Brooklyn Book Fest: Children’s Day

Erudite picture books, Puerto Rican drum circles, and titles like A is for Activist – where else would you find all this under one open-air roof? As a 10th anniversary treat, this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival hosted a special children’s day that was filled with wonder, fun, and also, speckles of literary gravitas.

The location, MetroTech, sounds cold and futuristic, but its Commons is actually a comfortably large and enclosed space with plenty of green (for mad running upon), funky chairs (for toddler schlepping back and forth), life-size dog statues (just the right size for preschooler climbing) and several restaurants with al fresco dining (for serious parental caffeination).

Children of all ages enjoyed the frenetic book illustrators’ live drawing competition. The vendor booths featured art activities. On the outdoor Picture Book Stage, young ones heard from favorite authors like Kathryn Otoshi and Joyce Wan. Sean Qualls provided a detailed discussion of his painstaking painterly process.

And then – poof – appeared multi-award-winning Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat, there to read from the autobiographically-basedMama’s Nightingale, her third children’s book. Accompanied by her niece Zora, who turned pages to show the bold and colorful pictures, Danticat’s rich voice melodiously relayed this harrowing but ultimately uplifting tale about a girl whose mother was detained in prison because she didn’t have the right papers. The mother and daughter connected through made-up stories, relayed on cassette tapes and paper, “stories sad as melted ice cream, sometimes happy like a day on the beach,” stories that eventually brought Mama freedom and reconnected the pair.

Enraptured children and adults went on to discuss the work. Danticat spoke about how she started writing children books when she had children of her own (she has two daughters) and was not necessarily influenced by current events; but her book comes with the zeitgeist. She noted that for the first time we are watching mass migration and statelessness live, on screen, like a reality TV show; immigrants’ difficulties have entered the public consciousness. Children can be an active part of the solution, she said, writing letters, asking questions, being kind to a new person that enters their sphere, believing in the power of words. (My near 4-year-old stood up to the mic and asked why the mommy had to go away. “Most mommies who go away come back,” Danticat reassured my girl, as I held back a liter of tears. Also guilt. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken her to this?! Honest exposure to important issues or trauma inducing? So hard to know.)

At the other end of the book fair, on the Young Readers stage, YA authors talked fantasy and craft. During “Readers Theater of Mystery and Magic” writers read short scripts adapted from their novels before participating in a discussion about their fictional fantasies and fears. “My worst fear of a story coming true would be Little Red Riding Hood — I like baked goods and I like to share them. I would be a perfect target for the wolf,” said Brooklyn-based author Emily Jenkins, who along with her co-presenter Sarah Mlynowski (who’s terrified of vampires) has a new book “Upside Down Magic” coming out next week. When discussing what book they’d love to come to life, the moderator Adam Gidwitz confessed for him it was Matilda. “So I could marry her.” (“TMI,” echoed the other panelists.)

“Don’t Antagonize Me,” a panel about enemies and antagonists addressed inspiration, imagination and even the morality of good and evil. “I base my villains’ names on my wife’s bosses,” declared author Stuart Gibbs. Kate Milford talked about how child villains can be more cruel than adult ones. Because all middle school kids are going through the same challenges, she explained, they know exactly how to poke someone else so that it hurts. Most of the panelists’ personal nemesis stories involved gym teachers.

Overall, it was a fun, enriching and breezy late-summer day, and the perfect scale and site for a children’s event (with several clean, indoor bathrooms to boot).  Despite weekend subway chaos, heavy tantruming and getting stuck in an elevator with my rambunctious maniac of an 8-month old, I’m certainly hoping that BBF does it again next year.

BatalionJudy (1)

Judy Batalion’s debut “White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood and the Mess in Between” will be published by NAL/Penguin in January. She wrote about the preschool admissions process for the New York Times Motherlode, and her writing on parenthood has appeared in Salon, Tablet, Babble and many other publications.