It was a packed house for Tuesday morning’s Children’s Book & Author breakfast, with a host of literary celebrity sightings for the huge crowd of appreciative booksellers, beginning with Katherine Paterson, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and two-time Newbery Medalist. Paterson set the tone for the more than 1,200 book people attending by talking about the power of books to influence the future course of young lives.
After reciting a poem she’d written in second grade, Paterson joked that she knows her writing “has improved” since then, ascribing it to the act of reading. “Reading turned me into a writer,” she said. “More importantly, it has enriched and challenged my life.” She recalled a friend reading aloud to her from Cry the Beloved Country when she was 16, and how, one night, “the book came alive for her,” as she related how Alan Paton’s 1948 novel exploring the racial divisions in South Africa made her realize the “sins of my people” in the American South during the Jim Crow era. “I know my life changed that night—and it was because of a book,” she declared.
It was a sentiment shared by master of ceremonies Julianne Moore, film actor and author of Freckleface Strawberry: Best Friends Forever. “I never imagined I’d be a master of ceremonies, or a children’s book author—or an actor, for that matter,” she said, recalling being taught to read at age five and spending much of her youth devouring books. “I read voraciously, indiscriminately,” she said. “Reading soothed me, encouraged me, excited me.” Moore praised booksellers for knowing that “there’s a universe inside a book.”
Following Moore, Caldecott Medal winner Brian Selznick, who spent three years working at Eeyore’s Books for Children in Manhattan before publishing his first novel, declared, “I consider myself a bookseller first, a writer/illustrator second. It’s nice to be speaking to my people.” Describing his research into deaf culture as he wove together the stories of a girl and a boy living 50 years apart in Wonderstruck, Selznick called the deaf “the people of the eye,” as he explained the thought processes behind his latest book. “I wanted to tell different stories, one with words, one with pictures.” Wonderstruck, with its climactic scenes taking place at the American Museum of Natural History, “is filled with references to the classic novel, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. “I hope you find all of them,” he said.
Sarah Dessen, whose work Moore praised as “YA fiction at its best,” recalled how she unexpectedly “stumbled” into writing for teens more than a decade ago, when YA was regarded as less worthy of attention by serious writers. “There was no Twilight, there was no Harry Potter,” the author of What Happened to Goodbye explained. “There’s a secret about YA literature that we all know: it’s not ‘other,’ it’s better,” she insisted. “When writing for teens, you are connecting with them at the beginning of their reading lives,” she added. “They’re not yet jaded.”
Promoting both his picture book, Little White Rabbit, and his middle-grade novel, Junonia, Kevin Henkes underscored the importance of reading by defending picture books as something that “all children should experience.” Referring to the current debate in the media about the possible decline in the popularity of picture books, Henkes declared that he hoped that this was not the case, because if it was, it is “foolish and shortsighted, motivated by the trend of putting test scores above all else.”
Henkes succinctly summed up the morning’s themes at the end of his presentation, with the words: “In life there are so many things to wonder about. You don’t have to wonder about books. We love them, we need them, and we know it.”