This year’s BookExpo Children’s Book & Author Dinner took place via Facebook Live, where more than 700 booksellers and others viewed in real time a diverse group of authors, ranging from the iconic Judy Blume to younger voices such as Kwame Mbalia and Raj Haldar. The six speakers emphasized how reading and writing helped them find their voices in what is sometimes a difficult world to navigate.
Moderated by ReedPop’s content director Matt Wasowski, the event kicked off with Blume talking about her past, her present, and the 50th anniversary edition of her classic novel, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (Atheneum). Blume disclosed that this is her fourth time as a Children’s Book & Author Breakfast speaker, and that she was one of the speakers at the first such breakfast in 1978, in Atlanta, with Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss. “It was a very heady experience,” she said.
“I don’t think there will be a fifth time, and not just because I’m so old,” she joked, adding that Are You There, God? was her third novel, but also the one in which she “let go” and wrote most freely, and spontaneously, much more so than any of her subsequent 28 novels, the last of which took five years to write. Disclosing that for a long time she had resisted the notion of her character, Margaret, moving to the big screen, Blume sounded genuinely enthused that a cinematic adaptation of Are You There, God?, was meant to be filmed this summer (though the pandemic has delayed the production).
Blume explained that she isn’t writing anymore: for the past four years, she has been selling books at her bookstore, Books & Books Key West, which is affiliated with Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla. “Do I miss writing?” she asked, “Not really. I have fallen in love with my new life as a bookseller. Fifty years is long enough to have said whatever it is I wanted to say. Now it’s my pleasure to introduce books to young readers.”
Following Blume, Natalie Portman, who is both a debut children’s book author and a movie star, presented Natalie Portman’s Fables (Feiwel and Friends). Noting that she was “in shock” to be in the company of Blume “who helped shape my childhood,” Portman described herself as a lifelong reader, due to being an only child in a family that was “constantly moving. Books were my constant companion.” Books helped her understand what life was like for children whose lives and worlds were different from her own. Books, Portman said, provided her with “escape, stimulation, and affection” when she started acting at age 11. Books helped her be “less of a stranger,” though, at the same time, “a bit more strange.”
Having a son (born in 2011) and a daughter (born in 2017) made Portman realize that classic literature relies on certain gender tropes and that readers make assumptions about the gender of even animals in stories, and that male characters outnumber female characters in books, even about animals.
“We’re valuing male stories over female ones,” Portman said, explaining that classic children’s books socialize females in a negative way. “We as girls have so much practice in how boys must feel, how they must think, how they must see the world, and we’re primed to do the same as adults. We’re experts at seeing the world through others’ eyes and not enough through our own. I wanted to see how I could preserve the stories I love and their messages while also creating a world with a gender distribution that reflected nature.”
Portman recalled that when she was younger, and a big fan of the Babysitters Club series, she was desperate to gain access to author Ann M. Martin to ask her to include a Jewish character in her tales, so that Portman would feel represented. “I wanted to see myself. I wanted to see someone specifically from my own culture there. Representation matters.”
Regarding her own collection of fables, she said she did not want to discard the classic tales, but wanted to make them “reflective of all genders, and hopefully, inspire empathy towards all genders.”
Misty Copeland, the first black woman to be promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, spoke next about her forthcoming picture book, Bunheads (Putnam), noting that she became a reader and writer at an early age due to being the fourth child in a single-parent home with six children. “Writing for me became a source of expression for me from a very young age,” she said. “I kept all of my journals, which definitely helped me write my memoir. Writing was the first expression I had before ballet came into my life.”
“I’ve often used my personal experiences to create these fantastical stories,” she said, noting that Bunheads, about two girls in ballet school who become best friends. was inspired by her early experiences beginning ballet at the age of 13.
“I didn’t enter the ballet world with any preconceived notions of what it was to be black in the ballet world,” she said, “It’s not about the package you come in, it’s about the art you produce. It’s really important for children to see and know it’s not so one-layered and superficial.”
