, I don’t believe them that we’ll be back April 27 [the original date given that students would return to school],” explains Brito. “And I don’t know how we’ll move Chromebooks that fast. The gap meant that 300 kids would have a delayed start to remote learning.”
Brito says her gut told her they had to do something now. She decided to empty out the cabinets and give away everything left in the school’s storage–pens, pencils, markers, crayons, and even tape–to give the kids something to get them started. “Everything we owned we basically put into the care packages,” she says.
“We regret nothing in giving away our books, but find ourselves seriously challenged,” says principal Ana Carolina Brito.
Among the supplies that staff began dividing up into hundreds of bags organized by grade level across the dingy basement floor were the dual-language books owned by the school. At Hernández, 85% of students come from Spanish-speaking households and the dual-language collection was already thin. Now, the school’s book storage is completely empty–even still, the principal says she would do it all over again.
“We regret nothing in giving away our books, but find ourselves seriously challenged because Boston Public School’s funds were frozen in the Spring, and we do not have the funds to re-order essential materials,” says the principal.
Earlier this week, the Boston Book Festival announced that the Rafael Hernández School was one of just two recipients of its annual Shelf Help grant, which aims to help school libraries expand their collections of new, culturally relevant books. The grant, now in its fifth year, awards two schools in need with assistance in putting 50 brand-new books on school library shelves through donations by festival-goers and partners. It also harnesses BBF’s vast network of authors who come to the festival each year to bring a celebrated author to each of the winning schools.
As part of the Shelf Help award, Hernández students will be treated to a virtual visit by beloved children’s author Juana Medina, organized by local non-profit Wondermore.
This year, kids’ author and illustrator Juana Medina will visit the Hernández School–virtually, of course. The event will be organized by local nonprofit, Wondermore, which is dedicated to partnering with Boston-area schools to create memorable author visits. Medina is the author and illustrator of the Pura Belpré Award–winning chapter book Juana & Lucas, as well as Juana & Lucas: Big Problemas, 1 Big Salad, ABC Pasta, and Sweet Shapes. Her visit will coincide with her appearance at theBoston Book Festival 2020 Online, which will run from October 5–25.
“The author visits are a powerful part of the Shelf Help Program,” explains BBF’s executive director Norah Piehl. “The festival’s entire mission is to celebrate books and authors as a community, and we believe that is a unique experience that can inspire readers from a very young age. Plus, we’re just so excited to have Juana Medina, who, I think, will be an amazing fit for Hernández kids.”
For the book donations, the Hernández School has assembled a wish list that includes Angie Cruz’s Dominica and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, as well as many Spanish titles.
For the book donations, the Hernández School has assembled a wish list that includes Angie Cruz’s Dominica and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, as well as many Spanish titles–all books that Brito has chosen to connect with her kids and their own backgrounds, stories, and heritage. The Boston Book Festival and Wondermore donate a portion of the wish list books, but the grant relies on the generosity of the greater Boston community to fill Hernández school’s shelves.
One of the titles on the Hernández School’s wish list.
“Shelf Help is one of our favorite community programs,” says Piehl, “and we are just so motivated this year to ensure that when the Hernández kids come back to school—whenever that may be—that they have a whole new set of shiny books waiting for them.”
Books can be bought and donated directly from the Hernández School’s wish list here or by visiting BBF’s donate page. Upon checking out, select “Make this a gift” and designate “Shelf Help” as the gift recipient in the appropriate box. The English High School in Jamaica Plain is our other Shelf Help winner this year, and we’ll be posting more about its library soon. In the meantime, here is English’s book wish list.
Two local schools get an exciting boost to their library and visits by renowned children’s authors Jerry Craft and Juana Medina.
The Boston Book Festival, in collaboration with Wondermore, is excited to announce two Boston public schools have won our highly competitive Shelf Help grant for 2020. The grant helps two school libraries fill their shelves with 50+ brand-new books of their choosing—many of which are crowd-donated by BBF festival-goers. In addition, the winning schools are each treated to a memorable visit by a well-known author or illustrator in conjunction with their festival appearance. Read about one of last year’s school visits here.
