Using creative strategies and innovative platforms to communicate with readers and deliver stories that are relevant to children’s lives were the main topics during an October 10 Children’s Book Council forum, which took place at Hachette Book Group headquarters. The panelists were: Aurora Anaya-Cerda, owner of La Casa Azul Bookstore in East Harlem; Jess Brallier, publisher of Poptropica, a virtual educational and gaming world for kids; and Felix Brandon Lloyd, founder of Zoobean, an online resource for parents to match young readers with books.

Moderator Carol Fitzgerald of the Book Report Network asked audience members to “dismiss your preconceived notions about marketing and selling books,” before asking the panelists to comment on effective methods of getting kids to connect with both physical books and digital educational content. Brallier explained that kids who visit Poptropica, which he developed in conjunction with Jeff Kinney, explore virtual themed “islands” using avatars. Much of the appeal of Poptropica, Brallier believes, is that it is unchartered territory, where readers can explore storytelling on “their own accord.” Using the example of Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which was first published on Poptropica before it was a physical book, he emphasized how visitors to the site embraced Kinney’s comic strip, diving “deeper and deeper” into the narrative. Poptropica is not a social networking site, Brallier said; instead, the Poptropica world is a more autonomous space that individuals can explore independently. He believes that this self-guided “new literacy” is something conventional publishers “are not addressing.”

While Poptropica is a virtual universe intended expressly for a young audience, Zoobean is a service directed at parents seeking to discover books for their kids, based on a variety of criteria. Lloyd explained his children provided the impetus for creating the site: while many books serve as invaluable “windows” into other worlds and lives, Lloyd began seeking books that would act as “more of a mirror” for his interracial son and daughter. One of the first books that Lloyd found to provide this “mirror” was All the World (S&S/Beach Lane), written by Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrated by Marla Frazee. Discovering that book, which features interracial characters, sparked the idea to help other families seek out books suiting their children’s needs. A team of librarians and parents select each book that is available for purchase on the site. Asserting that Zoobean is “in the business of discovery and delight,” Lloyd explained that the site breaks down broader tags like gender, age, genre, ethnicity, and developmental stage into more specific categorizations via user-generated tags. For example, the tag “Not-so-pink girls” yields a selection of books that steer away from more traditional gender stereotypes.

Enlarging on the topic of diversity and children’s literature, Fitzgerald asked Anaya-Cerda to share the story of La Casa Azul, which specializes in literature for and written by minority readers and authors. For many years, Anaya-Cerda’s bookstore was one without walls: more specifically, she sold select books on a Web site and also carried her inventory with her in suitcases as a “traveling bookstore,” as Anaya-Cerda describes it. But after her crowd-funding campaign (backed by 500 donors) successfully raised $40,000 in 40 days, La Casa Azul Bookstore opened in New York City on June 1, 2012.

Anaya-Cerda echoed Lloyd’s sentiments about the need for books to serve as “mirrors” for minority readers. While books that serve as windows can be powerful (she vividly recalls reading and loving the Sweet Valley High series, the Ramona Quimby books, and Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls (even though, she said, “I’m not a boy in the woods with two dogs”), she agreed on the importance of children from all backgrounds seeing their faces and experiences represented in books. Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street and Rain of Gold by Víctor E. Villaseñor were two such books for Anaya-Cerda, and were part of the inspiration for wanting to open a bookstore in East Harlem largely devoted to Latino authors. Now, when she visits larger, chain bookstores and sees only single shelves devoted to these books, she is baffled: “How is this possible if I have been able to fill an entire bookstore?”

Lloyd brought up the importance of “incidental diversity,” found in books featuring diverse characters and cultures but that “are not necessarily about cultural experience.” A book like this might effectively serve as a mirror for a young reader, but at the same time, changing the ethnicity of a character would not necessarily change the story, Lloyd explained.

Whereas Poptropica resonates among visitors as a kids-only zone, bookstores and online forums like Zoobean cater to the ones who wield the buying power – parents. Lloyd lamented that, due to the emphasis on developing literacy skills early on in life, parents often forgo picture books for their children in favor of more challenging chapter books as they start to get a little older. He has observed, however, that if given the choice, kids will often gravitate to picture books. He noted that at book events, while parents peruse the chapter book selections, 12-year-olds make a beeline for one of his current favorite picture books, Corey Rosen Schwartz and Dan Santat’s The Three Ninja Pigs (Putnam). Lloyd believes that parental preference for chapter books results in a “self-fulfilling” cycle, because kids receive more encouragement from parents when they are tackling a chapter book, even if they might glean years of enjoyment from continuing to read picture books.

Regardless of whether readers discover stories in a brick-and-mortar bookshop, or at an online venue where narratives unfold and are reconfigured with lightning speed, the speakers agreed that the essential purpose of all literacy forums is the same: to propagate storytelling and to deliver the right story to the right child at just the right time.