Warrensburg – Thousands of students and others who adore childrens literature are participating in the 49th Annual Childrens Literature Festival at the University of Central Missouri.
The event kicked off with a luncheon and book-signings Sunday, with Monday and Tuesday devoted to nationally recognized authors and illustrators talking in classrooms about what they do. Childrens literature leaders arrived from the East and West coasts, and points between, including four from Missouri, to meet with children.
Festival Director Maya Kucij said 144 guests, including 25 authors, attended the welcome luncheon to hear the guest speaker, author Gennifer Choldenko, whose fact-based fiction works include “Al Capone Does My Shirts.” Overall, Kucij said, the event drew about 3,700 people to Warrensburg.
“We’ve got a lot of schools that are off on Monday this year,” Choldenko said, which allows free time for children who enjoy writing and illustrating to attend the festival.
Authors, illustrators and fans of childrens literature sat together at tables in the dining room for lunch Sunday. One table included author Roderick Towley, whose newest work is “A Bitter Magic”; his wife, former Kansas poet laureate Wyatt Townley, author of “The Afterlives of Trees”; and Kate Milford, whose works include “Greenglass House.” They talked about other authors, including Neil Gaiman; about books that worked better as movies, and movies that did not come up to the books, with Gaiman’s “Coraline” being scarier in book form and a disagreement about whether “The Martian” in book form contained too much science but worked well as a movie; and all agreed they had a better lunch than last year.
Kucij introduced Choldenko with the “great opening line” from “Al Capone Does My Shirts”: “Today I moved to a 12-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water.”
Choldenko said creative people use personal experience as inspiration, with one author starting out as a failed store owner, then a failed newspaper publisher, then as the owner of a theater that burned down – L. Frank Baum went on to write “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”; another author had ADHD and dyslexia, being disruptive in class and often forced to sit alone – Dav Pilkey went on to write “Captain Underpants”; and another author, having been told she did not count as exceptional, and as an adult wound up divorced – J.K. Rowling went on to write the “Harry Potter” series.
“There is fuel in pain,” Choldenko said, with that fuel being the basis for many works of literature. “But the raw power is in imagination.”
Choldenko said she did not grow up on Alcatraz Island, but volunteered there, learning about the place from a person who grew up there, a guard who worked there and from an ex-convict. Based on personal experience and research, she gathered information, including that Chicago gangster Al Capone spent some of his prison time on Alcatraz doing laundry.
“I wanted to make things so believable that you would actually think that I did grow up on Alcatraz,” she said. “Creative people are driven to create order out of chaos.”
Choldenko talked about her job in terms of getting to look up weird facts and calling the effort “work,” including that an early “cure” for plague involved farting in a jar and opening the jar every few hours to take a whiff – “Who could make that up?”; being able to throw temper tantrums on a page; getting to rule the world she creates; “The more trouble I make, the more people like my work”; “If I don’t like someone, I put them in my book,” but not so they can be identified; “Being schizophrenic is in the job description”; and enjoying work every day.
Kucij said she is not sure what the next anniversary will be like, but ideas are forming.
“It’s a great event and we’re looking forward to celebrating our 50th next year,” she said.