I just attended my first ALA conference. “Overwhelming” is the word I find myself using to describe it, but it was also fun. (And not just because I took the L with some friends to catch Second City’s Let Them Eat Chaos.)

If you are a picture book enthusiast, as I am, it was a particularly good year to be at an ALA conference. Given that 2013 is the 75th year of the Caldecott Award, there were many picture book celebrations lined up. The best, by far, was the preconference event, "A Wild Ride: 75 Years of the Caldecott Medal," on Friday at the Art Institute of Chicago. We were treated to picture book authors and illustrators sharing discussions of their craft, and we heard from editors as well (Neal Porter of Roaring Brook Press, Lee Wade of Schwartz & Wade Books, and Patti Ann Harris of Little, Brown).

 Brian Selznick kicked the day off with an enthusiastic and well-researched look at Caldecott winners and Honors over the years. His talk also served as a tribute to his mentor and friend, the late Maurice Sendak. Selznick’s heartfelt words, which ended with photos of the artwork left on Sendak’s desk at the time of his death, were very moving.

Paul O. Zelinsky closed the day with a very entertaining talk about the future of picture books, and in between we were treated to picture book panel discussions with award-winning artists. We also engaged in group work, during which each of us became students again, discussing Caldecott winners throughout the years. I also participated in a break-out session all about Leonard Marcus’ new biography of Randolph Caldecott himself. Other participants had a range of topics from which to choose for their own break-out group work.

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The ALSC folks in charge of this preconference event really did a bang-up job of providing some great content at a stellar location. The museum is even currently hosting a small exhibit of Caldecott art, which continues till December of this year, and it is well worth a look.

The three speeches at the Youth Media Awards banquet—Caldecott, Newbery and Wilder speeches—were outstanding. As I said, it was my first ALA, and I’ve been told by seasoned conference-goers that this year may be hard to top. No one rambled for too long (always a relief); everyone was sincere and funny; and each speech, in its own way, was remarkable for its emotion and truth. Jon Klassen is modest and soft-spoken; Katherine Applegate entertained us with her humor, warm wit and samples of what she called her bad romance-novel writing over the years; and Katherine Paterson reminded us all, graciously, that it’s the teachers and librarians of this world who connect children with books.Lion and the Mouse

My primary reason for attending was to be a part of a Friday night celebration honoring the late Peter D. Sieruta, my co-author and friend. A group of us gathered to remember the reclusive blogger who entertained us with anecdotes in the field of children’s and YA literature at his blog, Collecting Children’s Books. We lost Peter a year ago this past May, but his legacy lives in the words of those who admired his work and/or who had, at one time or another, worked with him. His brother, whom he loved dearly, was able to attend, and I know Peter’s family appreciates the opportunity for us to pause to remember and honor Peter and his writing.

A few more things I learned about ALA at my first-ever conference: 

The exhibit hall is not for the faint of heart. I lasted about five minutes the first time I visited and then just ditched it to get coffee with a dear friend. I made it back later, mind you, and it’s wonderful, but if you’re even slightly introverted, it takes getting used to.

Be choosy—VERY choosy—about the books/galleys/etc. you pick up at said exhibit hall.

Good roommates make all the difference.

Brian Selznick’s glitter shirt (worn the night he gave his Caldecott acceptance speech and also worn at this year’s preconference event) is a force of nature.

Ethan Long, who woMelissa Sweet-2n this year’s Geisel Award for Up, Tall and High!, is also a funny and moving speaker. He described getting the big call about winning the award as sounding a lot like “Ladies’ Night at Bennigan’s.” It was at that point that I nearly snort-laughed, yet not 10 minutes later he had us all wiping our eyes at his tribute to his father.

I will never look at the cover of Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion & the Mouse again without seeing Pinkney’s face. Also, hearing him speak was a shiny-bright highlight of this conference for me.

Travis Jonker is very tall and, therefore, easy to spot in a crowded room.

Melissa Sweet wins the award for best Caldecott Head Gear on the night of the awards banquet. Here is a picture of her “this is not to say” headband, which pays homage to the 2009 Caldecott Honor book by Jen Bryant, A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams. Classy.

I don’t know if I’ll make it to next year’s annual conference in Las Vegas, but I do know that I learned and enjoyed enough at this year’s conference to last me a long while.

Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.