The politics and practicalities of children’s bookselling took center stage from the moment attendees arrived at the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association gathering in Cherry Hill, N.J., from October 6–8. Authors and illustrators delivered visually and verbally arresting presentations, editors shared their excitement about forthcoming titles, and booksellers discussed ways of reaching a broader clientele through school author event partnerships.
From Elizabeth Acevedo (The Poet X, HarperTeen) to Cressida Cowell (The Wizards of Once, Little, Brown), the politics of literacy were at the fore in author events throughout the weekend. Acevedo shared her story of growing up in a vibrant but impoverished Manhattan neighborhood that was a stone’s throw from one of New York’s wealthiest communities. She told attendees that the disparity in opportunity for children in her neighborhood “all goes back to how few of us were literate.” She stated, “I wrote this book for girls of color who have borders they don’t know.”
Standing atop a stage with her sketchbook held high, Cowell reinforced the role of children’s authors in fostering literacy before a breakfast audience of booksellers and authors. “We’re fighting a war to save a medium,” Cowell said, “and one of the weapons in that is parents reading aloud to their kids.” She believes that “books read to you by your parents stay with you for the rest of your life.” Cowell joked that as she writes her books, she tries to leave a lasting impact by working “very hard to make dads cry.”
Peter Sís (Robinson, Scholastic Press), was even more blunt during his presentation. “Books can be dangerous,” he reminded booksellers, as he recounted his youth as a writer in communist Czechoslovakia. “I was arrested many times by the secret police,” he said. “I realized, this is a dangerous life in books.”
From the start of the conference, booksellers were immersed in the world of books as they boarded buses for a tour of nearby Philadelphia-area bookstores. At Children’s Book World in Haverford, Pa., owner Hannah Schwartz greeted a dozen booksellers and shared a behind-the-scenes look at her thriving author program, which has dozens of visits at local schools slated for the coming months, including readings by Jeff Kinney and Kate DiCamillo.
How to run school author events was a frequent topic of conversation throughout the gathering, culminating with an educational workshop featuring author Brian Biggs (Tinyville Town, Abrams) and Trish Brown, children’s buyer for One More Page Books in Arlington, Va.
Biggs and Brown emphasized the ways in which school events can be lucrative for booksellers, but Brown cautioned that scheduling can be a frequent challenge, because an author’s “touring schedule doesn’t seem to have a relationship to the school schedule.” Biggs concurred, adding his own stories about school events that had gone awry due to scheduling issues, along with a host of other obstacles that included student discipline and the availability of books. He used these stories to share thoughts on best practices, telling booksellers that ultimately, any potential hurdles for running school events “are resolved by clear communication.”
Erin Matthews, who owns Books with a Past in Glenwood, Md., was eager to hear ways of strengthening her relationship with schools through author events. Matthews’s shop is located across the street from an elementary and middle school and she recently piloted a program to support local teachers, noting that “a number of them come in each August and spend $100–150 for their classroom libraries.” The program allows customers to donate to an in-store fund to support a specific teacher, “so she can buy the books she wants.”
At a children’s Editors Buzz panel a wide-ranging selection of forthcoming titles were heralded by editors from HarperCollins, Scholastic, Sourcebooks, and Lee & Low. Jessica Echeverria, senior editor at Lee & Low, said that Marilyn Singer’s illustrated poetry book, Every Month’s a New Year (April 2018), “encourages empathy, which we all agree we could use a bit more of these days.”
Sourcebooks editorial director Steve Geck rolled out the next wave of the publisher’s Baby University books, including Electromagnetism for Babies (January 2018). He estimated that 20,000 copies of General Relativity for Babies had shipped since its release earlier this year, joking that the audience for the heady books are “parents. Aspirational parents.”
David Levithan, v-p and editorial director at Scholastic, called The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani DasGupta (Feb. 2018) “a huge launch” for the publisher. The YA fantasy features a female protagonist from New Jersey, born to immigrant parents. Levithan said it was particularly important to feature a “girl of color who is the main heroine.”
HarperCollins senior editor Andrew Eliopulos talked about Lygia Day Penaflor’s All of This Is True (May 2018), which he celebrated for the “ingenious way it has been structured,” using a collage of interview transcripts, images, and fragments to construct the narrative.
With so many adults discussing children’s books, it could have been easy for booksellers to lose sight of their audience, if not for the presence of 10-year-old journalist/author Hilde Lysiak (Hero Dog!, Scholastic), who spoke with her father and co-author Matthew. In her remarks, Lysiak gave voice to the entire conference’s refrain, telling booksellers, “I want to let kids know that they can accomplish anything.”