Category Archives: Op-Ed

My First ALA Annual Conference

20160623_154439

A little over two weeks ago I got to attend my first ALA Annual conference. It was an exciting experience… and so exhausting. I was there not just as an attendee, but as an author. Lucky me!  I  was thrilled to be representing  three of my publishers: Charlesbridge, National Geographic Kids, and Nomad Press.

Why exhausting? I spent four days on  my feet about 10 hours a day discussing all things BOOKS.  It was awesome!

If you haven’t been to an ALA conference yet, you should go. It is definitely something to see if you love the literary world.

So what did I learn in my first adventure into ALA?

1) ALA is HUGE! Seriously. The room is massive and is FILLED with exhibits from every type of book imaginable: children’s (PB, CB, MG, YA), trade, educational, self-published,  Adult books of many different genres, graphic novels, and even self-help books. There are places to buy benches for your library, consultants to help you plan your technical needs, and also representatives from the Library of Congress and NASA.

My recommendation: Go in. Take a deep breath and get your bearings. It’s a lot to take in all at once.

 

This gives you an idea of the massive size of the convention area. This is one of their empty rooms. It  was actually twice this size. The other half stretched under the walkway I was on. See? HUGE

 

2)  Use your Conference Directory

20160709_140551

Yes, it’s a massive tome in and of itself. But it has all of the information you need. In fact, take a good look through it and make notes of things you want to do and people you want to see. There is a comprehensive list of authors who will be signing and if you know where they are you can get in line… EARLY!

That will save you the time of seeing a huge line, wondering who is there, and walking around to see that you missed the one awesome kidlit author that you definitely wanted to meet.  (Yes, that happened to me a couple of times)

3) Get a COGNOTES every morning

20160709_140603 This is the newspaper that the conference puts out. Every morning at the top of the stairs, people are standing their handing these out. Many people (like me) don’t take one. That is not a good idea. This is a GREAT source of everything that is happening that day.

 

 

4) TAKE THE FREE BOOKS!!

Every publisher is handing out books for FREE. They are just stacked on the tables and you can take them. It’s like being a kid in a free candy store.

People kept asking me “Would you like a book?”  UM YES!!

20160709_144145

This is just one small stack of the 20 books we came home with!

 

5) Find the Book Buzz Theatre, the Pop Top Stage and the Graphic Novel &Gaming Stage

These stages host various authors and editor speakers talking about fascinating topics. I was thrilled to be on a panel with Anastasia Suen and Chris Barton talking about STEM books for kids!

20160625_102621

 

6) Take time to meet up with author friends

20160626_102432_001

With author Miranda Paul at the We Need Diverse Books Booth

20160625_143043

 

Meeting author Sylvia Liu for the first time

 

 

 

7) Spend quality time with your editors

20160625_142156

With Alyssa Mito Pusey of Charlesbridge Publishing

 

8) Talk to many wonderful librarians about your books!

20160627_100828

Playing BRAIN GAMES at the Nat Geo Kids booth

 

Whew! Are you tired yet? And I didn’t even get to go to any of the hundreds of fascinating workshops and programs put on by amazing librarians, editors and authors.

There were so many things to do and see, you can’t possibly get to them all. So here is a short summation of some of the highlights of the conference:

For an amazing wrap up, I give you ALA Annual’s very own video. Go to this page and click on it:  http://2016.alaannual.org/

The ALA Archives has a great summary of many of the wonderful presentations here:  https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/tag/alaac16/

Some fabulous images from ALAAC16 shared by School Library Journal here

Matt de la Peña gave an awesome  2016 Newbery acceptance speech.                        It is a must-read! You can find it on the Horn Book Website here 

So are you game? Plan to attend the next ALA conference?

Here is my final piece of advice : Try to pick a few events that you want to attend and then fill in the rest of the time just walking around and seeing it all.  But whatever you see and do, just drink it all in. After all, its ALL ABOUT BOOKS!!

