ALAN Workshop: Day 2

I’m posting a series articles that I wrote for the Alaska Association of School Librarian’s newsletter about conference I attended in Minneapolis the week before Thanksgiving.

ALAN Day 2:  It’s Like Christmas for Librarians

This is the second in a three part series about my experience as a first time attendee at the ALAN conference.

We woke bright and early on Monday morning.  When we entered the convention hall there were boxes and boxes and boxes of FREE BOOKS!

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This year the publishers were so generous that the books couldn’t fit in the box, so we also received a tote bag full of books.  Before I knew it I could hardly see the stage over my giant piles of freebies.

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Here are some snapshots of Suzanne and I with our piles.  Some seasoned ALAN attendees immediately started sorting their books into three distinct stacks:  authors speaking today, tomorrow, or not at all.

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Others created spine poetry.  Here is some of Suzanne’s:

spine poetry

The format at ALAN is vastly different from any conference I have ever attended.  With the exception of one block of breakout sessions, all attendees and speakers stayed in the large ballroom the entire time.  The front half of the room was filled with tables of giddy teachers and librarians.

conference floor_noah
Photo by Noah Schaffer

The back half of the room was set up for book signings, with tables for the authors and an open space for people to stand in line.  If you wanted a signature, it often meant listening to the next presenter while waiting in line.

sign lines_noah
Photo by Noah Schaffer

There was also a trade table, where attendees were allowed to swap out books from their boxes.

trade table_noah
Photo by Noah Schaffer

Matt de la Pena, one of the first presenters, summed it up best:  “A room full of educators with giant stacks of books.  This is borderline pornographic for an author!”

We were all still abuzz about our books, but the workshop began promptly at 8:00 AM.  Jandy Nelson kicked things off, and her speech was a beautiful tribute to her former English teachers.  Afterwards she signed my book!

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It quickly became apparent that the the true gift of this conference was yet to come.  Sure, we’d received a virtual truckload of free books.  But listening to the authors speak, hearing the stories behind their stories, and the experiences that shaped them along the way… that was the true gift.  The Grinch could waltz in and steal every book from my pile, and I’d still leave as happy as those singing Whos down in Whoville.

Kwame Alexander stepped up to the podium next.  He recited a love poem he wrote for his wife, shared stories about his father, and read to us from his new title Booked.  It was so touching.

Kwame Alexander / Photo by Noah Schaffer
Photo by Noah Schaffer

Not all of the authors spoke individually.  Some spoke on panels, and others were paired up to have a public conversation.  During one of these In Conversation sessions, Matt de la Pena and Gene Luen Yang discussed race in young adult literature.  Matt de la Pena said he writes about class more than race.  He was having a hard time bringing  suburban white kids to the Mexican American neighborhoods in his books.  He decided the best solution was to bring his characters to neutral turf, and that’s how The Living and The Hunted were born.  I loved sharing this story with my high school Battle of the Books students, since The Living is on this year’s title list.

Photo by Noah Schaffer
Gene Luen Yang and Matt de la Pena / Photo by Noah Schaffer

I snagged an autographed copy of The Hunted for my high school Battle of the Books team:

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Here are some quotes that struck me as I listened to the conference speakers:

Jason Reynolds: “Boys don’t hate books.  They just hate boredom.”

Photo by Noah Schaffer
Jason Reynolds / Photo by Noah Schaffer

Jack Gantos:   “Adolescence is a constant revolution.  You become something, you destroy it, and you become something new.”

Jack Gantos / Photo by Noah Schaffer
Jack Gantos / Photo by Noah Schaffer

A.S. King: “Books are maps and teachers are compasses.  Thank you all for pointing north.”

Andrew Smith“Books don’t have genders.”

A.S. King: “All great books must take risks.”

Photo by Noah Schaffer
Andrew Smith & A.S. King / Photo by Noah Schaffer

Sharon Draper:  “Let kids write from their heart.”

Laurie Halse Anderson:  “Things come through us when our hearts are open, and usually when you’re not expecting it.”

Sharon Draper & Laurie Halse Anderson / Photo by Noah Schaffer
Sharon Draper & Laurie Halse Anderson / Photo by Noah Schaffer

Patrick Ness was so brilliant I pulled out my cell phone and recorded the last half of his speech.  He had so many profound statements that no pen could have kept up.

Patrick Ness / Photo from

Ness believes every reader asks one question when they pick up a book:  “Am I alone?”  No one wants to be alone in their beliefs, or alone in their fears.  “I grew up not seeing myself in books, and I vow that will never happen again as long as I am able to write books.  There are kids who still kill themselves because they think they are the only ones feeling these things.  Because they think are the only ones going through these experiences.  That they are alone.”

Ness grew up as a gay teen in a small town and never expected to find himself in literature.  As a result, he puts great value on mirrors in young adult literature.  “People who claim mirrors aren’t important are the ones who always had one,” he said.  He tells kids, “If you don’t see yourself in books, it’s the book’s fault.  Not your own.  And if you are not seeing yourself in a book, maybe it’s a book you need to write.   Your story is valuable because you want to tell it. Period.”

He wrote The Rest of Us Just Live Here with a gay main character.  “It doesn’t revolve around him being gay.  It’s important, but it’s not the whole story.  And I truly would have felt that was revolutionary if I had been able to read that when I was 15.”

He ended his speech with some wonderful advice for kids.  He told them not to burn down the neighborhoods where they aren’t welcome.  Instead, they should realize there are “better places to live, thrive, grow, and make beautiful, mature, untold story.”  They should make these places so beautiful that “the original neighborhoods of the unloved turn out to be the places nobody wants to live.”  He encouraged them to create places where no one ever has to feel alone.

Ness closed his speech with these words:  “That phrase, those few remarkable words, ‘No, you are not alone‘ have been the start of every single revolution worth having.”


Luckily Ness spoke at the end of Day One, so I had some time to let all that brilliance settle before my personal highlight of Day Two took the stage:  Ruta Sepetys.

Between Shades of Gray is one of my favorite historical fiction reads ever, and we were fortunate enough to receive an advanced reader copy of Sepetys’ third novel, Salt to the Sea.  (I devoured the book on the plane ride home and fully agree with its starred reviews!)  Sepetys loves the research process that goes into her novels, and strives to tell hidden stories of history.  She does it so well.  Salt to the Sea is about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustlaff off the coast of East Prussia during a 1945 refugee evacuation.  The novel is available for purchase in February 2016.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”I wanted to share this story for the victims.  We know the villains’ names.  We teach the villains.”  ~Ruta Sepetys[/pullquote]

After her speech I was finally able to meet this amazing author.  Ruta Sepetys, you didn’t break my heart after all!

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All too soon the conference was done, and it was time to pack up our boxes of free books and ship them home.  A UPS Store was conveniently located in the convention center, and luckily they were willing to ship via USPS Media Mail to Alaska.  I crammed my suitcases as full as possible, and still needed to ship three boxes home.

A Merry Christmas indeed.  Thank you to the publishers who donated the books, the conference organizers who pulled it all together, and the authors who were so generous with their time and wisdom.  This conference was an absolute gift!

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