Children’s book fans at the show turned out bright and early last Wednesday morning during BEA for the annual Children’s Book and Author Breakfast, presented with the support of the ABA, ABC, and CBC. Given her late-breaking influence-peddling scandal, all eyes were on master of ceremonies Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, who showed off a self-deprecating sense of humor in her opening remarks. Ferguson’s appearance followed a brief ceremony honoring the bookstores that won the WNBA’s 2010 Lucile Pannell award and a performance by 4Troops, a singing quarter of soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and have a forthcoming book with Newmarket Press.
Joining Ferguson were authors Cory Doctorow (For the Win; Tor), Mitali Perkins (Bamboo People; Charlesbridge), and Richard Peck (Three Quarters Dead; Dial). Ferguson’s latest children’s book project is the Helping Hand Books series with Sterling, which debuts this fall with four titles addressing common children issues. “Maybe I should take a leaf out of one of my own books,” Ferguson joked (one of the books is Ashley Learns About Strangers).
Ferguson discussed founding the charitable organization Children in Crisis and said that the “three Cs”—“communication, compassion, and compromise”—are at the core of her new books. Before introducing Doctorow, she remarked, “At the end of the day, I’m a children’s book author, I’m Sarah Ferguson, I’m a mother, and I’m very proud of that.”
Doctorow choked down tears at several points during his presentation, which covered his path to becoming a young adult writer—something he said was inextricably entwined with his being a young adult reader. His early experiences with storytelling included his father’s kid-friendly, socialist reinterpretations of Conan the Barbarian, reading Daniel Pinkwater, and seeing Star Wars on the big screen. “I had never seen a story as complex as Star Wars before,” he said, recalling that he took to writing the story of Star Wars over and over, “like a piano player practicing scales.”
He had been touring in support of For the Win, his story about gamers from across the globe attempting to unionize, and said that while the experience of writing can grow more banal over time, meeting fans is a constant source of excitement and energy. “Young adult literature is the most serious literature we have,” he said, “because it’s written for the most serious audience we have.” Doctorow also plugged the Creative Commons license under which For the Win and Little Brother were written, allowing fans to “remix” his work; in fact reader-translated versions of Little Brother are circulating underground in Burma and Iran. Citing a quotation by writer Dennis Lee, he said, “I want to write young adult literature to inspire kids to live and work as if we’re in the early days of a better nation.”
While discussing her path to becoming a writer, Perkins dwelled on the idea of books serving as mirrors and/or windows for readers. Perkins recalled her first time entering the Queens Public Library (“at seven years old, I felt like I’d walked into Ali Baba’s cave of treasures”), which began a love affair with books including Little Women, The Little Princess, and Emily of Deep Valley. Despite being raised in a “village Bengali” home environment in Queens and in California, Perkins said she used these books as mirrors to her own life (namely her love of her sisters and a growing sense of social awareness).
Perkins said she was gratified that such a mirror worked both ways—she described getting a letter from a reader in Lancaster, Pa., who was able to draw parallels between her life and that of the protagonist in Perkins’ Secret Keeper, which is set in 1970s India. She praised booksellers’ ability to connect children with books they might not immediately gravitate toward, equating them with a “slant of light” that has “the power to change mirror books into window books and window books into mirror books.”
“The English may have invented childhood, but we Americans invented adolescence,” said Peck, who cited the 1973 abolishment of the draft by Nixon as the moment in which the balance of power shifted from adults to youth. He described the frustrations that led him to leave the teaching profession in the 1970s (such as the loss of Latin in classrooms and the change replacement of English with language arts—which he called “English without grammar or homework”). He tempered his description of the current state of YA publishing as a “golden age” by calling this a “dark age to be young,” in large part due to the technological revolution, with “screens that stay hot long into the night, long after parents have gone to sleep.”
Peck’s forthcoming novel, Three Quarters Dead, grew out of a real-life traffic accident, which killed several teenagers (the driver was on her cell phone). The protagonist of the novel “loses her entire peer group and can’t speed dial them back into being. I had to tell the story slant,” Peck said,” because real life is too extreme for fiction.”