 

***** Jennifer Swanson is the author of over 25 books, mostly about STEM, because, well, STEM ROCKS! You can find her at her website: www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com

Disconnected

So I just returned from a family trip to northern Minnesota, where we spent a week on a lovely lake with no wi-fi, no internet connection and spotty cell coverage. As I sat back down at my computer for the first time in days, I was all ready to write a haha-insightful post about the joy (or sheer horror, if you asked my teenaged son), of being cut off from most of the outside world in a log cabin with no television, a malfunctioning toilet, bloodthirsty mosquitos and the world’s lumpiest sofa/bed.

Then, I read the news.

A man shot during a traffic stop. A black man. A human being, who by all accounts was a good man, hardworking and kind, loved by the schoolchildren he worked with for more than a decade, dead on the side of the road.

My heart sank. Philando Castile was killed in a town I’d just passed through the day before with my own children in the back seat of my car. Suddenly, the toilet that wouldn’t stay flushed seemed trivial and stupid. I wasn’t in the mood to crack jokes anymore. I felt saddened. And sorry. And truth be told–helpless and guilty.

Because here’s the thing–as I blissfully drove through St. Paul, it never occurred to me that I could be pulled over and shot. Heck, I’ve been pulled over–twice when I was in my twenties–for having a tail light out, just like Castile’s alleged infraction. Both times, the police officer changed the light for me. I never felt threatened. I was never perceived as a threat.

That, I now understand, was a luxury I enjoyed as a young, white woman.

Now, let me just pause and say–being a police officer is not an easy job. It’s often dangerous and difficult, and I have great respect–and am thankful–for those who protect and serve, and do it well. I am married to a federal law enforcement professional, have worked with several police officers as a newspaper reporter, and count many as friends. I would trust any of them with my life. I truly believe that the vast majority of people who enter law enforcement fields do so because they want to uphold the law. [ETA: And as I got ready to close my computer down this evening, I saw the news coming out of Dallas about the officers shot at a rally and my heart has sunk even further.]

But, I’m also aware that we have a problem in this country. Somehow, we seem to have become more trigger-happy, more polarized and opinionated (two minutes scrolling the comments section on any news site is enough to confirm that). I guest it’s easier to spew hate and fear when hiding behind a keyboard. And it’s easier to pull the trigger when you don’t see the humanity of the person in front of you.

I started this post wishing I had answers, wishing people could be good and kind to each other. That we weren’t all so disconnected in so many ways. That maybe if we stepped away from our computers, the 24/7 news cycle, our preconceived notions– if we set down the guns–maybe we could actually connect and see each other’s humanity.

I guess that’s why this tweet from wonderful middle-grade author Kate Messner really resonated with me today:

I agree, Kate.

And I will do my best–as an author and a mother and a human being–to speak out against injustice. To listen–really listen–to what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. To raise my children to do the same.

And I will keep hoping, as well.

 

A scientific defense of science fiction

One day when I was growing up, over dinner at a friend’s house, his parents told me they’d read some of the stories I wrote for fun. They thought I had real talent. I might even be a published author someday — if only I would stop wasting my time with all those spaceships and aliens.

I know it was meant as helpful advice but still, I was caught unprepared. I had never before considered time spent reading or writing the stories I loved to be a waste of time. I had certainly never considered my favorite genre to be inherently inferior to “more serious books.” And I absolutely rejected the implication that books on speculative topics couldn’t be as well crafted as any others.

Heinlein, Clark, Asimov, L’Engle, Wells, Norton, Bradbury, and Verne were just a few of the luminaries who happened to not be sitting at the dinner table with us that night, so it was up to me alone to defend the honor and integrity of science fiction. But I was twelve or thirteen at the time, and just mumbled something into my spaghetti.

My favorite defense these days is to imagine that we have a time machine that we can use to visit the somewhat distant past, after the invention of fire but before wheels, airplanes, and smartphones.

When our Neolithic ancestors weren’t searching for food, fighting the elements, or fending off predators, they spent their free time asking questions about the world around them.

Question: How old is the world?