This year’s awards went to the Rafael Hernández K-8 Dual Language School in Roxbury and the English High School in Jamaica Plain. “We were very moved by the applications this year,” says BBF’s executive director Norah Piehl. “The BBF launched Shelf Help five years ago when we saw a massive need for kids to be able to access more books by authors who looked like them and whose stories were relevant for the times. So many school libraries lack their own resources and the books are quite out of date. And although every year we hear stories of how essential books are to kids, in this time of pandemic and remote learning, it has become more relevant than ever.”
The Hernández School will enjoy a virtual visit by celebrated kids’ author and illustrator Juana Medina in October during the Boston Book Festival Online, which will run from October 5–25. Medina is the author and illustrator of the Pura Belpré Award–winning chapter book Juana & Lucas, as well as for Juana & Lucas: Big Problemas, 1 Big Salad, ABC Pasta, and Sweet Shapes.
Students at the English High School will be treated to a memorable virtual visit by Jerry Craft, a New York Times–bestselling author-illustrator who has worked on numerous picture books, graphic novels, and middle grade novels, including the Newbery Award–winning graphic novel, New Kid. Jerry is the creator of Mama’s Boyz, an award–winning syndicated comic strip. He has won five African American Literary Awards and is a cofounder of the Schomburg Center’s Annual Black Comic Book Festival.
Last year, students at the Orchard Gardens Pilot School in Roxbury were treated to a visit from author and illustrator Brendan Wenzel.
“We are thrilled here at English High to receive the 2020 Shelf Help grant from the Boston Book Festival. Our students will be excited to see all the new books. To have Newbery and Coretta Scott King award winner Jerry Craft visit us in October will be a joy and a fantastic way to get everyone talking about reading,” says Dave Barry, the English High School’s librarian.
School shelves in need
The author visits and the book donations will be a big boost to these libraries. At the English High School, Barry, who moved to his new position this year after many years as an English teacher, says that the school had not had a licensed librarian in three years. He is excited about the new collection, which he curated with his diverse student population in mind. “Fifty current, high-interest books would go a long way to helping our collection be more current and attractive.”
Ana Carolina Brito, principal of the Rafael Hernández School, is similarly excited about the award, especially this year. Brito says that when the pandemic hit in March, she and her staff started filling bags for their students with whatever they could find from the school—from pencils and paper to the school’s already modest collection of dual-language library books. The school is an English-Spanish school.
With some quick thinking, Ana Carolina Brito, principal of the Rafael Hernández K-8 Dual Language School in Roxbury, collected bags from local grocery stores and started filling them with everything the school had, including their stock of dual-language books.
“We were afraid of the amount of screen time they would have to endure because of remote leaning, and wanted to provide meaningful alternatives,” Brito wrote in her application. “As a result, when we come back, we will find that our already limited supply of bilingual materials will be vastly diminished. We regret nothing in giving books away, but find ourselves seriously challenged because BPS’s funds are frozen this spring, and we do not have the funds to re-order essential material.”
Help these schools reach their book goals
In this unique year, when students have been learning remotely and spending lots of time at their computers, we are more excited than ever to help the English High School and the Rafael Hernández School rebuild and expand their collections. Both schools have set up wish lists for the public to buy books directly for them. The Boston Book Festival will also be working with its partner publishers on book donations.
“Winning this grant will be an incredible opportunity for us to rebuild a contemporary, culturally responsive bilingual library for hundreds of students to access,” says Brito. “We are overwhelmingly grateful to be able to curate titles with authentic texts, a wide range of authors of color, and themes that are relevant and responsive to the new world our children are entering into.”
One of Boston Book Festival’s beloved annual community initiatives is the Shelf Help Program, which provides books to school libraries in need. Librarians apply to the competitive program and two schools are selected among the applicants to receive 50 high-quality books. In addition, BBF partners with Wondermore, a local non-profit dedicated to inspiring young readers, to bring celebrated authors to the winning schools for a memorable visit.
