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Celebrating Diversity (and Marshmallow Peeps!) at the Virginia Hamilton Conference

2012 April 18
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The Virginia Hamilton Conference, held each April at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, and attended by students, teachers, and librarians who work with youth, is the longest-running event in the United States to focus exclusively on multicultural literature for children and young adults. Honoring author Virginia Hamilton (winner of the Newbery Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Hans Christian Anderson Award among others), the conference “reflects a commitment to promoting cultural awareness and affirming cultural pride while addressing the array of issues which surround the concept of culture,” according to the conference website.

Sixteen year old storyteller Julissa Reyes tells the story of Tomas Rivera and the Library Lady

For me, the conference feels like a family celebration. I attended many of the early conferences while an undergraduate and graduate student at KSU in the 90s, and then as a member of the VHC Advisory Board, I gained the honor of helping to shape each year’s slate of outstanding speakers and workshop presenters. At every VHC I reconnect with friends and colleagues whom I only see at this conference, hear inspiring and moving presentations on a variety of topics relating to children’s and teen literature–it’s guaranteed that at least one person’s speech will move me to tears–and leave with a renewed sense of commitment to reading and promoting teen books that reflect a variety of cultures.

All of that said, this conference is also very entertaining; this year we had great speakers and a storytelling performance by sixteen year old Julissa Reyes. Check out this video of one of her original poems:

Alma Flor Ada with her Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, which recognizes an American author or illustrator whose books demonstrate artistic excellence and make a significant contribution to the field of multicultural literature for children and adolescents

This year’s keynote speakers were Alma Flor Ada, E.B. Lewis, and Lisa Yee. Alma Flor Ada, author of The Gold Coin (winner of the Christopher Medal), Under the Royal Palms (winner of the Pura Belpré Medal), and many more, is the 14th recipient of the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and she gave a lovely acceptance speech in which she thanked and encouraged teachers and librarians for what they do, looking for multiple ways to “make the magical encounter between children and books happen.” She shared that words have always been treasures to her, from her childhood days of hearing her relatives tell traditional Spanish folktales and family stories, to the first time she set foot in a library at age 12 (since there were no libraries in her small Cuban hometown until then). Julius Lester (Day of Tears) also was honored with the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award this year (a rare double-award), and he spoke to attendees via Skype, emphasizing that “courage is not a big bold act but the small unnoticed gesture,” in this case those who work every day purchasing controversial books and books that “confirm the ideals of what it means to be human.”

E.B. Lewis talks to the audience about his work

Multiple Coretta Scott King Award honoree and self-proclaimed “artistrator” E. B. Lewis shared the breadth of his gorgeous watercolor paintings and charmed us with anecdotes from his work photographing live models for his illustrations (including the dog who wouldn’t cooperate, leading to humorous results). Lewis also had motivational words for attendees, saying “Kids [and teens] don’t care what you know until they know you care,” so always be honest and encouraging.

Lisa Yee talks to attendees about her writing process and answers questions during her Conversation Session at the conference.

And Lisa Yee made us laugh—a lot!—while also wincing at the actions of bullies everywhere as she read to us an excerpt from her book Warp Speed during the course of her presentation. Lisa’s books Millicent Min, Girl Genius, and Absolutely Maybe, to name only two, are known for their humor, great character relationships, and situations that any middle schooler can relate to. In person she is also very funny, with a quick, sometimes self-deprecating wit. She shared examples of incidents where she inadvertently embarrassed her teenage children (like by not knowing how to stop while rollerblading) and how they ended up as scenes in her books. Lisa also talked about how she writes books with Chinese-American mixed race protagonists because that’s who she grew up surrounded by, and her characters are first and foremost just regular American teens. She called teachers and librarians the “slayers of stereotypes,” saying “the trouble with labels is they’re easy to stick on but hard to remove.”

"Peepy" tries out some local cuisine after the conference

Lisa also revealed that she is currently writing a new YA novel, tentatively titled Five Days Down, about a high school senior five days from graduation whose overachieving reputation comes crashing down when it’s revealed that he cheated on his college admissions. And of course, her famous marshmallow Peep sidekick Peepy made several appearances throughout the conference, getting photographed trying to steal Alma Flor Ada’s award and eating lots of great food. (If you aren’t reading Lisa’s hilarious blog about the adventures of Peepy, you really must!)

Conference attendee Victoria Thomas creates lino-cut blocks to make block printed cards during the Artist techniques workshop session

Also part of the Virginia Hamilton Conference are a smorgasbord of great breakout sessions, with varying topics every year. This year’s sessions were on everything from library services for gay and lesbian families, to great multicultural young adult titles, to a session on urban literature/street lit for teens. In the hands-on Artist Techniques workshop, attendees got to make their own linoleum block printed card to take home. The workshops are always lively and informative, and very practical.

Come to next year’s Virginia Hamilton Conference (April 4-5, 2013) where sharing stories is what we do.

– Christina Getrost, teen librarian at Stow-Munroe Falls Public Library and VHC Advisory Board Member, is currently reading Red Moon Rising by Peter Moore

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