Posted by: jeannineatkins | August 2, 2017

(Im)Possible Dreams: Simmons Children’s Literature Institute

It’s good to be on the porch writing, wishing for a breeze, but filled with thoughts brought home from the Simmons Summer Children’s Literature Institute. On Thursday night, Ekua Holmes answered thoughtful questions posed by Callie Crossley about her mixed media artwork. Ekua spoke about how she valued the community growing up in Roxbury, and her grandmother’s drawer with scissors and junk mail. She told us how before illustrating a picture book, she reads the manuscript many times, “finding new ways to look at the words.”


Ekua spoke about how chose the best images to stand next to poems for the collection Out of Wonder, and for a picture book biography, researches beyond the manuscript to make a book that “takes you past the headlines of a life.” Here’s a picture from Carole Boston Weatherford’s lyrical picture book biography of Fannie Lou Hamer, Voice of Freedom.

voiceoffredome copy

Ekua Holmes said, “Story telling is not a singular act. There is a element of divinity in the stories we tell.” And she told us she loves sunflowers because of all the possibilities in the many seeds. I’m so happy she illustrated the cover of Stone Mirrors.


Another highlight for me was a conversation among author Candace Fleming, illustrator Eric Rohman, and editor Neal Porter about the eight years it took to make the award-winning picture book Giant Squid. Respect was a word that Ekua Holmes used a lot in her talk, and was wonderful to see the respect this author, illustrator, and editor held for each other but most of all the book and its readers, wanting to give the very best.


Giant Squid is a book about what we don’t know, and rather than offering facts, the object is to get readers to want to go find out more. “I’m not doing this so kids can write reports. I’m adding my voice to the conversation about the topic.” Candace Fleming said. And “All good picture books have a musicality, a pace, a beat, a rhythm that goes along with the mood we’re trying to impart.”

Julie Berry and Tim Wynn-Jones also spoke to the mess, mystery, and plain old time often involved in the process of making an excellent book. Every detail counts, and Julie mentioned the need to not focus just on a main character, but all. “A book is only as good as its secondary characters, just as a play needs ensembles. … Every character should have the specificity, oddity, and honesty of reality.” Both spoke of the need to keep going when one feels lost, for answers can be found in what you’ve written. “What are the images that stay with you? … When you’re writing well … trust those passages to find the key to the story,” Tim Wynne-Jones said.


My talk was about the gaps we find in history, which I try to fill in, though not completely, with poetry. Often these are like the gaps and rough edges that we find in collage. That art celebrates uncertainty, fringes, fragments and inheritance that doesn’t dictate what can be taken or left behind. Collage often creates tension between what’s given and what’s chosen. Truth can be found in ragged lines rather than lines moving straight toward achievements, in what blurs, like memory. Jade, the main character of Piecing Me Together, a recent novel by Renée Watson says of her art: “I am ripping and cutting. Gluing and pasting. Rearranging reality, redefining, disguising. I am taking ugly and making beautiful.”


After a summer blogging break — busy gently wrestling poems into place, swimming, and dog-walking — I plan to write more about the value of what’s broken tomorrow or Friday.



  1. That sounds like such a wonderful time, Jeannine!

    • So much generosity and grace — not to mention high bars being set. I’m still floating!

  2. Again, your piece is a gift! What a wonderful event! I wish I had attended.

    • It really was inspiring, with so much integrity all around. Hope we can share something similar soon (and it doesn’t have to be alliterative.)

  3. What a rich and interesting discussion, Jeannine – writers sharing their gifts!

    • Just what I needed! Sending wishes for a few restful summer days your way.

  4. Interesting! Sometimes, I still wish I lived in Cambidge & could attend these events at my alma mater.

    • It’s a good wish in summer, but not one we hear much in January. It is such a great way for alums, current students, and others to meet. So glad to know you’re another cool Simmons alum (I think you told me at one point, but I forgot). Quite a community!

  5. Dear Jeannine, thank you for sharing all these inspiring and affirming thoughts about the creative process. I am particularly enamored of the idea of a nonfiction picture book adding to a conversation (rather than fodder for a book report!). If only the gatekeepers saw it that way more often! 🙂 Glad, too, that you got to meet Ekua, who did such a gorgeous job for STONE MIRRORS. I’ve yet to meet any of the illustrators for my books though the internet has helped me “meet” them online, which is lovely. It’s a special connection, isn’t it? Words and art… so powerful. xo

    • Oh, Irene, we would have been swooning together. Candace and Eric were so generous in sharing the book’s year process, riddled with many doubts, but the unwavering idea of creating an excellent book — which was part of the doubting and embarrassment. Candace showed her many drafts, then sending one and getting back a letter from Neil with LOVE, all caps, in the first sentence, and I felt knocked back in my chair.

      And Sydney Smith spoke of the lovely Town is by the Sea about to go to press when he knew another 4 pages was needed for the story. The editors in the audience fanned themselves. The creatives cheered, if with envy.

      Ekua lives in Mass, so I was lucky to be on a panel with her this spring and hear this talk now. Yes, very special connection between artists and writers. She speaks of her mother teaching her that is she kept on with what she is meant to do, a door would open at the right time — and not many years ago a Candlewick editor saw her work in a local ice cream shop — now, all those prizes later, she is a busy artist.

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