Typically, a book will appear on various bestseller lists during or soon after a big publicity and marketing push at publication. Other times, titles may vault into the spotlight in the wake of their connection to a buzzy media phenomenon. The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater hasn’t exactly followed either of those paths, but, on its own steadily paced journey, and nearly two years after FSG published it in October 2017, the book landed on the September 8 New York Times bestsellers list. Though Macmillan declined to share sales numbers, the publisher released a 50,000 first printing of The 57 Bus, and as it has picked up steam, the publisher has gone back to press a total of 14 times.
“It has a really good origin story,” said Joy Peskin, editorial director of Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers, explaining how she acquired the project. Her initial interest was sparked by reading the article “The Fire on the 57 Bus” by Dashka Slater, which appeared in the January 29, 2015 issue of the New York Times Magazine. The piece recounts a tragic incident that took place on a city bus in Oakland, Calif. in 2013. Sasha, a white teen who identifies as agender—neither male nor female—had fallen asleep on the bus on the way home from school. Richard, a black teen who was goofing off with his friends a few seats away, surreptitiously sets fire to the skirt that Sasha is wearing, causing serious injury. Richard was arrested, charged, and convicted of the crime.
“I was really blown away by the story,” Peskin said, “and I realized that the journalist who wrote it was also an author I was working on a picture book with [Escargot, 2017]. I thought, man, I would love this to be a book.” She took confidence in the fact that she already knew Slater and had a good relationship with Slater’s literary agent, Erin Murphy, and contacted Murphy to express her interest in pursuing a potential book.
In a case of serendipity, Slater was already on board, so to speak. “I spent about 14 months reporting it and the whole time I was working on that story I had in my mind this secret fantasy of writing it as a young adult narrative,” she said. “But I had no idea if narrative true-crime nonfiction for teens was even a thing. I wasn’t sure it was a category.” When the article came out, Slater mentioned her book idea to Murphy and asked for her opinion. Soon after, Peskin made contact with Murphy, too.
“Because Dashka and I already had a good working relationship, Erin was willing to take that leap of faith and sign up the book quickly,” said Peskin. Author and editor agree that their easy rapport continued through the creation of The 57 Bus. “It was a melding of the minds; we both saw the same thing,” Slater noted. “For me, there was just this feeling that teenagers would be interested in this story and that it would speak to the issues that are current in their lives, issues of gender and race, and identity and justice, that these things not only pertain to teenagers but are questions that are compelling to them.”
As The 57 Bus rolled along into the editorial and production processes, it gathered steam in-house at Macmillan and plans for its marketing and publicity solidified. “From the moment Joy acquired this book, we knew it was special,” said Allison Verost, senior v-p and deputy publisher at Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. Once the title was scheduled for October 2017, Verost said, “This started as a big campaign out of the gate.” Early on, the title was chosen as one of the titles for an Editors’ Buzz panel at BookExpo that June. Peskin presented the book on the panel and began her pitch by reading the opening pages, which she admits is a risk, since it can be a boring approach. But she especially wanted to share what she believes is a powerful passage that sets the stage for Slater’s tale:
“But none of that has happened yet. For now, both teenagers are just taking the bus home from school. Surely it’s not too late to stop things from going wrong. There must be some way to wake Sasha. Divert Richard. Get the driver to stop the bus. There must be something you can do.”
Peskin praises the hook in Slater’s writing style. “I love that she starts off by addressing the reader,” Peskin said. “You’re in this too. This is your story. What can you do? In that way it’s a call to action and it also involves the reader immediately. And that’s art; it’s not just reporting.”
Getting Readers on Board
As the pub date approached, Verost noted, “We had Dashka out at some of the regional trade shows and we started getting some bookseller love and excitement for the book.” Support from educators also grew, and an extensive media push coupled with various events that October kept the buzz going.
“As we went into the end of 2017 and early 2018, we started getting some really great award recognition,” said Verost. The 57 Bus landed on several year-end “Best of” lists, was named a YALSA nonfiction finalist, and was the YA winner of the 2018 Stonewall Award, which recognizes exceptional children’s and YA books relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender experience. “Things kept happening” for the book, said Verost, including winning the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award for Nonfiction, among other accolades.
All the while, Slater kept up a full calendar of school and library visits. “She was going into high schools, she was speaking at libraries, and bringing this book into the hands of the audience that was hungry for it,” Verost noted. Sometimes at a school visit Slater speaks to groups of teachers and administrators who have read her book. “Everybody is trying to become more educated around issues of gender and gender nonconformity,” said Slater, “and also about kids like Richard, who might be kids that the school isn’t seeing as clearly as they might, kids they may be more likely to chalk up as not engaged with school, or perhaps not going to graduate. I think it’s helpful for people in schools to get a little bit more of a behind-the-scenes view of a kid they might not be connecting with.”
