Children's book authors

Children’s Book Authors to Share Journey at Hubbs Children’s Literature Conference at St. Thomas

Shayla Michelle Reaves
Shayla Michelle Reaves

Shayla Michelle Reaves took a chance 20 years ago and entered a written expression competition. Then a college student in the Chicago area, the now WCCO news anchor performed her original piece Echo in the Distance. Now her spoken words are written in an illustrated children’s book that she’ll discuss at the School of Education’s Hubbs Children’s Literature Conference being held Feb. 24 at the University of St. Thomas.

“I always loved the language of it and thought it would make a great illustrated book,” said Reaves, who is an Emmy-award-winning journalist with more than a decade of experience in television news.

She found a publishing partner, Melanin Origins, and an illustrator, Kprecia Ambers, and in 2023 her dream of seeing her book in print came true. Echo in the Distance is a moving tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that he shared from the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, during the original March on Washington.

Reaves, who will be among several author panelists at the annual Hubbs Children's Literature Conference, learned about the event from Dr. Aura Wharton-Beck, associate professor of educational Leadership at St. Thomas. “She said this is somewhere you should be,” Reaves said. “When I read about it, I was elated to be a part of this and hopefully connect with other exceptional writers.”

The annual Hubbs Children’s Literature Conference is designed for parents, teachers, students, librarians, writers and others interested in encouraging the use of quality children’s literature in homes, schools, and communities. The conference, taking place Saturday, Feb. 24, from 8:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m. in the O’Shaughnessy Educational Center (OEC) auditorium, also provides an opportunity to share information and learn how to better meet the educational needs of youth.

Other featured authors for the 30th year of the conference are V.T. Bidania, Juana Martinez-Neal and Heather Bouwman. All of whom demonstrate the power of having diverse voices in a children's library, an important goal of the annual conference.

Author V.T. Bidania
V.T. Bidania

“The Hubbs presenters have offered us ‘windows and mirrors’ to reflect diverse representation in literature and amplify the voices of underrepresented authors and illustrators,” said Dr. Amy Smith, the interim dean of the School of Education at St. Thomas. “Thousands of educators have felt the impact of hearing firsthand from the authors and illustrators whose characters and themes come to life for them in a new way after attending the conference and having personal connections with the authors and illustrators.”

V.T. Bidania is the author of Astrid and Apollo, the first English-language children’s book series to feature Hmong American characters. The chapter books follow the slice-of-life adventures of 8-year-old twins Astrid and Apollo Lee and their Hmong American family in Minnesota. Her middle grade novel in verse, A Year Without a Home, will be published in 2025 by Nancy Paulsen Books and is a fictionalized memoir of her family's escape from Laos during the Vietnam War.

Author Juana Martinez-Neal
Juana Martinez-Neal

Named a New York Times bestselling illustrator, Juana Martinez-Neal is the recipient of the 2019 Caldecott Honor for her debut as an author-illustrator for her 2018 picture book Alma and How She Got Her Name (Candlewick Press). The book explores how Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela thinks she has too many names until her dad explains the significance of each one of her names.

Heather Bouwman, a professor of English at the University of St. Thomas, is the author of children’s novels such as Gossamer Summer (2023, Atheneum), A Crack in the Sea, (Putnam, 2017), and A Tear in the Ocean (2019), as well as the Owen and Eleanor early chapter book series (Beaming Books).

Bouwman, who has attended the Hubbs Conference for many years, said, “Hubbs has been such a great conference for St. Thomas to host—accessible and warm, with a lot of opportunity to meet the authors and ask questions about writing for children and children's literature."

Heather Bouwman
Dr. Heather Bouwman and St. Thomas alumna Tasha Kazanjian discuss the experience of publishing their books, at a St. Thomas event on Nov. 10, 2023, in St. Paul.
Brandon Woller '17 / University of St. Thomas

Reaves hopes that her publishing journey teaches those who are sitting on a dream or an idea that they haven't put into the world yet, that it’s not too late to get started. “You never know who is going to benefit from the story that you're not sharing, or who's going to be inspired by the experience that you are holding within you,” she said.

Shayla Michelle Reaves
Shayla Reaves helps unveil a book vending machine at Benjamin E. Mays Elementary School in St. Paul during Black History Month.

For herself, she always wanted to meet journalist Gayle King and publishing this book provided her that opportunity, including her first trip to New York when she met King when she appeared on CBS Morning News.

“It's also been eye-opening to see how teachers and students have found creative ways to incorporate this book into classrooms and learning,” she said. She saw that firsthand when she visited Franklin Middle School in Minneapolis, where, in preparation for her visit, a student spent 10 days creating a 3D model of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

“When you get this return, you’re connecting in a meaningful way,” said Reaves, who adds that she loves that teachers see how Echo in the Distance connects with the students. “Teachers are showing me all the ways this book has a potential to inspire, engage and teach students in ways that I never thought of,” she said.

Reaves hopes that the children who read the book realize that they still have a part in Dr. King’s dream. “I want kids to see themselves in the book, and with the diversity of characters, I want the kids to feel represented.”

She explains that she’s been told that the words of the book, which is meant for grades three through five, can be difficult.

“History is hard, too, and we don't necessarily get to choose history,” Reaves said. “And I also don’t think that you should choose to put down an interesting book because the words are hard. Educators have the power to think outside the box and bring a book to life in a way that shows students that there's value beyond the pages and they can get excited about learning.”

Article Spotlights