For children’s booksellers, the two highlights of this year’s Midwest Booksellers Association’s trade show, held in St. Paul, Minn., on October 1 and 2, were a panel of three children’s booksellers pitching their favorite fall releases to a room of about 75 of their colleagues, and the annual children’s book and author breakfast. Both events provided moments of hijinks and hilarity during an otherwise sedate gathering of booksellers.
Nancy Simpson-Brice, the owner of the Book Vault, in Oskaloosa, Iowa, quickly had booksellers out of their seats during her presentation of the season’s best picture books during Friday’s panel, “Children’s Booksellers Pick Their Favorite Kids’ Books for Fall 2010.” After singing passages from If You’re a Monster and You Know It by Rebecca and Ed Emberley (Scholastic), Simpson-Brice asked for some audience participation. She got some booksellers dancing the “Moo Cow Jive” and the “Moo Cow Boog-a-Loo,” and others rolling around on the floor, as she read from Counting Cows by Michelle Medlock-Adams, illustrated by Mark Meyers (Candy Cane Press).
After presenting the rest of her top 15 picture books, Simpson-Brice gave up the floor to Julie Wilson, from the Bookworm in Omaha, Neb., who presented her 13 favorite fall titles for middle-graders. Her selections ranged from historical novels, like Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus (Abrams/Amulet); to dystopian reads like The Limit by Kristen Landon (S&S/Aladdin); to a magical read, “with a little of Harry Potter in it, a little good and evil, a little darkness,” Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh (Scholastic/Chicken House); to Wilson’s “absolute favorite book of the season,” Plain Kate by Erin Bow (Scholastic/Levine), which “bridges middle-grade and YA, it’s so layered,” with a “brilliant and strong heroine” that both boy and girl readers will love.
Melissa Posten, self-described “children’s/YA guru” at Pudd’nHead Books in Webster Groves, Mo., spoke very quickly as she presented her 17 favorite YA novels in her 13-minute time slot. Posten’s picks seemed to fall into three categories: historical fiction, futuristic dystopian fiction, and vampire novels. She started off with her favorite book of not just the season, but the entire year: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly (Random House), which she called “extraordinary,” adding that she doesn’t say such things lightly.
“I’m not sure if it’s time travel; I’m not sure if it’s paranormal. It doesn’t matter: the writing is so amazing,” she declared, warning that it crosses into the adult category, as certain passages focusing on the protagonist’s sorrow over losing her brother are so intense, they could traumatize a younger reader.
Moving beyond fall, Posten concluded her presentation by talking up an April 2011 release, Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt (Houghton Mifflin), a sequel to The Wednesday Wars, which she declared even better than The Wednesday Wars, and already her pick for a 2012 Newbery Award. “I read it three times on my cell phone,” she reported. “You want your Houghton rep to send it to you.”
Despite the fact that the Midwest Booksellers Association’s children’s book and author breakfast requires one to arrive at the show venue by 7:30 a.m. to score a seat, it’s always an exciting roster of great authors, guaranteed to wake up even the groggiest booksellers. This year’s event was no exception, with two children’s authors – Anna Dewdney (Llama, Llama, Holiday Drama, Viking) and Joyce Sidman (Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night, Houghton Mifflin) – joining two book authors – Tony DiTerlizzi (The Search for WondLa, S&S) and Suzanne Collins (Mockingjay, Scholastic) – at the podium, speaking to 168 booksellers.
DiTerlizzi raised the energy level in the room right away during his presentation, jolting the audience awake by expressing his appreciation at speaking before booksellers in a region “that really cherishes its authors,” as the huge screen to the side displayed his altered photo of a huge Kate DiCamillo Terminal sign inside the Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport.
Quoting Albert Einstein, DiTerlizzi declared, “If you want your child to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales,” adding, “I don’t understand anything else he wrote.”
Saying that he’s always conscious of what “the 10-year-old Tony would want in a book,” DiTerlizzi described the impact of fairy tales and classic children’s books upon his creative process, especially Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and the Wizard of Oz books, as well more modern influences, like the Star Wars movies.
