Over the years, the BYU Symposium on Books for Young Readers has played host to some the industry’s brightest stars.
Chris Crowe, an English professor and award-winning author (his fiction and nonfiction have introduced an entire generation of white readers to the Emmett Till story), also acts as one of the organizers of the conference — open to anyone over age 13 with an interest in children’s literature. He recently spoke with The Tribune about the event, which will take place in the Provo City Library at Academy Square on July 17 and 18. (For event and registration fee details, visit ce.byu.edu/cw/bfyr/ .)
Which authors and illustrators are being featured at this year’s symposium?
The symposium brings in six authors each year; this year we have Sy Montgomery, Maggie Stiefvater, Nathan Hale, Katherine Marsh, Paul Janeczko and Steven Kellogg.
How does the committee make its selections?
The committee works about two years in advance — we have to do that in order to get popular authors and illustrators who have busy travel schedules. Our committee works from a list of about 40 names, and we discuss — sometimes argue, in a collegial way — about which six we want to invite. Over the years, we’ve been fortunate to have some of the best-known, most successful authors and illustrators in the business. The committee is made up of librarians and professors who teach children’s or young-adult literature. The current committee chair is Terrell Young, a professor of children’s literature at BYU. For many years, Michael O. Tunnell and James Jacobs, both professors at BYU, chaired the committee, and they were great at the job because they were among the best-connected people in publishing. [Author’s note: “Children’s Literature, Briefly” by Tunnell and Jacobs has been a standard text in children’s literature classes across the country for years.]
How many years has the symposium been going? How did it get started?
This is the 27th annual program. It started as a balance to a children’s nonfiction literature program that the University of Utah used to run, and it gradually changed to include all kinds of authors and illustrators who produce books for young readers.
Over the years we’ve had so many brilliant guests —smart, creative and talented people, but also incredibly generous people, too. Leo and Diane Dillon, Alan Say, Cynthia Voigt, Katherine Paterson, Stephenie Meyer, Jerry Spinelli, Louis Sachar, Jerry Pickney. You get the idea.
What excites you in particular about this year’s program?
We’re always amazed by the caliber of people we’re able to bring to the symposium. Maggie Stiefvater is the best-selling and wildly popular author of the Shiver series. Nathan Hale, a Utah artist and writer, has done lots of terrific work, but his new “Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales” graphic novel/historical nonfiction series is just brilliant. Fantasy readers will know the work of Katherine Marsh, and we’re glad to have a fine fantasy author on our program. Steven Kellogg is the prolific author and illustrator of a wide and creative range of children’s books. And then there’s the versatile Paul Janeczko, a former high-school teacher who is now a full-time award-winning poet. We’re really excited about the creative range of artists we have on this year’s program.
In what ways is the symposium useful to people like you who are writers and educators?
As a reader, I think it’s exciting to meet the authors of some of my favorite books, and there’s still something special about having a signed copy of a favorite book. As a writer, I love the energy and insight these creative people share every year. Their stories of how they work, how they create books are encouraging and inspiring. As a teacher of YA literature, I depend on this program to keep me acquainted with the best new books every year and to help me gather insights about those books.
What trends do you see emerging and receding in the world of children’s books? Are there any trends you wish would go away for good?
I’m always behind the trends as they come and go. Obviously, paranormal romance has lost some of its momentum, and many people think that dystopian novels have reached their climax. Those books will never disappear, of course, but their incredible popularity may fade some in the next few years. No one knows what the next big thing will be — graphic novels seem to be gaining a larger presence, and these days only a real zombie would be unaware of the resurgence of contemporary fiction — especially if it’s written by John Green. Regardless of whatever genre tends to dominate the market at any given time, it’s pretty clear these days that young-adult books are enjoying their strongest run in many years.
Did you read the recent blog post in Slate by Ruth Graham called “Against YA”? Graham argues that adults who read YA novels should be embarrassed for themselves. How do you respond to an assertion like that?
Yes, I read it, and it’s not a new argument at all: Teachers, librarians, critics have been saying stuff like that for decades. My response? As a reader I like to be able to read whatever I want without having to defend my tastes. Yes, there is real schlock in YA literature, but there’s also plenty of schlock in adult genre fiction and plenty of impenetrable literary fiction that can only be read — and probably not enjoyed — by a particular, very specialized reader. The world is filled with all kinds of people, all kinds of readers. I’m grateful that there are all kinds of books for this varied audience to read.
Tell us a little about your most recent book.
My next book, “Death Coming Up the Hill,” will be released in October. It’s a historical novel set in 1968, the year that Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were murdered, the deadliest year for U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War, and a year of widespread political and social unrest. It’s a young-adult novel, so my narrator faces a growing awareness that the world around him isn’t as settled as he thought. It’s written in an unusual format, one that seemed organic and essential to me at the time I figured it out, but one that might seem stupid or contrived to some readers. Obviously, I’m hoping that I’ll be seen as a genius (but I’ll settle for being seen as at least a little clever), but I realize some people might think I’m an idiot.
Sounds intriguing, actually. It’s always rewarding to watch authors take risks. What are you working on now?
I’m scratching around to settle on my next project. I’m definitely committed to historical work, but what that next work will be is, ironically, going to be discovered in the future.
Any final words for people who love to read and/or write books for young readers?
This is a wonderful time to be a fan of books for young readers because we’ve never had so many, and so many kinds of, books — books that entertain and inspire. It’s also a great time to be a writer, but it’s also an incredibly competitive time to be a writer of books for young readers. Publishers are inundated with manuscripts and artwork, so writers have to work harder than ever to find fresh ways to tell stories.