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December 1, 2010

Feature Story: A Sunny Story: Reflections on Miami Book Fair International 2010

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Three years ago, comics and graphics novels first grabbed a significant presence at the Miami Book Fair International. I actually was at the meeting when Mitch Kaplan, one of the founders of the Fair and the owner of the fabulous bookstore Books & Books, asked John Shableski from Diamond Book Distributors to create programming and booth presence for comics creators and publishers. And oh, how the idea has grown since then. This year, there were more than 50 comics folks participating and there was a Comix Galaxy track of programming throughout the weekend, as well as a two-day School of Comics—which used to be one day.

I flew in Wednesday afternoon, as I knew the action was going to be fast and furious starting on Thursday morning. We had an informal gathering of our Day of Education panelists on that evening, and while some of these folks knew each other, not everyone did. Immediately they were chatting like old friends clearly excited to be part of this event.
 
Thursday, the room was filled to capacity with teachers, librarians, and other educators (there were even people sitting on the floor at the start of the day). Dr. James Bucky Carter opened with an inspirational keynote about what comics meant—and mean—to him and how they influenced his childhood love of reading. Both of his parents were high-school dropouts who filled his life with comics that showed him how much fun reading could be. He spoke later about teaching a group of kids at a very low-income school and how, as a way to motivate them to read, he relied on comics. People were skeptical about what the results would be, but on the standardized test that this group needed to pass to graduate, they all scored higher than their peers, giving real credence to the concept that comics were a driving force in helping them master language, reading, and writing skills.
 
Bill Zimmerman was up next. If you have not experienced his MakeBeliefsComix.com website, I encourage you to do so. He wowed the audience with this and his talk about how easily anyone can try their hand at being a comics artist (even those of us, like me, who are challenged to draw a straight line with a ruler!). He demonstrated the site and as he moved the figures around, giving them new expressions and voice balloons and other comic elements, a storyline emerged, was edited, and then, with a few key strokes, he gave it a different look. He also talked about his latest book, Your Life in Comics: 100 Things for Guys to Write and Draw, which gives kids age 9–13 prompts to write a story about their lives.
 
After a short lunch break, I interviewed Kat Kan, a librarian who was a pioneer in advocating for graphic novels in education. She still is on the forefront of advocating for them and her talk provided candid practical advice on how school librarians can partner with teachers to create excitement with graphic novels. Her lunchtime book groups and ideas on how to create a school library collection were just a couple of the topics that we talked about.
 
Adam Johnson is the professor I—and others in the room—wish we had had. He will be in his fourth year of teaching the Graphic Novel Project at Stanford University this year. His program was a repeat appearance for Adam at the School of Comics as he was there two years ago and it was a nice opportunity for him to discuss what he had learned through the past years. He now has a stricter audition process for the class, just as one example. In a nutshell, in this class students come together to research and produce a graphic novel in 12 weeks! To me, this has all the hallmarks of what I love to see in education, especially on a college level—research, writing, organizing, and working as a team. Students leaving this class not only have a better knowledge of graphic novels, but also in how to collaboratively work, which is a practical skill for later life. He had free copies of the latest book, Pika Don, with him, which made him an instant hit with the audience.
 
Chris Schweizer, author of Crogan’s Vengeance and Crogan’s Return, closed the day and walked the audience through the creation of his work, talking about the various layers that go into creating a page, as well as a book. Hands-on information like this would make sharing these books with students a lot more exciting. His very amusing reading of his book, complete with growly pirate voices, was a huge hit. The audience listened like a read-aloud book group of young kids as he dramatized this book.
 
Throughout the day, we showed clips from a documentary film called Comic Book Literacy, written, directed, and produced by Todd Kent, which gave audience attendees a chance to hear from creators and legends in the comics world all sharing their views on what comics mean to literacy. The opportunity through this film to share Art Spiegelman, his wife, Francoise Mouly; Scott McCloud; Terry Moore; and so many others with those in this room was a nice addition, and I thank Todd for taking the time to make those edits for us.
 
We already are noodling ideas for next year. In fact, at the ALAN Conference at NCTE in Orlando, where I headed right after Miami, I saw some folks who would be nice additions to the program next year.
 
While my schedule did not permit me to attend all the comics and graphic novel programming throughout the weekend (there were hundreds of other authors in Miami as well), I did get to some programs, including Life and Comics, which featured couples who are both into comics: Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, Greg Rucka and Jen Van Meter, and Raina Telgemeier and Dave Roman (the panel was moderated by Alex Rodrik). I loved hearing the stories about what life is like in a two-creator household.
 
Another terrific panel called Graphic Lives had Lars Martinson (Tonoharu), Tracy White (How I Made It to 18: A Mostly True Story), Sid Jacobson (Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography), and Adam Johnson (Pika Don) talking about writing nonfiction and memoirs as graphic novels. I had read most of the books and listening to these creators was a wow.
 
The last panel I saw was Inverna Lockpez and Dean Haspiel with their editor, Joan Hilty, talking about Cuba: My Revolution, which was also on exhibit during the Fair. While I had spoken with Dean and Joan throughout the weekend, hearing them talk with Inverna on how they created these pages—everything from selecting the color palette to how they chose to express certain ideas—was wonderful. I am glad I got to see the art in various stages of drawing before I attended this panel. Since this was drawn from Inverna’s own experiences, it was enlightening to see the sensitivity that they all went through in expressing this material.
 
Sadly, I had to run to catch a flight before Joe Sacco, the author of Footnotes in Gaza, took to the stage.
 
The panels and formal events were running in conjunction with Kids’ Comic Con, brought to Miami by the ever-enthusiastic Alex Simmons, and there were a number of creators like Rich Faber and publishers such as Chris Staros’ Top Shelf adding to the experience of the weekend. A huge bravo to Lissette Mendez and Jorden Cunningham from Miami Dade College, who oversaw all of this programming, in addition to other non-comics events, throughout the weekend. While John and I each had our roles, we could not have executed these events without them! One last note: Beyond the Fair, a group of creators including Tracy White, Amy Ignatow, Raina Talgemeier, Dave Roman, David Steinberg, and Alexis Frederick Frost, made time to visit schools in the Southern Miami area, thus truly extending this experience beyond the Fair.
 
I already am looking forward to next year!