Remembrances of Things Past

Nancy Cummings

[Nancy Cummings with George Woods, the New York Times Children’s Book Editor as dinner guests of the Lippincott Publishing Company at the 1973 ALA Conference in Las Vegas.]

This piece was written because after 41 years, the American Library Association is finally coming back to Las Vegas for its annual conference June, 2014.  It was considered a controversial site for years because of its “sin city” image and the ALA Administration steered clear of it as a location for future conferences.  That is no longer the case and Las Vegas is hosting the conference once again.  Here is a recollection of my experiences at the first ALA Las Vegas Conference.

Remembrances of Things Past:  American Library Association Conference—Las Vegas—1973

Nancy Cummings, Retired Washoe County Library Director

The year was 1972.  I was the Young People’s Services Librarian at the brand new Clark County Library on Flamingo Road in Las Vegas.  My boss, Library Director Charles Hunsberger, took me to my first ever American Library Association Conference in Chicago where I also attended my first ever Newbery-Caldecott dinner.  This being one of the most prestigious events of the conference bestows the coveted Newbery Medal to a children’s author and the Caldecott Medal to a children’s illustrator. 

ALA was coming to Las Vegas the following year.  Since I was the head of the Young People’s Library I was considered the logical point person for the Children’s Services Division (now known as ALSC) to take care of local arrangements for their meetings and events including the Newbery- Caldecott dinner.   I was invited to meet with the members of the NC dinner committee. I learned they had 26 librarians working on several committees to plan the dinner.  They told me I should have at least 25 people.  This was no small feat for me since just four of us made up the YPL staff for the Clark County Library System at the time!

 When I got back home, I was able to get seven people together as my core group including my staff and a couple of school librarians.  This group made up “The Committee.”

Our committee began working on arrangements for the dinner as well as several events including a special reception for members of the Division.  As if we didn’t have enough to do, we decided the Conference was an opportune time to create an event emphasizing the issues of racism and sexism in children’s literature.  We decided to have a luncheon.   It was scheduled at the community center in West Las Vegas, the African American part of town.  Minority authors and illustrators were honored at the luncheon.  As we   munched on collard greens, ham and corn bread, the issues were debated.  We called it the Newcott-Caldebury Luncheon, what we thought was a gentle parody on the Newbery-Caldecott Dinner. Needless to say this raised more than one eyebrow amongst the CSD leadership group, and I took a bit of criticism for it.

Just about the time the luncheon was ending, I had a frantic phone call from the Conference hotel.  It seemed that the banquet crew did not have the guest list with all the table assignments for the Newbery-Caldecott dinner.   Nobody could find the list.  Did I have a copy?  Well, I did, and I was rushed back to the hotel.  What with all the famous authors, illustrators, publishers, etc., we had to get those table assignments right.  Somehow we managed to get everything done just two hours before the dinner.   It was a wild time!

We planned a special procession at the start of the dinner which included everyone seated at the head table.  Leading the group was one of my staff members wearing a huge paper mache “wicked Oni” head.  This was in honor of the Caldecott Award winner, The Funny Little Woman illustrated by Blair Lent.  Our staff artist had done a beautiful life-size stuffed animal rendering of a wolf in honor of the Newbery winner, Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George. It was prominently displayed at the front of the room.

Since I was Chair of Local Arrangements, I was part of the head table procession.   And there I sat at the very end of the head table in a bit of a haze from all the excitement, thinking to myself—“We did it, and I’m not even a member of ALA!” 

That was rectified soon after.  I became a bona fide ALA member, actively involved in the Children’s Services Division.  One of the results of that involvement was being elected to the Newbery- Caldecott Committee, and I was honored to be part of the group that selected the winners in 1979.