Southern California’s community of children’s book devotees was out in full force this past weekend at the 19th annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, where more than 100,000 attendees enjoyed meeting their favorite authors and illustrators on April 12 and 13 on the sprawling campus of USC.
There were attractions galore in the festival’s children’s area, from a live illustration demo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Peanut Butter and Jellyfish) and custom-made balloon animals to photo ops with costumed characters, and multiple book signings. Loud screams from fans of John Green filled the Skylight Books booth during the popular author’s talk in an auditorium behind the bookstore’s tent. “Every few minutes we heard cheers and screams from the kids inside,” said Skylight’s Mary Williams.
The absence this year of former festival sponsor Target, always the biggest presence at the event, allowed not only for more room in the aisles of the children’s section but additional sales for the participating indies. “The Times asked us to be a ‘special seller’ this year for events on the children’s stage, so our sales were way up,” said Once Upon a Time bookstore owner Maureen Palacios. “We had no idea what to expect from having two different booths, but we were ready and had enough product. We’re glad for the opportunity.” Other indies that were designated “special sellers” for children’s books included Vroman’s, Pages, and Skylight, all of whom benefitted from Target’s absence.
As usual at the festival, there were dozens of panels, most of them completely sold out, featuring children’s book authors and illustrators. The “Young Adult Fiction: Testing the Boundaries” panel was moderated by novelist Aaron Hartzler (Rapture Practice), and featured E. Lockhart (We Were Liars), Rainbow Rowell (Fangirl), Andrew Smith (Grasshopper Jungle), and John Corey Whaley (Noggin).
“We Were Liars is about coming to terms with the bodies we’re given,” said Lockhart, who writes about a teenager who withdraws from the world as an invalid. “The character’s migraine headaches create a boundary between her and the rest of the world.” Rowell spoke frankly to the audience and said that she works out her problems through her books. “Kath, the character in Fangirl, struggles with being anti-social and insecure. She has such powerful boundaries that she has few if any friends.” Smith surprised the audience by saying he didn’t intend Grasshopper Jungle to be published, because of its frank nature. “But I’ve always resisted boundaries and constraints,” he said. “In this book the character doesn’t fit in the box or match up with any label.” Whalen called Noggin a book about expectations, particularly of someone who becomes as wildly famous as Noggin does. “I’m exploring teenage vulnerability in the book,” he said, “when the whole world expects you to know what to do with the rest of your life.”
Hartzler noted that the characters in each of the panelists’ new books seem to have an “I don’t care” attitude regarding who they are in the world. The same might be said for the panelists, who were vocal in resisting the labeling of their books as YA. “I don’t think about the audience when I write,” Rowell said. “I don’t have a ‘sophistication meter’ – I just try to get inside a teen’s head.” Smith said he writes for “smart people who like to read. I write about teens, not for them,” and added that young characters “have lots of wiggle room for making mistakes. Readers wouldn’t tolerate that in adults.”
Agent Kelly Sonnack of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency moderated the “Children’s Books: Inspiring Young Minds” panel, and led a freewheeling discussion about craft. A show-and-tell kicked things off as Sonnack briefly presented recent picture books from the four panelists: John Rocco’s Super Hair-o and the Barber of Doom; Jennifer Fosberry’s Isabella, Star of the Story, illustrated by Mike Litwin; Doreen Cronin’s The Chicken Squad, illustrated by Kevin Cornell; and Mac Barnett’s President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen.
With the exception of Fosberry, whose inspiration is her daughter Isabella, the panelists said that they mine their own childhoods for ideas and inspiration. “I had an enormous Afro when I was a kid, and my mom was okay with that,” said Rocco. “There were 14 neighbor kids on my block, and all the boys had long hair, too.” Fosberry comes from a family of librarians, including her mother, grandmother, and cousin. She said her new book is a love letter to them and how they inspired her to write. Cronin, growing up on Long Island with a police officer for a father, extolled the virtues of getting into “really good trouble” when she was a child and she and her friends were allowed to play outside all day long. “My two daughters never get into trouble,” she said, laughing. “It’s so different now.” As for Barnett, “President Taft is the closest to me of all the characters in my books.”
Sonnack asked the panelists how they “push away from the world” to work. “I don’t have an organized process,” Cronin said. “I’m easily distracted. You’ll find me working on six things at the same time, and the one that speaks louder ends up getting my attention.” Barnett said that he experiences “vast stretches of not doing anything, followed by frantic activity.” Rocco writes and draws at the same time when working on a picture book, “with give and take on both sides.”
The panel wrapped up with questions from the audience, including one about how to settle on an idea for a book. “If you have a lot going on in your head, just pick one idea and go with it,” Cronin suggested. “That way you’ll make more room for new inspirations.” The final question focused on challenges found in the editing process, and how to negotiate with editors that want to make changes the author doesn’t agree with. “First, you have to make books for yourself and no one else,” Rocco said before giving an example of one of his editorial experiences. “My publisher didn’t want the word ‘hair’ in the title of my new book. I was baffled. My book is about hair – why leave it out of the title? Then I found out that the art director was really squeamish about the word. She wouldn’t back down. So I started sending her an email every day with one word in it: hair. She finally caved in, and the title stayed.” The audience applauded wildly.