Maybe it’s because of the ongoing dialogue about the Common Core standards for student achievement, or it could be a desire among booksellers to be more of a community resource. Either way, establishing relationships with local schools and determining which children’s books could qualify for Common Core were very much on the minds of the 112 Midwest Independent Booksellers Association members and 172 Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association members attending this year’s Heartland Fall Forum, held at the Crowne Plaza O’Hare in Chicagoland from Oct. 3-6.

Urban and rural booksellers alike, from GLIBA member Teresa Kirschbaum of CityLit Books in Chicago to MIBA member Judith Kissner of Scout & Morgan Books in Cambridge, Minn. (pop. 8,111), emphasized their recently stepped-up outreach efforts to schools.

“A local Catholic school wants us to do story times there,” Kirschbaum said. “And we want to do book clubs [at schools] as well.” It’s a “slow process,” Kissner noted. “But it will create goodwill in the community.”

Of course, much of the conversation revolved around books themselves. The most buzzed about children’s title at the show was Cress by Marissa Meyer (Feiwel and Friends, Feb. 2014), the next volume in the Lunar Chronicles. Galleys were released in very limited quantities, so it wasn’t made available to booksellers at the show. When Dave Richardson of Blue Marble Books in Ft. Thomas, Ky., held up his galley during the Children’s Buzz Panel, the crowd of booksellers sighed audibly with anticipation.

A two-year-old, self-published photography book from an Ohio photographer called Curious Critters (Wild Iris), by David Fitzsimmons, also was buzzed about by appreciative booksellers. “[Author David] Fitzsimmons took all the photos, which are glorious close-ups.” Jess Norcross from McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich. explained, “The text is from the animal’s point-of-view. It gives the animal a chance to speak.” Blue Marble’s Richardson told PW that in 10 years as a buyer at the Cincinnati-area children’s bookstore, this is the only self-published book he’s bought. “It’s amazing,” he said. To date, Fitzsimmons has sold 10,000 copies of Curious Critters, and he plans to release two companion titles: Curious Critters Volume Two (Feb. 2014) and Curious Critters: Marine (Sept. 2014).

Kris Kleindienst of Left Bank Books in St. Louis was also enthused about Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts (Abrams, Sept.), which she described as a book that “encourages girls to think about science as something they can do” as well as boys. “I’ll be happy to put that out on the shelf,” Kleindienst said. Michael Boggs and Carol Besse of Carmichael’s Books in Louisville, Ky., praised A Compendium of Collective Nouns by Woop Studios and Jay Sacher (Chronicle, Sept.), which Boggs described as “full of cool facts and beautiful illustrations” that will appeal to children and adults.

Core Values

Common Core was addressed during a panel, moderated by Naperville, Ill.-based Anderson’s Bookshops owner co-owner Becky Anderson, that included bookseller Joanna Parzakonis of Bookbug in Kalamazoo, Mich., publisher’s rep Terribeth Smith of Scholastic, and librarian Patti Blount of the Durand (Wis.) Public Library, which is a combination public and school library. A packed room of about 60 booksellers listened as Anderson explained that Common Core is a “huge opportunity to connect” with teachers and local schools. “And let’s not forget about the parents,” Anderson added.

“We’re not experts on Common Core, but we are experts on the core of Common Core,” Parzakonis said of local bookstores, because the mandate focuses on “what we’re doing already, and the inventory we have already,” including historical fiction and even a book with no text, like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, which she described as “one of the most incredible depictions of the immigrant experience.” She also suggested tagging books at book fairs that are “Common Core interest” titles.

“There’s not a set list,” Smith explained. “Captain Underpants can be used in Common Core, and should be, if you ask me.” Noting that Scholastic has compiled lists of Common Core-ready titles, she emphasized that following the mandate is a partnership between publishers and bookstores.

Anderson acknowledged that the components of the Common Core standards in terms of English language arts and literacy standards might seem overly rigid, but they are still a work in progress. “The grade levels are what’s freaking people out,” Anderson said. “[But] the grade levels are going to change. Some of the rigidity is going to go away. Children should be able to read something, understand it, and talk about it.”

Be Prepared

Topics covered during the young adult author panel featuring Stephanie Hemphill (Hideous Love, HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray), Lauren Myracle (The Infinite Moment of Us, Abrams/Amulet) and Lisa Roecker and Laura Roecker (Third Lie’s the Charm, Sourcebooks Fire) included how to ready for school visits, with Myracle urging booksellers to educate teachers and parents about the visiting author’s work and to make sure that the class visited is an appropriate one for the author. “And make sure the books are there,” she said.

The lively discussion later turned to New Adult fiction, which explores rites of passage into adulthood such as sex, college, and first jobs. While there was little consensus among the panelists concerning the necessity of New Adult as a category, they agreed that exploring such hot-button issues as sex in books targeting YA readers was essential.

Children are already exposed to sex through television and movies, Anderson pointed out. “How much better to encounter it in the context of a well-written book?” Lisa Roecker added that parents can discuss the depiction of sex in books and movies as a way to address the subject with their children “without it being about their lives.”

During the Sunday children’s brunch, which featured two picture books and two novels, real life again leapt to the forefront, with all four of the featured authors emphasizing the impact of their personal experiences upon their art.

“My name is David Shannon, and I have head lice,” announced the author-illustrator, while wearing a giant louse on his head during his presentation of Bugs In My Hair! (Scholastic/Blue Sky). Disclosing that his daughter (as well as his wife) had contracted head lice four times, Shannon explained his motivation to write and illustrate a picture book about the itchy subject: to take the stigma from it.

“It has nothing to do with how clean your hair is: it has to do with sitting in a movie theater seat that someone with lice has sat in – or an airline seat,” he said as booksellers catching flights later that day groaned. “Next time I’ll tell you about bedbugs in hotels.” This time, even more booksellers groaned.

Susan Cooper said that she writes books emphasizing the conflict between good and evil because she grew up in England during World War II and spent many nights in air raid shelters, where her mother would read to children by candlelight “while bombs dropped” outside. “It gives you a really strong sense of the good guys and the bad guys,” she noted. “No one is all good or all bad” in her new novel, Ghost Hawk, she said, her telling of the flip side of the relationship between Pilgrims and the Native Americans (S&S/McElderry).

Lois Ehlert recalled growing up in Beaver Dam, Wis., a small town without a bookstore or an art store, but with a “very wonderful” library. Her parents encouraged her creative impulses by giving her materials left over from their own projects, such as fabric strips and pieces of wood. The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life (S&S/Beach Lane) is, she said, a book for children “in the same boat I was in, being creative” and not knowing how to channel that creative impulse. “You can’t explain creativity,” Ehlert said. “All you can do is suggest different avenues, different approaches.”

Disclosing that he had been a reluctant reader in grade school, Brandon Sanderson, whose latest novel, Steelheart (Delacorte) is set in a futuristic Chicago, discussed how his eighth-grade teacher encouraged him to read science fiction, which “changed everything” for him.

“I became the biggest science fiction fanatic,” he said. “I wanted to be a writer by the end of summer.” Despite his late start as a literature lover, he developed into an A-student and then attended college. Now, he tries to write books for readers who are like he was at that age: “the young man who thinks he doesn’t like books.”

Because, Sanderson concluded, “If you find that book [you enjoy], it will change your life. It changed my life.”