The Picky Reader: Impressions From “Love Letters”

Every other year, Simmons College holds a summer institute on children’s books. Many authors gather to speak about their work and relate their lectures to a theme. This year, love was in the air! Here are some superlatives from the Love Letters Institute, from the presenters who spoke about picture books:

BEST COLLABORATION: Laura Vaccaro Seeger and Neal Porter
Laura and Neal have been writer and editor for something like fifteen years. They have produced award-winning picture books, such as First the Egg and Green, as well as the Dog and Bear early reader series. They have a symbiotic relationship most authors would envy, complete with special nicknames and 11:30 p.m. phone calls. I loved this tidbit, too: Laura was making a list of character traits for Dog and Bear while writing the books. She wrote (I caught as many as I could):

Dog: Opinionated, energetic, youthful, impulsive, helpful, bratty, pushy
Bear: Timid, formal, afraid of heights, kind, helpful, fussy, logical, anal

Neal said to her, “Hey, Dog sounds like you. And Bear sounds like me!” So in a way, the series is a love letter to their collaboration.

Okay, I’d seen one of Herb’s picture books, but I didn’t know about his early reader series, Mouse and Mole.

Love it! Herb shared with us his newest and final installment in the series, a sweet Valentine’s Day romance between Mouse and Mole due out next year. Early on, he described realizing that he always painted Mole in the same clothes, an orange sweatshirt and blue pants, while Mouse changed clothes indiscriminately. To explain this choice he’d made, he painted Mole a closet full of orange sweatshirts and blue pants. Now there’s a Mole who knows what he likes!

If you’ve ever heard him speak, you won’t be surprised to hear that Jack wins in this category. Fresh off his Newbery Medal win for his novel Dead End in Norvelt, Jack gave a slide show of his life, focusing on his time in Norvelt, a town founded and funded by Eleanor Roosevelt and the Public Works Administration under the New Deal. Jack’s funniest moment was showing us a slide of his childhood bedroom that his mother kept pristine: “Apparently, I was supposed to live like a ninety-year-old nun.” He described sleeping on the floor because remaking the bed in the morning to his mother’s standards was too much trouble. If you haven’t seen his Rotten Ralph picturebooks, check them out.

I expect a lot of things from Simmons institutes, but I didn’t expect to sing! Shane had a sound program where he was able to overlay guitar riffs and vocal percussion and sing on top of the accompaniment. He has a gorgeous voice! He invited us all to be his chorus at the end, and even harmonize. Afterward, he discussed his process for such books as Underground and We March.

Jason Chin writes incredible nonfiction picture books for curious older readers. He spoke of needing to go to the Pacific Northwest to feel the majesty of the redwoods he was writing about.

He offered this formula:

Facts about the place + How the place works + How the place feels = A rich understanding of the place

Inspiring, no? Keep your eye out for two new picture books of his, one on the water cycle, and one on gravity.

MVP: Lois Lowry

Lois gave the keynote, and it was divine. She showed slides of her childhood, and essentially wrote “love letters” to the people in her life that had influenced her. I know we mostly think of Lois as a middle grade author, but she has written picture books. Check out the lovely Crow Call:

I hope these nuggets tantalized you! The Simmons Institutes are open to all, so if you’re a children’s book lover, consider attending in summer 2015, the fortieth anniversary of the conference!

Holding books for children to the highest standard, Elaine Dimopoulos teaches writing and children’s literature at Boston University, Simmons College, and Grub Street. Find her at

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