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Fear and Fiction on the Upper West Side

On Saturday I attended the conference "Fear and Fiction: The Power of Children's Books and the Inner Life of the Child," sponsored by the Yale Child Study Center and London's Anna Freud Centre. Hosted by NYC's Bank Street College, the meeting featured talks by both children's writers and child psychoanalysts. 

Due to conference fatigue and the time needed to catch a train, I missed the last panel of the day, which was on young adult books. But my favorite group was the picture book posse: writers Martin Waddell, Robie H. Harris, and Mo Willems; and analysts Alicia F. Lieberman and Jenny Stoker. One of the speakers said, "Children's literature speaks to the heart and soul of psychotherapy." Alicia Lieberman commented that we can "learn more from the arts than any other means. Words and images hardly need explaining." The children's authors talked first; then the analysts offered their insightful interpretations.

Martin Waddell, who read beautifully in a lilting Irish accent, talked about his books Owl Babies and Can't You Sleep, Little Bear? He said that when you write for children, you always offer hope. Mo was very funny, and saw his book Leonardo, the Terrible Monster as being about failure rather than fear. (The analysts disagreed, politely). He was also blunt, saying, "Childhood sucks. Inherently. It has to do with how small you are." Robie H. Harris, who wrote Don't Forget to Come Back! (among many other books), reminded us not to be afraid of a child's strongest feelings. Indeed, the keynote speaker, Yale's Stephen Marans, emphasized the similar points. We often do not know a child's fears and sometimes forget to look at fear as a source of difficult behavior. A task of the analyst is to encourage the unspeakable [fear] to be spoken, and children's books often do this remarkably well. A parent's sharing of a book with a child and the shared acknowledgment of feelings in a picture book are important.

Overall, the conference provided the great privilege of being a part of a large group who prioritized children and their feelings and their health. I also had a lot of fun hanging out with Liz B. of A Chair, A Fireplace, and A Tea Cozy and her colleague Priscilla. It was inspiring to hear them talk about their work in libraries. Plus, I got to visit the famed Bank Street Books for the first time. A grand day in NYC.

Monica Edinger, of the new blog Educating Alice, was there, too, although we did not cross paths, alas. Here is her report. And don't miss Liz B.'s series on this conference either.


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Very cool, Susan! Sounds like great fun.

It was very inspiring. Thanks, Kelly!

Thanks for the report, Susan. (I had to give it a miss as it was Diwali and I ate too much.) Next time you are in NYC, we must catch up in person.

Fun to see another account of the conference. Sorry to not have met you or Liz. Another time, I hope!


I remember you mentioned you were going to attend, and I'm so glad you reported back to us. Fascinating stuff.

thanks for this write-up susan ... sounds like an interesting event, wish I had been there

All, it was a great conference. Wish the whole kid lit blog crew could have been there!

Thanks, Susan. I especially like Robin Harris' caution to not fear a child's strongest fears. In story this sense of putting it all out there, the character's worst inner demon, is where we go deep and connect the story voice to the reader's soul. Wish I could have been there!

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