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ALA 2013: USBBY Presentation with Printz Nominee, Elizabeth Wein

2013 July 2
by Colleen Seisser
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elizabeth weinElizabeth Wein gave an impassioned and fascinating talk at the United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY) presentation on Saturday, June 29, at the ALA Annual conference. If you were lucky enough to catch it, you learned not only more about what USBBY does to promote diversity in children’s and teens literature but also about how Wein’s early literacy formed the writer she is today. For those of you who couldn’t make it, here’s a recap:

Kathy East, USBBY President, started the presentation by giving more information on the mission of USBBY. According to its website, the Board promotes “international understanding and good will through books for children and adolescents.” Each year, the Outstanding International Books committee creates a list that is published in February in School Library Journal. Additionally, this October, St. Louis will host the 10th IBBY Conference, with the theme “Bookjoy Around the World”. (IBBY is the International Board on Books for Young People.)

It was only natural, then, for Elizabeth Wein to speak at the USBBY presentation on Saturday afternoon, as she wanted to speak mostly about the time she spent as a child living in Jamaica. It was a time, she says, that she evolved as both a writer as well as a reader. However, Wein said, “I spent my life collecting places I loved and living in fear of losing them.” One will understand, then why Wein uses place to define many of the key moments in her development as a writer. She said that it was forty years ago to the day that she first came to America, but it was during her Jamaican childhood that she learned how to form letters and put together stories. Sharing snapshots of English workbooks, coloring pages, and excerpts from stories she wrote as a young child, Wein took us through her early life as a young child in a Jamaica, where reggae was in its infancy and where people of all colors mixed and did not notice any differences:

Elizabeth Wein's childhood drawing of the mountains she lived near.

Elizabeth Wein’s childhood drawing of the mountains she once lived near.

Wein's childhood drawing of diseased trees in Jamaica.

Wein’s childhood drawing of diseased trees in Jamaica.

A photo of the Chinese Propaganda Wein read as a child.

A photo of Chinese Propaganda Wein read as a child.

Elizabeth Wein's Drawing of her Danish friends.

Elizabeth Wein’s drawing of her Danish friends in a ceremony.

Elizabeth Wein stated that considering what she cut her teeth on as a child, Code Name Verity (a 2013 Printz Honor Book and a 2013 Amazing Audiobook) makes perfect sense. Most of her reading was done outside of school. Living As Neighbors was one of her earliest favorite books and was described as part of a series of photo nonfiction that took a look at urban sprawl. Wein also explained that she also very much liked English translations of Chinese propaganda books, which were probably in her home because they were her mother’s. From there she continued to read books of the world including Children of the Anasazi, the Pippi Longstocking books, and books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Books were shared with her by family friends, neighbors, and relatives. Elizabeth Wein’s early literacy was truly international reading. Wein shared, ”My early reading influenced me forever … A lifetime of travel defined my writing,” and left us with this closing statement:

The  best that we can ask of today young people is that they face the world with open minds.

– Colleen Seisser, currently reading Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

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2 Responses
  1. July 10, 2013

    I wonder if Wein recognizes the LITTLE HOUSE books as propaganda, similar to the Chinese propaganda?

  2. Colleen Seisser permalink
    July 10, 2013

    Debbie, she did not address that specifically, as far as my memory serves me. It was fascinating to hear all the different literature she had access to as a child, and one can certainly see how she developed into the writer she is today.

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