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Audio version

January 20–24, 2017



Harris Provides Lighthearted Finish to Midwinter

By Sara Zettervall, Hennepin County Library, Minn.

Neil Patrick Harris brought laughter and magic to the Midwinter closing session on January 23, where he introduced his forthcoming series of middle-grade books, The Magic Misfits (Little Brown). Harris currently stars as Count Olaf in the Netflix series Lemony Snickett, and he’s an award-winning author, actor, director, and producer. He pointed to his lifelong love of magic, along with the joys of parenting alongside his husband David, as inspirations to add children’s author to that list.

Harris acknowledged that he has spent his whole adult life and most of his childhood as an actor, but he did have a first job working in a bookstore. He thanked the store owner, saying she helped him enjoy and develop a respect for literature. “I have always loved storytelling,” he said, expanding that love beyond books and into acting. In acting, he said, he can hide behind someone else’s words, but as an author he feels more revealed. As a children’s author, he feels he is able to explore whatever is in his mind without fear of judgment because kids aren’t tied to reality in the same way adults are.

Magic has been a lifelong passion for Harris: the magic of real-life magicians, not the imaginary magic of fantasy novels. Part of the voracious reading he did as a child was trying to decipher the process of how illusions were constructed. He wanted to share that world of ideas with his children, six-year-olds Harper and Gideon, leading to the creation of The Magic Misfits. Each of the characters in the books has a real-life magical skill that they have mastered. “Both reading and practical magic are skills that improve as you practice,” Harris said, sharing his hope to inspire dedication and perseverance in his young readers. The books will also include codes, puzzles, and tricks for readers to decipher.

Harris left a significant amount of time for questions and answers with the audience. Topics roamed across the span of his popular career, from a deck of cards Harris designed for charity to his involvement in “Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.” Harris revealed he enjoys biographies and is currently reading about Elon Musk, although he doesn’t trust the bias authors bring to nonfiction. The first book he remembers loving as a child was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which his mother read to him. Harris didn’t just answer questions, but also asked why librarians are necessary in a digital world, perhaps not realizing what a nerve he struck as the audience went silent. The law librarian whose work had prompted the question responded the digital world is so complex that librarian guides are needed now more than ever, and he was rewarded with an on-stage hug and selfie with Harris.

The session ended with Harris performing a simple magic trick involving a few books from the exhibit hall. He brought an audience member up to the stage and asked her to choose a word at random from a book, then burned the page that word came from and used the ash to make the word appear on his arm. It was a lighthearted end to the Midwinter Meeting and Exhibits, leaving audience members smiling and recounting their favorite moments.

Kwame Alexander Inspires Activism, Advocacy, and Literacy with Verse

By Terra Dankowski

Poet, educator, and Newbery Medal winner Kwame Alexander wasn’t quite sure what to say or how to confront the current political climate in the President’s Program speech he was scheduled to deliver at the American Library Association’s 2017 Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Atlanta, so he called up a librarian friend for advice.

“He said, ‘One, we need you more than ever. Two, what would Martin Luther King Jr. do? Three, I need to know we’re not going backward. Four, I need someone to tell me what to do,’” said Alexander. And like that, Alexander’s thoughtful, rhapsodic verse set to accomplishing these objectives, and then some. Introduced by ALA President Julie Todaro on January 22 as the “cool, calm, and cuddly Kwame Alexander” – a nod to the wildlife creatures featured in his latest book, Animal Ark: Celebrating Our Wild World in Poetry and Pictures (with Joel Sartore, National Geographic Children’s Books, February 2017).

Alexander gave the audience some much-needed humor, historical perspective, and a sense of healing. “This is not our country, I think, and yet it is,” Alexander said. “Excuse the metaphor, but remember we are the army. We overthrow ignorance with imagination, inspiration.” Quoting Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and a traditional Negro spiritual “that Martin Luther King Jr. liked,” Alexander urged attendees to “remember, recognize, and resist” and stand up against the injustices of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. He recounted the impact of his dad, a school principal, taking him across the Brooklyn Bridge to march against police brutality when he was a kid, and how a day before his talk he had taken his daughter to one of the women’s marches. Yet he also reminded us not to judge a book by its jacket – or in this case, people by their politics. “Perhaps we disagree about a fundamental thought or action, but that does not mean we have to disengage,” Alexander said. “Books themselves don’t discriminate – we do.”

Reluctant reader to renowned writer

Alexander described himself as a disinclined reader growing up. When tasked with reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in school, his response was that he “didn’t care that it had a gold sticker.” Instead, poetry was the form that found its way to him. Alexander praised the work of Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Pablo Neruda, and suggested we should not underestimate the power of verse on young adults. “In 15 lines, you get a beginning, middle, and end,” he said, noting why verse resonates so well with the middle-grades. Alexander’s Newbery Medal-winning book-in-verse about twins who play basketball, The Crossover, took him to a school in Lancaster, Texas. When Alexander heard that the students could not share his book fast enough – kids were raffling off their books for the next reader – he surprised the school by showing up with 150 copies. His career has also enabled him to do literacy advocacy in a small village in Ghana, where no girl has been to high school in 10 years. “I believe books have a job to do, and in this village in Ghana, the words planted the seeds.” Alexander wanted attendees to see books’ power to connect us. “All the books for all the kids,” he said, maintaining that students are mostly the same everywhere when it comes to their interests and what they can relate to. “If you can’t travel, read,” he suggested. He ended his Q&A session with another plug for his favorite form of literature. “Poetry is the answer, whether you’re in Ghana, Pennsylvania, or the barber shop.”

“Perhaps we disagree about a fundamental thought or action, but that does not mean we have to disengage. Books themselves don’t discriminate – we do.”