Last Saturday I attended the Reading Reptile’s 17th Annual DNA LitFest featuring (in order of appearance) Hervé Tullet, Peter Brown, Jack Gantos, Laura Amy Schlitz, Jon Klassen, and Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket).
There is nothing quite like listening to six creative minds share their upbringings and doubts and quirks and processes in an auditorium filled with teachers, librarians, booksellers, writers, and illustrators who love children’s books just as much as you do.
I had a ridiculously good time and took a ridiculous amount of notes. To share all would result in a ridiculously long blog post. So here are six DNA LitFest quotes—one from each presenter—that resonated with me.
Hervé Tullet’s presentation was very visual and audience-oriented. He used a spread from one of his books (I can’t recall which one—please share in the comments if you know!) to explain his creative process. I did my best to recreate it below.
There are days when I stare at an empty page or a line of text or a half-finished illustration and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out where to go next. It’s so easy to get swept away in doubts and feelings of ineptitude when you’re thinking in terms of an entire project. But it really comes down to finding an idea.
“You cannot get the eyes wrong in a picture book. If you get the eyes wrong, you will have a problem.”
This advice sounds so simple but it is SO true. When Mr. Brown worked on CREEPY CARROTS, he drew the faces separate from the bodies so that he could re-do them until they were right. The next time I work on a collage, I’ll feel a bit better about spending an hour and a half cutting out eyeballs.
“You need a physical and emotional ending to your story.”
To have one or the other is not enough. Mr. Gantos used CORDUROY by Don Freeman as a successful example as the bear finds both a button and a home. On the other hand, he considered A POCKET FOR CORDUROY less successful because it lacks that emotional ending.
Laura Amy Schlitz
“A page of badly written prose looks the same as a page of beautifully written prose. [ . . . ] Somewhere in our mind there must be some kind of meter that determines if it’s good or not. Writers exist within their own mind; their torture chamber.”
Ms. Schlitz spoke in depth about how the six and a half years spent writing SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS “almost killed her.” But she had a feeling that there was “something good” in her manuscript, so she chose to “carry on” until she finished. That book went on to win a 2013 Newbery honor.
Jon Klassen had a “tortuous” time writing I WANT MY HAT BACK. Then he had the idea of doing the text all in dialogue—with the dialogue in different colors—so he wouldn’t need to say anything else. After that, he was able to write the whole book in about fifteen minutes. His reasoning (and perhaps my favorite quote from the day): “If it’s a bad book, it’s not my fault; these guys are idiots.”
I love that Mr. Klassen made his characters responsible for the outcome of their book. But more importantly, he found a way to make his art style and his storytelling work for his unique book.
“You never love a book the way you loved a book when you were ten. And you never hate a book the way you hated a book when you were ten.”
A valuable reminder of why we must put everything we are and everything we have into the books we make for kids. When Mr. Handler was ten, he threw bad books at his walls. He craved books where a lesson was not presented to him; where he could figure out what the events meant for himself. He also wanted to read books where “the tumble of life is acknowledged rather than denied and overcome or overlooked.”
I am indebted to these authors and illustrators for an incredible day (and for signing all those books!), and to Pete, Debbie, and the rest of the Reading Reptile family for orchestrating this event. THANK YOU!