Children's dinner speakers Mo Willems, Shannon Hale and Shaun Tan.

As children’s books have come into their own through series like Harry Potter, Twilight and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, children’s programming has become more fully integrated into the New England Independent Booksellers Association annual trade show, held this year at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford from October 1-3. At the industry lunch that opened the show, not only did Andrew Clements receive an award for a children’s author’s body of work, but this year’s NEIBA publisher of the year, Tilbury House in Gardiner, Maine, has a strong children’s list.

Obviously many of the general programs are just as pertinent for children’s booksellers as their “adult” counterparts, from a panel on how editors decide what to buy, What Were They Thinking?, moderated by George Gibson, publishing director at Bloomsbury USA, to Independent Opportunities with Print on Demand. It’s not just adult books that customers have written and tucked away to be published someday.

Walter Wick (l.) welcomed Scholastic's Alan Smagler, other Scholastic staffers, and 70 New England booksellers to his studio.

In addition to programming that children’s booksellers have come to rely on each year, such as a presentation of the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council’s favorite books for the fall and its top 10 galley reviews, headed this year by Suzanne Collins’s Catching Fire (Scholastic), Walter Wick and his wife, Linda, opened their studio to 70 booksellers on Thursday afternoon. The 12,000-sq. ft. renovated firehouse showcases both Walter’s studio, which includes meticulously shelved and stored props as well as cameras, scanners and computers, and Linda’s collection of paintings, sculptures and ceramics of 20th-century art.

A strong proponent of urban redevelopment, the Wicks purchased the then-abandoned building for $20,000 from the city of Hartford, then turned it into an inviting space. On display were finished sets and models for the latest book in Wick’s Can You See What I See? series, Treasure Ship (Scholastic/Cartwheel, April). Wick told booksellers that many of the items he photographs have no intrinsic value; he searches flea markets both here and abroad, as well as eBay for props. A few items that he bought in France hadn’t had a chance to be stored yet and were on display. The overall affect of toys and art was striking. Stanley Hadsell, manager of Market Block Books in Troy, N.Y., perhaps said it best: “The studio brings out my inner kindergartner.”

Alison Morris of Wellesley Booksmith in Wellesley, Mass., and Mimi Powell of Baker Books in North Dartmouth, Mass.,
checked out the treasure chest,
a scene from Wick's newest book.

NECBA co-chair Kenny Brechner, owner of Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, also brought up kindergarten at Thursday night’s children’s dinner, to call attention to what he sees as prejudice toward children’s booksellers who are sometimes viewed as childlike by their “adult” peers. “More owners like to see themselves as university professors. Children’s booksellers are more like kindergarten teachers,” he said, as he showed slides of a mock-up of a 2010 Men’s Calendar, in which he was the featured bookseller for every month.

For the most part the dinner offered a night for laughter, with perhaps the funniest slide show being that of Newbery Honor winner Shannon Hale, who examined her close friendship with other authors. Not. In every shot they were either oblivious to Hale standing several feet away or actively trying to get away from her. In the final pictures, she was handcuffed and led away by police.

Both Mo Willems and Shaun Tan discussed their drawing process. Tan said that he has always been attracted to drawing strange characters and to turning seemingly everyday scenes into art. “The more boring it is, the more challenge I feel, like van Gogh painting his chair,” he noted. While Willems complained, “I wake up every morning and I have to write books for illiterates. Unless my book is incomprehensible, it’s not any good. My job is to put in as little as possible until it’s so fragile that only a reader can make it make sense.”

Hale (center) chatted with Jessica Wood of Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., and Vicky Uminowicz of Titcomb's Bookshop in East Sandwich, Mass.

Children’s books may be ringing in sales, but many of the events to promote them are not. At a panel on Enough with the Good Will, moderated by Random House sales rep Kate Sullivan, panelists Vicky Uminowicz of Titcomb’s Bookshop in East Sandwich, Mass., and Jessica Wood of Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., agreed with PW blogger Josie Leavitt, co-owner of the Flying Pig in Shelburne, Vt., who said, “I haven’t done anything that made money.” Instead the panelists offered tips ranging from buying less food and asking for co-op, to having students introduce the authors and not turning down self-published author events. Brechner focused on using technology for events, such as Skyping in authors for teen book groups, and creating widgets of student reviews that can then be posted on school and classroom Web sites.

While much of this year’s show was aimed at children’s booksellers, children’s books could have an even more central place next year. Certainly there’s a special bond between newly elected NEIBA president Dick Hermans, owner of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton and Rhinebeck, N.Y., and one of the incoming NECBA cochairs, Suzanna Hermans; she’s his daughter. The Flying Pig’s Leavitt is the other cochair.