Author Spotlight

34th Annual Virginia Hamilton Conference

Last week, I attended the 34th Annual Virginia Hamilton Conference at Kent State University, focusing on multicultural literature for children and young adults.  Living in Northeast Ohio, I have attended several times in the past; however, this year I am a newly minted member of the Conference’s Advisory Board and got to see a bit “behind the curtain” of the event as well. In addition, this year was unusual.  The typical April date was changed to October to be combined with a Literacy Conference Kent State was hosting this year, and that content was also included in breakdown sessions.

The Conference began Thursday evening with dinner, the Arnold Adoff Poetry Awards, and one of the Conference’s three keynote speakers, poet Marilyn Nelson.

Present to pick up their poetry awards, and to read excerpts from their work, were winner Nikki Grimes (One Last Word) and honor recipients Hope Anita Smith (My Daddy Rules the World) and Laura Shovan (The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary).  Then Dr. Nelson took the stage, speaking on the “obligation” of literature and literacy.  Her mother was a schoolteacher and firmly believed that “each one should teach one,” and that one should “lift others as they themselves rise.”  Dr. Nelson’s father was a Tuskegee Airman, a history she used in a novel in verse she referenced in her speech, American Ace.  In this story, a teen raised in an Italian family learns that the grandfather he grew up with was not his biological ancestor.  Instead, the family is led on a journey that brings them to a Tuskegee Airman.  My very Italian self had to purchase a copy of the book and have Dr. Nelson sign it.  She was tickled that I caught the double entendre of the family’s last name.  (And no, I’m not telling—check out the book!)

Friday morning, the literacy portion of the Conference took center stage with David Bloome, distinguished professor of literacy from the Ohio State University. Dr. Bloome talked about how intertextual practice, the play between the text itself and commentary both written and spoken, can affect reading comprehension.  I’m not a teacher, but I found his explanations fascinating.  He played jazz’s Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” along with several covers of the piece as a metaphor for this practice.

At this time, participants broke up to attend three workshops of their choice from among 32 offerings.  Along with two colleagues, (John Jarvey, Cleveland Teacher’s Academy (Retired) and Lisa Krok, Branch Manager, Cleveland Public Library) I presented a session entitledWhere Am I? Helping Young People Find Themselves in Literature.”  I love booktalking diverse books with librarians and teachers so that they can recommend them to the young people in their lives.  I then “room monitored” two additional sessions.  LaSasha Dixon, Mariah Johnson, and Winnie Johnson from Dayton Metro Library discussed “Representation Matters: African-American Men and Boys in Picture Books,” which included a book list and some fun and poignant performances and conversation.  The third session I monitored was “Writing Ourselves: Ideas for Bridging the Gap between High School and College Writing.” You can learn more about the project here.

The day concluded with a keynote from Wade and Cheryl Hudson, authors and publishers of Just Us Books. I had the honor of introducing the couple, who spoke about their journey to publishing and their goal of providing authentic representation of African-Americans in children’s literature through the books they write and publish.  (Check out their newest compilation “We Rise, We Resist, We Lift Our Voices” featuring authors such as Jason Reynolds, Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson, Joseph Bruchac, Ellen Oh, and others). 

On a personal note, I had the opportunity to drive Dr. Nelson and the Hudsons, and they are not only fascinating and talented, but lovely people as well.

I look forward to the 35th Virginia Hamilton Conference, to be held on Thursday, April 23, 2020.  Save the date!


This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: IV. Knowledge, Curation, and Management of Materials and VII. Professionalism and Professional Development.

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