Our Neolithic ancestors could ask around, but not even the oldest of the tribal elders could remember back to the start of the world.

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: What is the world made of?

Our Neolithic ancestors could break chunks of stuff into tiny specks of stuff, but there was no telling what those specks were made of.

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: How far up does the sky go?

Our Neolithic ancestors could throw a rock upward from a hilltop or tall tree without hitting anything, or estimate the height of a soaring bird, so at least a little higher than that.

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: Why do things fall?

Our Neolithic ancestors could observe that things always fall downward when you drop them. Except when you catch and release a bug. So what do the bugs know that people don’t?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: Where did all the animals and plants come from?

Our Neolithic ancestors were familiar with the wide variety of forms that life takes on Earth. Some forms were similar to others—were they designed that way? If so, by whom? Was the creation of life an ongoing process, with new kinds of plants and animals still sometimes popping into existence? There were no answers.

Answer: Nobody knows.

Imagine how frustrating it must have been for our Neolithic ancestors to have so many fundamental questions about the world and so few definitive answers.

To fill the gaps, ancient peoples made up stories that were speculative but plausible, given the best-available contemporary understanding of science. Or to put it another way, every ancient culture on Earth independently developed the genre of science fiction.

These early sci-fi stories were told them around the communal fires and passed them down across the generations. They inspired the process of imagination, speculation, and experimentation that helped advance civilization forward to modern times.

Those stories presaged and created the modern world. So let’s look at those questions again, this time with all the collected knowledge of the Internet Age.

Question: How old is the world?

We now know that modern humans have been around for 200,000 years on a planet that’s 4.5 billion years old in a universe that’s 13.8 billion years removed from the Big Bang—but what happened before that? One leading scientific theory is that there was an era of cosmic expansion that took place before the Big Bang, but how far back in time does that go? And what, if anything, came before cosmic inflation?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: What is the world made of?

We now know that all objects in our world are made of atoms that appear on the periodic table of elements, that those atoms are made of electrons that orbit a nucleus of neutrons and protons, and that those particles are made from quarks and other elementary particles. But can quarks break down even further? Are there additional elementary particles we haven’t found yet? What is the nature of the dark matter that makes up most of the matter in the universe? What is the nature of dark energy that makes up more of the universe’s energy balance than all the dark matter and baryonic matter combined?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: How far up does the sky go?

We now know how far Earth’s atmosphere extends and the distances to the moon, sun, planets, and all the stars that we can see. We know that the observable universe extends 46.5 billion light years in every direction. But what lies beyond that? Does it go on forever? Does it wrap back on itself like the screens of an old arcade game? Do all parts of the universe have the same physical constants?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: Why do things fall?

Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity explains a lot. Albert Einstein’s theory explains more, including the gravity waves that were only just confirmed in February, 2016. But is there a theory that explains everything we observe about gravity? Is there a particle that carries gravitational energy the way photons carry light? Is there a reason why gravity is so much weaker than the other fundamental forces?

Answer: Nobody knows.

Question: Where did all the animals and plants come from?

We now know about genes encoded in DNA, and that all the species we see evolved over billions of years from the same one-celled ancestor, but where did that first ancestor come from? How does non-life first become life? Were the elements of life seeded from space or did they arise entirely on Earth? How rare or how common is the development of life on other worlds in our galaxy and across the universe? Did life ever exist on Mars, or does it now exist elsewhere in our own solar system?

Answer: Nobody knows.

For all the progress we’ve made, we still can’t definitively answer any of these fundamental questions about the nature of our universe. We still have gaps to fill with stories that we now tell, now in books and new media, but still meant to be passed down across the generations.

Speculative fiction is still needed as much as ever to inspire the process of imagination, speculation, and experimentation that will take us forward to the next level of knowledge.

And that is why I’m still wasting my time with all those spaceships and aliens.

Greg R. Fishbone is the author of the Galaxy Games series of sporty science fiction from Tu Books and Spellbound River Press. This article first appeared on the From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors group blog in June, 2016.