A Book Club is a Book Club



From top: Katherine Paterson, Nikki Grimes, and Kate DiCamillo.

It would be hard for an author to turn down a book signing at the meeting of the American Library Association in their home base of Chicago — maybe almost as hard as it is for a reader to turn down the opportunity to go.

Last Saturday I joined hundreds weaving in and out of the bright colors of publishing house displays where prolific writers sat greeting and chatting.  Assistants passed them names to inscribe in books while they listened to stories of how much they and their work are loved.

Katherine Paterson, whom I consider the Dean of Fiction, says that reading can be “a key to a secret garden, which if tended, will transform all of life.”  Her Bridge to Terabithia as well as Jacob I Have Loved, Newbery winners for the best in children’s literature, have helped young people accomplish that goal.  Growing up in a missionary family in China, her own work in Japan and experiences as a pastor’s wife have given her insight.  She says, “Characters walk into my imagination and begin taking over…”

Nikki Grimes’ poems and novels have earned both the Coretta Scott King and Laura Ingalls Wilder Awards.  Born in Harlem and raised in family and foster homes, Grimes says she is grateful she lived to tell about growing up.  A high school English teacher guided her to her career, and her many books include Thanks a Million, Jazmin’s Notebook, Words With Wings (poetry), and a brand new one based on Psalm 121 and illustrated by Bryan Collier, The Watch.

Kate DiCamillo thinks herself “enormously lucky” because she gets to tell stories for a living.  She has also won the Newbery Award twice, for The Tale of Despereaux and Flora and Ulysses, which, like her other books, center around animals.  They include the popular Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tiger Rising.

A series of unfortunate events led me to arrive after the line to see Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler), had been cut off.  I’m sure if anyone would appreciate that downer, it would be him.  Up-and-coming authors who in due time will surely share honors were autographing books in other aisles.

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An unlikely speaker at the event was Sarah Jessica Parker, who introduced the first selection of Book Club Central, the ALA’s platform for reading recommendations.  She remembered the comfort of going to the public library as a child, amid her large family’s frequent moves around Cincinnati.  “We couldn’t leave the house without a book,” she said, and that nowadays she makes a priority of going with her own children to their neighborhood library branch in Manhattan.

With Parker was Stephanie Powell Watts, the author of No One Is Coming to Save Us (Ecco, 2017).  It is a “story of loss — industry, ghosts and the last of Jim Crow,” she explained.  Parker said that she appreciated getting to know characters who were unlike her and far away, which she would not have been able to do had she not read it.

Watts, a professor at Lehi University, distanced herself from the usual advice when she told the audience they don’t necessarily have to write every day.  It’s OK to think it through, perhaps even a whole book, before putting anything down on paper (the way some people clean house?).

A book club is a book club.  Readers can choose to go with a particular author, like Paterson, Grimes, DiCamillo or Watts; a genre, such as historical novel or memoir; or a recommendation from Oprah or Sarah.  No matter.  When they share good literature, they are spending time thinking, learning, and celebrating life.

Quotes are from the authors’ websites.