“I often look backwards before moving forward,” DiTerlizzi declared, describing the impact upon the Spiderwick Chronicles and The Search for WondLa of late 18th-century and 19th-century children’s book illustrators like English Golden Age illustrator Walter Crane. DiTerlizzi explained how he enhances his 21st-century fairy tales by using 21st-century technology to replicate classic children’s book illustrations from the 19th century, with their heavy lines and dashes of color amid the black and white.
Dewdney, whom breakfast m.c. Vicki Erwin, owner of Main Street Books in St. Charles, Mo., called the “Llama Llama Mama,” apologized to the booksellers for not coming armed with a PowerPoint presentation, and declared, “I don’t create a world at all, I just tell the truth”—about animals that “walk around on their hind legs, wear sneakers, go shopping, [and] talk.”
After describing that she wanted to write books to reassure children who might feel “small and anxious in a very big world,” Dewdney added that it’s important to her to use words and pictures to convey that “as scary and as big this world can be, it’s not as bad as it seems sometimes.”
Wanting to reassure those who might feel small and anxious in a big world comes naturally to Dewdney. Rather than talking up her latest release, she spent most of her time allotted reassuring independent booksellers who might feel small and anxious in a big world full of chain bookstores, big box stores, Amazon.com—and now e-books—that things aren’t as bad as they might seem. “You’re not only selling books, you’re also selling the experience of reading,” Dewdney insisted. “Big stores don’t help create our culture. You, the real booksellers, [do].
“When all the dust settles,” she predicted, “Real books, made of paper, will still be there. And they’ll still be sold by real people who’ve actually read them. Especially books for children.”
Following Dewdney to the podium, Sidman talked of her lifelong fascination with the darkness of the forest, which began when she attended summer camp in Maine as a child. There was no electricity there, so “when it got dark, it got dark everywhere.”
Children love to read and to write poetry, she explained, and one of their favorite subjects is the night, “perhaps because it’s a little bit scary and a little bit thrilling.”
Giving a shout-out to Dark Emperor’s illustrator, printmaker Rick Allen, Sidman urged the booksellers to “savor these illustrations,”as Allen captured “all the amazing nocturnal gorgeousness” of creatures of the night. Sidman urged her audience to visit Allen’s studio, Kenspeckle Letterpress, in Duluth, Minn., which is full of “fascinating, old-fashioned things,” like a “candy store” for booklovers.
Collins, who grew up in a military family and used to write for children’s television, before writing The Hunger Games, explained that the major influences upon her fiction writing are a lifelong interest in Greek mythology, fascination with “all things” Roman gladiators, and a “maniacal” obsession with war.
“But my fascination with all of these things is not in itself reason enough for me to write the [first] book. For me, a story requires an emotional charge. The inspiration behind the Hunger Games is much more personal,” she explained, recalling how, one evening, while she was flipping channels on television, she watched a group of young people competing for money on a reality show and then a group of young people fighting for survival in “an actual war” being waged in Iraq.
“I was tired, and the lines began to blur in an unsettling way, and I thought of this story,” she said, disclosing that the incident may have affected her so strongly, because her father went to Vietnam in 1968, which did not in itself worry her, until one afternoon, she inadvertently saw graphic footage of the war being aired on the evening news.
“I think we’re all getting a little numb, a little desensitized to the images on our television,” Collins insisted, “If it’s a sitcom, that’s OK. But if it’s a real-life tragedy unfolding, you shouldn’t be thinking of yourself as an audience member. Because it doesn’t go away when the commercials come on. In fact, it doesn’t even go away when your dad gets home safely.”
Recalling the impact of television coverage of 9/11 upon her own son, who was a second-grader in Manhattan at the time, Collins declared, “It’s hard to talk to kids about war; it’s very tough stuff. I don’t think, given our current situation in this country, we can have enough books out there trying to help them understand it.”
Collins admitted that her stories are dark, but said they are written with the hope that, if there would be a more open dialogue about war presented to children at an earlier age, including a discussion of the true costs of war upon society, we could “possibly find more nonviolent methods of conflict resolution.”