We talked with librarian Erica Pastor, of the Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Roxbury, who won last year’s Shelf Help competition and enjoyed a lively school visit from children’s author and illustrator Brendan Wenzel. She shared more about her library’s needs, why the Shelf Help program was an important boost to its shelves, and how music came alive during Brendan’s visit!
How did you learn about Shelf Help and what prompted you to apply?
EP: The Director of Library Services, Debbie Froggatt, shared the Shelf Help application with us school librarians in Boston Public Schools. I was in my first year as the school librarian at Orchard Gardens and had spent most of my time that year decluttering the library in addition to teaching classes full-time. But I was starting to also get an idea of how the collection should be developed, and I thought the Shelf Help grant would help me start to add books to the collection that students really wanted to read.
Could you describe your library, its needs, and its role in your school?
The library at Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School is located on the third floor in the east wing of the school. The massive floor-to-ceiling windows flood the library with natural light and afford a spectacular view of downtown Boston. Sturdy, wooden bookshelves, packed full of books, line the walls, and others partition the huge open spaces into separate workspaces. These workspaces consist of spacious tables and chairs.
The library collection is extensive, but it is at least twenty years out of date. While some books, especially in the fiction section, will always be valued parts of the collection, others, especially the nonfiction, are pretty useless. Some of our books about computers, for example, are more than a quarter-century old. They are kind of fun to look at and show kids what computers used to be like, but other than that, they should probably be thrown out immediately.
Even the books about animals need to be replaced. Many animals have had their habitats, food sources, and status as endangered species changed over the last fifteen years. And we are also in dire need of a huge graphic novel collection. Any graphic novels I have acquired fly off the shelves in less than five minutes. There are no checked-in graphic novels. And these are the books the kids want. For many, graphic novels are their gateway into reading.
The library has become a space where the entire student body can visit to check out books, browse, do homework, enjoy some quiet space, or help out. It is quickly becoming the hub of the school, as more and more students and teachers realize what a special place it can be, but the collection needs to be constantly updated and we also need various technology devices.
How did you choose your “wish list” books and what do you hope new titles will bring to your library?
Besides graphic novels, middle schoolers love reading books about characters who are their age or in high school and are struggling with the same issues they have in their lives. Or they love reading about these same types of characters having adventures that they themselves would like to have. They want to read books that tell stories that are not usually told. About a high school girl who wants to enter the beauty pageant at her school but does not think she will win because her skin is too dark. Or the story of a young man who thinks his duty is to avenge his brother, who was shot dead in the neighborhood. Or the book that is told by a red oak tree named Red, who is the community wishtree and tries to find a friend for a lonely girl that lives next door.
These books are all on the current Project Lit book lists. Project Lit is a reading movement started by high schoolers and their English teacher in Nashville, Tennessee, and there are currently over 600 Project Lit chapters across the country. Each year, youth and their teachers/librarians vote for a list of diverse books that they want to have on the Project Lit lists of the year.
And these are the books that I selected for our “wishlist.” I have posters of these books on the front desk in the library, and they have become immensely popular with the older students. They come in, point to a book on the poster, and say, “I want to read that one,” or “Ms. Pastor, do you have this book?” Having all of those books in the collection is a way to boost motivation for reading.
Tell us your favorite part of the author visit!
Brendan Wenzel’s visit was a huge success, and one of the outstanding highlights of the year. One of our visual arts teachers had her second graders make 3D animals from Mr. Wenzel’s Hello, Hello book, which features a variety of endangered species from around the world. Then, the strings teachers worked with his students to develop sounds for each of the animals on the violins, cellos, and percussion instruments. The animal artwork was displayed around the library, and Hello, Hello was projected on the wall.
As Mr. Wenzel read the book, the strings students played the sound effects for each animal. Mr. Wenzel was clearly moved, exclaiming more than once, “Wow! This is so cool! I’ve never done anything like this before!”
A 2nd grader sitting next to me said, “This is the best day of my life!” It really was an afternoon to be treasured. The pure joy and creativity of it all was such an inspiration to me to bring many more authors to visit our students and to significantly expand my collaboration with the arts teachers.