Raj Halder, a rapper known as Lushlife to his fans, explained that “not being a children’s book author by trade” facilitated his “getting these improbable, absurd subversively educational books into the world”—P Is for Pterodactyl: The Worst Alphabet Book Ever and the forthcoming No Reading Allowed: The WORST Read-Aloud Book Ever (both Sourcebooks Kids), cowritten by Chris Carpenter—even though P Is for Pterodactyl was rejected by 17 publishers before Sourcebooks acquired it.
Approaching children’s book writing as an outsider, he said, allowed him to “think outside of the box” and to “have fun with the English language” as there are “more exceptions than rules.” His philosophy, he said, is to encourage children to have fun while exploring what adults might consider to be complex concepts, including the “sheer absurdity of the English language.” Each page spread of No Reading Aloud features two sentences that include homophones: words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings.
Adults underestimate what children are capable of sometimes, he maintained, “Kids want to push the boundaries, they want to make sense of a nonsensical world.”
Marie Lu explained while she has written several dystopian SFF novels, she feels that she should just transcribe what is going on in the world today, as “nothing in my books can ever be as dark and weird as what is happening in the real world, or has happened.” Lu noted that her dystopian novels are “snapshots of that moment in time” for her, “what was keeping me up at night when I was writing that story.”
Born in Beijing in 1984, and having visited Tiananmen Square as a child several times—her “first exposure to dystopia”—Lu says that her early life may have predisposed her towards thinking about dystopian worlds, and writing dystopian fiction.
Skyhunter (Roaring Brook) the first novel in a series, she says, was inspired by the 2016 campaign season, especially the Democratic National Convention, when Khizr Khan spoke of his late son’s sacrifice in the U.S. military, fighting and dying for his country. “I couldn’t get that speech out of my head,” she recalled. “Young people in our country, people of color, people of different religions, nonbinary people, women, are sent out to war, to fight for a country that doesn’t have their back, doesn’t give them the respect they deserve. But they fight anyway, because they believe that someday it can be better than it has become.”
Skyhunter, she said, is set far in the future, 5,000 years, “possibly our own future” world, where a regressive society is built on the ruins of a long-gone civilization. The world has been taken over by a massive power, except for one small country, Mara. It’s the story of a young woman, an immigrant to Mara, who becomes a soldier and saves the life of a young man who may save Mara from destruction.
“It’s an exploration of what it means to love your country, and how complicated that question is,” she said, and what it means to be an immigrant, and trying to fit into “a new world” and “finding your voice again.”
Skyhunter, she said, is her attempt to come to terms with what is happening in the real world. “I realized as I was writing this fiction about young people saving their world, I was kind of taking dictation from the real world.” Young people right now, she points out, are doing what it takes to effect real change, advocating for climate change, and gun control, and other issues, and “that’s not their job: their job is to grow up and figure out who they are.
“I love writing YA,” she added. “People tend to underestimate young people [in real life] until they look up and young people are doing these amazing things out there. In YA, young people are taking charge, they’re taking their dystopian world, and fixing it.” Writing fiction, she says, gives her the opportunity to “fix” what is wrong in the real world.
The final speaker, Kwame Mbalia, author of Tristan Strong Destroys the World, the sequel to last year’s Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky (both Disney/Rick Riordan Presents), might be forgiven if he seemed distracted during his presentation: Mbalia was speaking from a bathroom in a hospital maternity ward; his wife had just given birth to their fourth child. Mbalia read a passage from his first book, before providing his audience with a “sneak peek” into the sequel by reading for the first time to an audience from Tristan Strong Destroys the World. The passage, with Mbalia taking on the character’s voice, featured Gum Baby exploring feelings of grief and sadness.
Addressing the source of inspiration for his tales, Mbalia explained that he wanted to reimagine the African fairy tales and West African myths he heard while growing up, and share them with “a new generation.”
The title of Kwame Mbalia's forthcoming release was incorrect in an earlier version of this story and has been corrected.