Beyond the enthusiastic high school audiences, Verost said, “The most interesting part to me of this campaign is that we also knew there was an adult crossover piece. I don’t necessarily mean middle-aged adults, but young college freshman, people who are just outside of what we consider the core YA reader.” With that in mind, Verost said the teams at Macmillan [“spent a lot of time getting Dashka out in front of college educators.” Slater spoke at freshman year experience conferences, she spoke with orientation coordinators, and those kinds of efforts “helped get the book on college reading lists and curriculum reading lists, which was fun,” said Verost.
Another phase of the marketing and publicity efforts was to pitch Slater and her book for various city-wide and one-community reading programs across the country. One of the first successes on this front was On the Same Page, the San Francisco Public Library’s bimonthly city-wide read program, which focuses on “local, emerging, and diverse authors.” According to Verost, the library promoted the book throughout its system branches, schools, and local bookstores. “That community became the model for what we were looking at for these city-wide reads,” she said. “Word-of-mouth was building all throughout 2018 and 2019 and in some ways it seems like this book caught people by surprise, but it’s actually been happening very consistently since we published it.”
Verost pointed out that The 57 Bus campaign was, in general, emblematic of the types of campaigns her company has been homing in on more recently. “We’re not looking at books as frontlist titles or backlist titles,” she said. “We’re marketing backlist books as if they’re frontlist season over season, always reimagining our campaign to bring new readers in.”
For her part, Slater immediately embraced this approach. “I feel incredibly lucky because I had this fantasy in my mind that I wanted to have these conversations with young people and I wanted the book to be a catalyst for having difficult and complicated questions about hot-button topics,” she said. “And the fact that I get to do that, that teachers and librarians and students are interested in having those conversations, and they keep asking me to be part of them, is just a dream come true.”
Slater often continues conversations with young people via her responses to the many letters she receives from them. “Whenever I get a letter from a young person I always write back—I love hearing what they think,” she said. “When a kid tells me that my book was the way they were finally able to have a conversation with their parents about their gender identity, that is incredibly moving. I also love when I hear from a kid who thinks, ‘This topic would have nothing to do with me.’
She cites one such letter as particularly memorable. “I got a five-page letter from a white boy in a conservative suburban area, and the book made him feel uncertain about things he had been certain about before. One of the things he was working out in the letter to me was that he really related to Richard, who set the fire. On a surface level they’re very different kids, but he really identified with how Richard would do something stupid and mean to get a laugh from his friends. He basically said, ‘I don’t think I would set somebody on fire, but I often think that if my friends told me to, I probably would.’ We talk a lot in this business about books being mirrors and windows, but that moment where you see that a book that you think is a window actually is a mirror, you see that kids can find themselves in a character who isn’t, on the surface, someone they have a lot of commonality with.”
Peskin believes that this letter—which Slater shared with her—is proof that the book is accomplishing an important mission. “This is the book about empathy that the world needs right now,” she said. “I believed it when I first read it, and I feel it even more now, as it becomes more true with the passage of time.” This book shows people that you cannot judge anyone ever, but you especially cannot judge young people. You have to look below the surface.”
The 57 Bus has been a true labor of love for Slater, which, she says, makes its success especially gratifying. “Every writer of course has fantasies about writing a blockbuster, but this was not that book for me,” she said. “This was such a personal book and I felt pretty sure that the idea behind it—that you could feel care and compassion both for the victim and the offender in a crime like that—was not going to be necessarily met with a lot of enthusiasm. The fact that people have been enthusiastic and have really absorbed the central premise of the book—that you can have multiple perspectives on things and you don’t have to choose sides—that makes me hopeful about many things.”
Peskin is quick to credit gatekeepers for their efforts on behalf of The 57 Bus. She notes that the book has done “phenomenally well” in the school and library market, and that the way that booksellers—chains as well as indies—have rallied around it has been impressive. During a recent visit to a Barnes & Noble in another city she saw the book face out, front of store. and “I kissed it, I was so happy to see it so prominently displayed,” she said. “The booksellers have made this book. We can love it all we want, but if they don’t put it in the hands of people, we couldn’t get where we are. That’s been a true delight.”
In what may be a type of Slater effect, Peskin says that the author’s FSG picture book, Escargot, has followed a similar route to The 57 Bus in that it “continues to do better the longer it’s out, which isn’t often the case.” So, with upward trends like these, The 57Bus is far from the last stop for Peskin and Slater’s partnership. A second picture book, called A Book for Escargot, arrives next April. Peskin has recently signed up five new projects from the author: two additional Escargot books, a middle grade fantasy duology, with the first volume, The Book of Fatal Errors, due out in July 2020; and a new YA nonfiction title, which Peskin says is “an entirely different story, but very much for the reader of The 57 Bus. Dashka has been tracking that story for a long time and is actively reporting it now.”
And, of course, The 57 Bus’s journey isn’t over. “This is an ongoing campaign for us,” Verost said. “We’re bringing Dashka to Winter Institute in 2020 and we will be constantly getting her in front of gatekeepers. This is by no means the end of what we’re trying to do with this book.”