Breakfast speakers Meg Cabot, Tomie dePaola, Julie Andrews and Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Photo: Stevekagan.com.
The children’s author breakfast was a celebration of books and music for the 1,200 booksellers who packed the special events hall at Javits Friday morning. After the WNBA's Pannell Awards were handed out to this year's two recipients — Mrs. Nelson’s Toy and Book Shop in LaVerne, Calif., and Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati — film star and author Julie Andrews set a whimsical tone for the event by declaring, “Wouldn’t this have been fun if this had been a pajama party and we all could have rolled out of bed and come to breakfast? I feel as if I did.”
After noting that “certain circles” regard her as a “celebrity author,” which “really irritates her,” Andrews recalled her childhood in England, “always scribbling,” encouraged by a teacher to write, as long as she also learned geography and mathematics. Her passion for reading was encouraged by her father, who “opened my eyes, my senses, and my emotions to all the miracles of life,” including a love of books. Andrews, who’s written children’s books for the past 38 years, and has collaborated with her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton for the past 12, talked about their latest effort, Julie Andrews’s Collection of Poems, Songs, and Lullabies. The anthology contains 150 poems, songs and lullabies that all have “special meaning” for either her or her daughter, ranging from classic poems written by A.A. Milne to poems written by Andrews and Hamilton themselves, as well as poems written by Andrews’s father and grandfather.
Yarrow serenades Julie Andrews (center) and her daughter and co-editor Emma Walton Hamilton.
“Our hope is that parents and their children will read and re-read the poems, and that this will be a keepsake to bring families together,” Andrews declared. Before turning the microphone over to the panel of three authors, “who are really the megastars in this sandbox we’re all playing in,” she asked, “What better way to kick off our program but with a song?” and introduced a surprise guest, folk singer Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary.
Performing his classic “Day Is Done,” to “usher in the day,” Yarrow persuaded the crowd to sing along with him, even asking them, “Do you want me to tell the people in my world that the people in the publishing world sing so meekly?” He then launched into “Puff the Magic Dragon,” changing the last words to “in a land called BEA.”
After Yarrow’s musical interlude, the focus of the event turned back to books and their creators, as Meg Cabot (Allie Finkle’s Rules for Girls: Book 4 Stage Fright), Tomie dePaola (Brava, Strega Nona!), and Amy Krouse Rosenthal (Duck! Rabbit!) took turns talking about their childhoods and the long, sometimes meandering, often rocky road to literary success.
Displaying childhood photos, Cabot—who sounded exactly like an adult version of the teen girl in The Princess Diaries—revealed that her mother had worked in a bookstore in a college town (Bloomington, Ind.), and that Cabot had worked there during the holidays as a gift wrapper, moving up to cashier. But while Cabot read books voraciously and wrote stories “with princesses in them,” she never thought she could become a writer. All the professors living on her street had published academic tomes, so she thought to be published, she would have to be “really old and have a gray beard.” After her father died, however, Cabot realized that “if you want to do something, just do it,” and started submitting her work to publishers. She was finally published after three years of receiving rejection letters, because she “didn’t give up.” The “worst thing isn’t that you can be rejected,” she said. “It’s that someone can die.” And now, she added, she’s a prolific author, the Princess Diaries books have been made into two movies, and she “got to meet Julie Andrews,” who appeared in both films.
Concluding her remarks, Cabot revealed her three rules to live by: “1. Never pass a bathroom without going in. Especially at BEA. 2. Treat people the way you want to be treated. 3. Never give up. If I’d given up after receiving all those rejection letters, I wouldn't be here today,” she said.
Tomie dePaola, who attended the first children’s breakfast at BEA (then ABA) in 1978, and spoke at it along with Madeleine L’Engle and E.L. Konigsberg two years later, broke into a rendition of “The Sound of Music,” before expressing his surprise at being invited to speak this year, as he “thought you only get one shot at appearing at the children’s breakfast.” Recalling how at four years old, he’d told his family he was going to grow up to be an artist and write books and illustrate them, as well as sing and tapdance on stage, dePaola said, “I’m proud to say, at age 75, I’ve done it all.” After being rejected by editors who did not appreciate his wanting to draw pink giraffes and purple elephants,” dePaola’s first published work was a science book, which was panned by the New York Times for “having too much imagination.” Now, with 200 titles to his name, dePaola marveled that there are 50 million of his books in print, “though my assistant wants to know where all the royalties are.”
Explaining that his popular character, Strega Nona, the heroine of his latest books, is based on his grandmother, who lived with him and his parents when he was a child, dePaola emphasized the importance of keeping an open mind when conceptualizing stories. “I don’t write Strega Nona books. Strega Nona channels books through me,” he insisted.
Following dePaola, Amy Krouse Rosenthal called her 15-minute presentation “15 minutes of Ame,” and revealed that she “never thought there would come a day when [she’d] have something to say.” Calling herself “questioncentric,” she said “she just had a million questions all the time” as a child. Answering 10 questions she posed to herself, she described “lots of rejections and dead ends” before being published, but she believes in two key concepts: “striving and letting go,” as she “creates and curates” projects. It’s all about looking for ideas, she explained. “Whatever it is that you are looking for, you will find.”
After asking, “Can you believe we’re all here with Julie Andrews?” Rosenthal pulled out a little music box that played “Chim Chiminey” from Mary Poppins. Thanking booksellers for supporting her, she then asked if anyone in the audience had a child or grandchild celebrating a birthday that day. After two people raised their hands, she promised to call the children and read them a bedtime story that night.
“We have a short time on this planet,” Rosenthal declared. “We have the responsibility to focus on the things that fit us. I feel most like myself when I have a pen in my hand. It fits me.”
“Make the book, sell the book, do the thing, be the you that makes you feel like [an exclamation point],” she said.
Sending the booksellers off to the show floor at the breakfast’s conclusion, Andrews quoted Gabriel Garcia Marquez, saying, “Books matter. Words count,” and thanking the crowd for “putting books in the hands of children and keeping reading a priority for generations to come.”
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