Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 27, 2015

Boston: Children’s Books, Art, and History

I had a great weekend catching up a bit with my daughter, then with former students and colleagues at the Simmons Center for the Study of Children’s Literature Summer Institute. The theme was homecoming. Novelist Elaine Dimopoulos discussed the pull of stories to shape themselves in the form of home-away-home, or perhaps home-away in literature for teens. Laura Vaccaro Seeger spoke of her journal as a home. Both Jack Gantos and M.T. Anderson brought up maps and the tug between what’s known, even boring, and adventure. E. Lockhart (Emily Jenkins) described her itinerant childhood, but called home a place where you keep your books. She also spoke of home as the place you’re making now versus a place you go back to, truth versus nostalgia.


There were discussions of homes that are safe, homes that are not, and complicated homes. Shadra Strickland spoke of illustrating Zetta Elliot’s Bird, and drawing one man based on her uncle. “Every time I drew him, it felt like home.” Illustrating Sunday Shopping by Sally Derby, she was glad to show whimsy and hope, which she said is important to her as a black illustrator, feeling that we need relief from the rhetoric of pain. She showed scenes of cutting paper and pretending, things she did with her grandmother as a child. (In the panel picture above, Shadra Strickland is to the right of Cathryn Mercier, director of the Center of the Study for Children’s Literature, and illustrators David Costello and Hyewon Yum, and to left of moderator Vicky Smith.)


I loved The Crossover, Kwame Alexander’s novel in verse, so it was a thrill to hear him speak, read, and remember. He said that he wrote the book as a love story to his father, after coming to understand the quiet form his father’s love took. His process for the book was to write about 200 pages of story with some line breaks, rhythm, and figurative language: then go back and rework each passage more fully into a poem. He said that in verse novels, neither the verse nor the narrative should be sacrificed to each other.


I spoke about “Beyond Broken Lines: Finding the Lyric Home in Verse Narratives.” The audience was great, and I thank my friend, Deb, for liking what she heard in the morning enough to come again in the afternoon when I repeated the seminar about a “form where writers can say something while hinting that the opposite could have happened, and maybe will happen off the page. Here’s where we are and the road not taken, showing what’s humble and what’s magnificent all in one line.”

There were more thought-provoking talks, ending with Megan Dowd Lambert and Cathryn Mercier, who both put so much brilliant organizing into the weekend, giving a talk that pulled together threads. Then I walked a few blocks to the MFA. The exhibit “Yours Sincerely, John S. Sargent” was in a room with deep red walls and red carpets. I didn’t have the patience that afternoon to peer through glass cases and try to decipher bad handwriting, but I liked the tribute to these newly donated letters, which feature a recurring topic of Sargent’s work and how it should be displayed. I loved seeing photographs of some of his workspaces and sketches alongside finished paintings. Another room is devoted to his oils and watercolors. I picked up “Searching for Sargent,” a guide that shows other of his work in Boston. I admired the murals in the Boston Public Library, up the marble staircase past the grand lions, then walked through the newly renovated section on the other wing. Here is just one shot of the fabulous new Children’s Department.


At the Museum of African American History. I saw the current exhibit, “Freedom Rising: Reading, Writing, and Publishing Black Books.” Glad to see lots of poetry! I went next door to the African Meeting House, recently restored to how it looked in 1855, when notables such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth preached here against slavery. The meetinghouse was built in 1806 mainly by African American artisans and is now the oldest black church still standing in the United States. A docent relayed the history with a passion as if he’d been in that pulpit long ago, and as if all those pews were filled, instead of just me, taking pictures with my cell phone. I was so grateful.


That conference theme of home stayed with me in John Singer Sargent’s letters to friends and paintings of people in rooms, in the new cozy nooks and full shelves in the big library, and this church where people came to be together, pray, sing, and feel safe in the sometimes dangerous world.



  1. Sounds like an amazing institute, Jeannine! Wish I could have been there. And how well you spent the time after! Thank you, as always, for your account and insights.

    • Thank you for being such a good friend, Sarah. The empress of encouragement. Wishing you good news on your work.

  2. Now that is a rich and full weekend – time with your daughter, art, literature, and Boston. I love the thinking behind this: E. Lockhart (Emily Jenkins) described her itinerant childhood, but called home a place where you keep your books. She also spoke of home as the place you’re making now versus a place you go back to, truth versus nostalgia.
    So much deep truth there!

  3. Thanks, Tara. Yes, rich. Now I am looking forward to some down time, looking at water, savoring quiet moments with my ailing 13 year old dog (now near my feet), and revising a patiently waiting manuscript. Wishing your dear dog a speedy recovery, and peace for all.

  4. Such a great town Boston….sounds like you enjoyed your creative wandering…can’t beat John Sargent! A fantastic painter….keep enjoying!

    • Yes, Sargent is wonderful. You and Cathy should visit and we can do a Boston/Concord trip!

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