Mentors, Fan Girl Moments, and Mermaids: The Caldecott Awards Dinner is Worth It

By Amy Steinbauer

Like many first time ALA annual attendees, I was beyond excited for the conference. I was even more enthused because two of my graduate school friends from the University of Hawaii were also attending, and it would be a great reunion for the three of us! However, in being a first time attendee, and a relatively new librarian, I was both nervous and overwhelmed at the opportunities, programs, and navigating it all with the best use of my time.

Being a member of the New Members Round Table (NMRT), I jumped at the chance to sign up to have a mentor for the conference, and it was one of the best decisions that I could have made! Not only is my mentor, Susan Kusel, a fabulous member of 2015 Caldecott award committee, or as she put it “living her dream”, but also her 13 attended conferences have made her a walking encyclopedia for the conference.  Prior to the conference we talked for over an hour on the phone, despite our three-hour time difference. She offered me what she has learned in her years of attending, and made the overwhelming conference seem like the place I would meet my new best friends. One of the best comments that she made was her love of wearing pro-reading shirts during her travel. As she said, they are great icebreakers with potential networkers, and buddy-ing up can help save on taxi or other travel costs.

Like many other regular attendees, she stressed the importance of comfortable shoes, taking breaks, and staying hydrated. I did not listen to her very well on any of these points. I have walked through Rome all day long, all through my daily commutes in Hawaii, and am prone to foot problems. I put my drugstore arch supports in my usual shoes, and thought that I was done. I was wrong. Luckily for me, there was a booth with “Massaging Insoles” at the conference. It was the best $38 that I have ever spent. 

As we chatted, Susan mentioned that one of her favorite events in the Caldecott Awards dinner. She knew that it was an add on cost, and at $94 dollars, it was an expensive one, especially for a new librarian. Typically that cost would have been tolerable for a special occasion, however I had just spent about $600 dollars fixing my transmission and on a new starter, and I had to pay all my ALA expenses upfront and would get reimbursed later. It seemed a bit out of my range for this trip, and I filed it away under things to do at future ALA conferences. Personally, it also seemed a bit ambiguous. I knew Susan loved it, but it seemed like it might be this formal, somewhat boring event. Again, I was wrong.

Susan loved the event so much, that after chatting it up to me in our first conversation, she decided that I really needed to see it, and generously paid for my ticket to the event! My conference roommate was inspired too, and bought her own ticket to it as well! Susan offered to meet me early and sit with me, and basically walked me through the whole event on the phone and through email. As she explained more about the event-- I learned that it was more of a celebration of children's literature and the inspiring authors and illustrators that change the lives of children.

My first day at the conference, Susan sat with me for two hours going over my twenty plus page schedule (I know, I know; I over planned!) letting me know her opinions, but telling me to decide what was best for me. She had thoughts on almost everything, and helped to clarify what some events would really be like. Since she had spent most of her career as a children’s librarian, she knew exactly what I would be interested in. Even as I had to rush off to join my friends traveling back to our hotel, Susan told me to keep in touch with her for any additional help and we made plans to meet up before the awards ceremony. After getting to know me and helping me out, she had just one request of me—when I felt comfortable and settled in my career, she wanted me to mentor someone else and give back to the organization. This is a request that I will happily oblige when I am able! 

The actual event--- people were dressed to the nines! It felt like the Oscars for children's books! One of the winners' sisters was dressed in a shimmery gold dress that made her even look like an Oscar! When I bumped into her in the bathroom and made the connection, she remarked that that was the look that she was going for. I was really glad that Susan had mentioned that it was a dressier event or I would have been unprepared!

I had spent my free afternoons gawking and emotionally melting over the authors and illustrators at the exhibits, and now here they were dressed up and rubbing elbows with me! It was an incredible experience! Susan did her due diligence and introduced me all around, and afterwards went through the receiving line with me, giving me helpful hints the whole way through. After the introductions, there is time to network around the room, and Susan made use of this time as she went to say hello to all of her friends and colleagues that she has made over the years.

When the Dame Judy Bloom crossed the room, you could feel the air change as a legend approached. She floated in towards the end of the receiving line and chatted with many people. My mentor urged me to go say hello, but to be mindful that Judy probably wanted to enjoy her evening and not be bombarded! My friend and I approached her nervously, and when I looked back, unsure, Susan motioned me with her hands to keep going. I did! And, I got to shake hands with Judy Bloom! It was an indescribable ten seconds of my life. 

While meeting Judy Bloom was an impossible high, I was a bit more interested in meeting and getting to really chat with some of the picture book authors and illustrators. At the exhibit, I had had my teenage fan girl moment with Oliver Jeffers, recounting my love of all his work, but especially “The Heart and the Bottle”, but seeing him again after the dinner was much more casual. He had just raced Jon Klassen across the nearly empty ballroom.  In case I didn’t believe the race was the reason for his slightly quickened breath, Jon Scieszka took out his phone and replayed the video for me! When I bumped into Mac Barnett, and reminded him about his poster signing (I had him make mine out to mermaids), not only had he had not forgotten, but he gave me a big hug and whispered my response to me! Suddenly, it seemed like these larger than life figures were just as much of my friends as their books have made me feel!

Attending the event was life changing for me, not only can I name drop in the children’s literature crowd, but it was also career affirming for me. As I looked around and saw the silly fun of book shoes and Lego ties, and thought of my own jellyfish and penguin costumed story times, I knew that I was somewhere that I belonged. During a conference of around 25,000 people, and hundreds of programs and events, it seemed implausible that I would find a way to feel so connected to people that I had just met. But, I think that that is was ALA is all about, remembering the reasons that you got into this crazy, mixed up, and amazing career; and finding all your outgoing, intelligent, and inspiring travel companions on the quest of being the best librarian they can be and changing the lives of each person they meet! It’s a group that I am proud to be a part of, and will do my best to serve.

Amy Steinbauer is an Early Childhood Outreach Librarian at Beaumont Library District in Beaumont, CA. She drives a bookmobile, and can be found on twitter @merbrarian.