Lafayette holds Children's Book Festival
By Lou Fancher
You don't have to be a kid to enjoy the Lafayette Library and Learning Center's second annual Children's Book Festival.
On Oct. 24, book lovers of any age are welcome to practice crafts, watch a mini-performance by Town Hall Theatre of "Seussical the Musical," and discover the secret and not-so-secret world of children's books, and presentations by guest authors and illustrators.
Featured in the lineup are Bay Area literary artists Gennifer Choldenko, Michael Slack, Elisa Kleven, Jordan Jacobs, and Thacher Hurd.
Choldenko is a virtual rock star on the children's literature lecture circuit. Her novel, "Al Capone Does My Shirts," won a Newbery Honor and 19 other awards while riding The New York Times, Booksense and Publisher's Weekly bestseller lists. The book has been translated into more than 11 languages.
Like the inspiration for her Alcatraz trilogy and many of her other books, her new novel, "Chasing Secrets" started with a surprise shot straight out of history.
"I like to read quirky nonfiction because it fills my head with unusual ideas," Choldenko says.
In 2010, while reading a book by Robert Sullivan about rats and other undesirable pests for a character in the Capone series, she discovered the real-life story of a rat-spread plague that traumatized San Francisco residents in the early 1900s. For a writer who thrives on the general thrill of chasing a clue or a character into unknown, dangerous territory, it was like finding gold.
Choldenko's research reinforced the notion that people in the early 20th century had fears not unlike contemporary society's concerns.
"The race relations were horrific. Reading the newspapers of that time and seeing how the Chinese were treated -- nobody questioned it. We've come a long way, but we have a lot of the same issues."
Economic disparity and worry about immunization are also central subjects in the book and both eras, although Choldenko says people in the 1900s were even more distrustful of doctors than people today. One 1900s statistic she found said that death rates for a woman giving birth in a hospital were twice that of a woman giving birth in a home.
"We now believe medical science can help," she says. "We're in debt to scientists who've studied immunization and diseases."
As fond of discovery as anyone, Choldenko likes to keep secrets.
"Don't tell, because it will ruin the surprise, but here's what I'll do in my presentation ..."
Agreeing to have published all but the juiciest details, Choldenko says she'll begin with a brief PowerPoint giving the history and "more hair-raising part" of her new book. Then is a game involving a vote, a skit to make up a fake disease, a debate between two doctors offering different cures, and audience participation in developing a list of side effects.
Development and programs director Sarah Blumenfeld says drawing demonstrations, in addition to readings, will be offered. Books for sale and signings by the authors allow an opportunity for children to interact directly with the artists.
Choldenko says that among the frequently asked questions from writers of all ages is a question about writer's block.
"How do I get unstuck? By going to work everyday."
Beyond that, Choldenko says if the words are not coming easily, she often needs more information. It might be more research on a person or place, or it might be she needs to push back from the page and allow herself to generate a new angle on a subject. But don't ask her to talk about her new book. Still in the early stages, her lips are sealed as tight as the locks once were on Alcatraz.