It looked like an ordinary gathering: a group of mostly women seated in a circle at the back of New York City bookstore Books of Wonder, discussing kids’ books. But the June 12 event, hosted by NYC chapter of the Women’s National Book Association in conjunction with the U.S. Department of State’s Cultural Visitors Program, featured some atypical guests – four women from the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan who are each involved in one or more aspects of children’s publishing: author-illustrators Evgeniya Kan and Yelena Korolek, illustrator-graphic designer Dameli Sabitayava, and author Zara Yesenaman. (Two interpreters helped facilitate the conversation.)
The international delegates were in the U.S. from June 2 through June 23, and made stops in the Boston, New York, and D.C. areas. At Books of Wonder, they met with women involved at nearly every stage of the industry – from agents who acquire the titles to a librarian who gets finished books into young readers’ hands. Each participant, in brisk turn, presented an overview of her role in the industry; the meeting’s goal was to encourage a meaningful cultural exchange among women working in the same field. As Linda Epstein, WNBA-NYC’s v-p of communications said in her introduction, “Whether you came from Brooklyn or Kazakhstan, we’re glad you’re here.”
After her opening words, Epstein introduced Valerie Tomaselli, president of the WNBA’s national board, who discussed the organization’s history and goals, and explained how these tied into the afternoon’s program. The WNBA, established in 1917, supports the world of books and reading, with a particular emphasis on supporting the role that women play. Jane Kinney-Denning, the president of WNBA’s New York City chapter, elaborated: “This is a perfect example of what we do,” she said, “bringing together women who are working in publishing.”
Epstein then discussed the role of social media in the group’s networking efforts, and Rosalind Reisner, v-p of programming for WNBA-NYC, gave a rundown of the types of events members participate in, such as the annual “query roulette,” at which authors may pitch agents. Epstein chimed in and compared the event to “speed dating,” which elicited the first group laugh of the afternoon, especially when Yesenaman jokingly called “Time!” After that unexpected bit of recognition, commonalities began to emerge between the two countries’ literary cultures as each participant spoke in turn.
Books of Wonder store manager, Scott Wong – who, aside from one of the interpreters, was the lone male participant – gave background on the bookshop, which is now 30 years old. Tomaselli asked the Kazakhstan delegates whether they knew of similar stores at home; Yesenaman said there’s a chain in Almaty and other cities that sells children’s books and developmental toys, stocks musical instruments that children can play in-store, and hosts story hours.
The story time discussion provided a segue to a presentation from New York Public Library youth materials specialist Betsy Bird, who gave background on the NYPL system and the way it acquires and distributes books, as well as the historic role of women as children’s librarians. In response to a query from Epstein regarding libraries in Kazakhstan, Sabitayeva said that the system includes a large children’s library on Gogol Street in Almaty, from which kids can borrow even without a card. Yesenaman recalled visiting a different library as a child: “There was a wonderful librarian who asked what I was interested in,” she said. “I didn’t understand – I asked my mother, ‘Why does she want to know?’ That was when I realized how important librarians are. You give a new life to people when they read.”
Next, conversation turned to the books themselves. Roaring Brook Press executive editor Nancy Mercado and Lily Malcom, associate publisher and executive art director of Dial Books for Young Readers, explained their roles in shepherding titles through to publication. Author Leanna Renee Hieber, whose Twisted Tragedy of Miss Natalie Stewart will be published by Sourcebooks Fire in November, described her own work as well as the community of writers: “Storytellers, no matter where we’re from, have things in common.” She mentioned that Yesenaman had immediately recognized the pendant around her neck as a picture of Edgar Allan Poe; both women are fans. “That’s the great thing about classic literature,” Hieber observed. “It crosses boundaries.”
The afternoon wrapped up with each of the Kazakhstani delegates introducing themselves and describing their diverse pursuits. Sabitayava, who designs as well as illustrates children’s books for a large publishing house, shared examples of her artwork. Korolek began her career as an artist and worked as a creative director at a publishing house for many years, but later turned to writing and has published several books for adults as well as kids, among them a fantasy series for teens called Ellen Eve. She showed the group surreal illustrations from her book for younger readers, Tales from the Forest – a living coin purse, a ghost fish, and more.
Kan, after working as a journalist and advertising copywriter, is now a prolific illustrator – though she’s had no formal artistic training – and has published her own book of fairy tales. She also created Irbi, the snow-leopard mascot for the 2011 Asian Olympic Games, which were held in Kazakhstan. Yesenaman, a classically trained violinist and TV journalist, acknowledged the caliber of the group – “so many wonderful women” – and went on to discuss the work that she says earned her a spot on the delegation: her novel, Hardcore, a bestseller in her home country that addresses the pervasive problem of teens and drugs. When she tours in Kazhakstan, she said, young readers come up to her and tell her how much the novel affected them. “I know I won’t change the world,” she clarified, and then, in an offbeat demonstration of cultural exchange, she quoted Randle Patrick McMurphy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “But at least I tried.”