The Southern California Independent Booksellers Association topped itself this year with a record-breaking number of authors, booksellers, and librarians attending its seventh annual Children’s Literacy Dinner on Saturday, February 22, where YA author Trent Reedy proved a crowd favorite with his moving talk about being a soldier in Afghanistan.

Guests, including 35 booksellers, 67 teachers and librarians, and more than 20 authors, mingled before dinner began at the Hilton in Pasadena, Calif. A few publishers and bookstores had tables in the reception area where books were exhibited and, in some cases, sold. Pages Bookstore in Manhattan Beach, Calif., enjoyed a steady flow of visitors. “There are so many authors here, and the librarians and other booksellers all seem so excited,” said co-owner Linda McLoughlin Figel. “Also, it’s a nice chance to see some of our reps.” Pages will be exhibiting at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in April for the first time. “We’ll be partnering with Penguin,” said Pages co-owner Margot Farris.

Diane Taylor, librarian at Hughes Middle School in Long Beach, Calif., was busy looking for books that boys will read. “Girls will read just about anything, but boys don’t read the crossover books so much,” Taylor said. “It’s changing, though. When boys started reading the Twilight books, I knew a bridge had been crossed. They think it’s okay to read something romantic now.”

Dinner guests were greeted by SCIBA’s new president, Maureen Palacios, owner of Once Upon a Time in Montrose, Calif. “This is our 48th year,” said Palacios. “According to Publishers Weekly we’re now the oldest children’s bookstore in the country.” She then introduced the evening’s emcee, Dan Santat (The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, April), a new father who showed slides of his baby and wife.

The first speaker was Natalie Lloyd, whose debut novel, A Snicker of Magic (Scholastic), was published on February 25. Lloyd, who resides in Chattanooga, Tenn., marveled at seeing palm trees for the first time upon arrival in Los Angeles. “I’d only seen pictures of them before,” she told the audience. She spoke about her grandmother, who gave her poetry books as a child. “I had ‘book magic’ instilled in me at an early age, and then my first inspiration as a writer was The Chronicles of Narnia,” said Lloyd. While writing Snicker she listened to the Beatles song “Across the Universe,” which includes lyrics about the flow of words. Lloyd expressed thanks to Kris Vreeland and the rest of the staff at Once Upon a Time, where she had spent much of the day and who gave her a tour of the area. An avid reader all her life, Lloyd concluded by saying, “The courage I found in fictional stories made me brave.”

Trent Reedy, an Idaho Army National Guard member who has served in Afghanistan and found the inspiration to begin writing while there, was the next speaker. His new novel, Divided We Fall (Scholastic), is the first in a trilogy of “pre-dystopian” thrillers about the possibility of another civil war in America. This is Reedy’s third book; his first, Words in the Dust (2013), is a fictionalized account of the Afghani girl who was born with a cleft palate, whom Reedy met on his first tour of duty. Through his efforts, she was able to receive the surgery that corrected the disfigurement. Reedy’s talk, which frequently brought both him and the audience to tears, was focused on this experience. “When I first got to Afghanistan I blamed the 9-11 attacks on the Afghanis,” said Reedy, who served as a combat engineer. “I was scared, and I was angry. My life had been reduced to guns and daily threats from the Taliban.”

But when his wife mailed him a copy of Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, Reedy was transformed. “I needed that bit of hope and beauty I found in the book, and wrote a thank-you letter to the author,” Reedy told the audience. “Katherine wrote me back, and our correspondence helped me get through the war. I realized that the children were not the enemy. It was then that I decided to tell the story of the little girl we helped there.” As a relative newcomer to book publishing Reedy said, “Booksellers are the tireless workers for the cause of books, and I thank you for all you’ve done for me. Books matter.” The standing ovation Reedy received was a spontaneous, heartfelt response to his warmth and integrity.

When final speaker John Corey Whaley reached the podium he said, “Prepare to be disappointed – it’s hard to follow an American war hero.” But the audience greeted him enthusiastically, and Whaley began his talk by admitting to having “second-book” anxiety after the success of his first, Where Things Come Back, which won the Printz Award in 2012. Noggin, Whaley’s forthcoming novel (S&S, Apr.) is about a 16-year-old boy with leukemia who has his head cryogenically frozen and attached to someone else’s body five years later. “The book is about time and how we evolve over time,” said Whaley. “You can’t have people the same way you once had them. I hope it’s not a silly story, but one about growing up that everyone in the YA market can relate to.” Like the speakers preceding him, Whaley profusely thanked the booksellers and librarians in the audience. “You create a world where books are number one.”

The author book signing followed dinner, and with 20 authors at the tables the room was abuzz with chatter and laughter. Andrea Vuleta, SCIBA’s executive director, expressed delight at the evening’s success. “Kids’ authors and illustrators are very generous, perhaps more so than adult book authors,” she said. “There is so much love and support here among them.”