Last week the New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council held its first 2014 meeting at the Portsmouth Public Library in downtown Portsmouth, N.H. Some 25 booksellers braved the cold and a projected snowstorm to talk about kids’ books and to attend a panel with Mary Wilcox, v-p, editor-in-chief of HMH Books for Young Readers; freelance editor and writer Kate Egan, who edited the Hunger Games trilogy; and award-winning writer Cynthia Lord, one of Egan’s authors.

The group started off the meeting with a title share, a way to let others know about forthcoming titles as well as older books. Offerings ranged from an advance access nonfiction book that Carol Chittenden, owner of Eight Cousins Books in Falmouth, Mass., ordered because she thought it might appeal to her customers on the Cape, Wisdom, The Midway Albatross (Mims Press, Jan. 2012) by Darcy Pattison, to Andrew Smith’s new novel, Grasshopper Jungle (Dutton, Feb. 2014), which is the season favorite of bookseller Betsy Covert at the Toadstool Bookshop in Keene, N.H. Bookseller Ellen Lamb, also at Toadstool, wanted to remind booksellers about Diana Wynne Jones’s final novel, to be published posthumously this spring, The Islands of Chalden (Greenwillow, Apr.). It was completed by her sister Ursula Jones.

A store favorite at Storybook Cove in Hanover, Mass., according to owner Janet Bibeau, is a self-published picture book about a tiny dog, Norbert: What Can Little Me Do? (Polly Parker Press, Nov. 2013), by a mother and daughter team, Julie and Virginia Freyermuth. They’ve “done it right,” she said. Kenny Brechner, owner of Devaney, Doak and Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, called Livia Blackburne’s YA novel for younger readers, Midnight Thief (Disney-Hyperion, July), “a sleeper,” while Beth Reynolds at the Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, Vt., recommended Ava Dellaira’s Love Letters to the Dead (FSG, Apr.) for reluctant readers. Because the story is told in letters – written by a girl, whose sister has died, to famous people like Kurt Cobain and Judy Garland – it’s easy to keep reading. NECBA co-chair Hannah Moushabeck, head of the children’s department at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass., was just back from the U.K., where she met with booksellers who recommended Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses (S&S, 2005), reprinted in paperback in 2007 as Black & White. She was so impressed with the way the book turns racism on its head by making the blacks the oppressors that her YA book group is going to read it.

Focus on Editing

The other NECBA co-chair, Ellen Richmond, owner of Children’s Book Cellar in Waterville, Maine, moderated the panel “So What Does an Editor Really Do?” In response to Richmond’s question on how each speaker became involved in the book business, Wilcox described a rather circuitous route. She began working with children as a social worker. Frustrated by bumping up against big problems with no solutions other than “to throw a rock at it,” or sometimes a bigger rock, she turned to children’s publishing. Her goal is to help kids by finding books to develop their imaginations.

“I didn’t go in with quite as moral a compass,” said Egan, who got her master’s in Irish literature and taught high school for a few years before trying to find a job in publishing. She got around being turned down for jobs because she had “too much experience” to be hired, by going on an interview that Scholastic had originally scheduled with her less-experienced sister. Egan got the job and worked in-house for eight years before becoming a freelance editor. In April, she’s beginning a new career as a writer, too. Feiwel and Friends is publishing the first two books in her Magic Shop series, written with Mike Lane and illustrated by Eric Wright, The Incredible Twisting Arm and The Vanishing Coin.

Lord began her career as an elementary school teacher and later ran a nursery school in her home. When her son, who has autism, was five, she began writing in the mornings before he and the rest of the family got up, between 4 and 6 a.m. Her first novel, the 2007 Newbery Honor-winning Rules, took a long time to come to publication. To give booksellers a better idea of what’s involved in the editing process, she passed around an eight-page single-spaced letter with notes from the book’s editor, Leslie Budnick, about the changes she wanted, along with the marked-up manuscript, which on some pages had more editorial comments than Lord had words.

Lord explained that she made the revisions because her editor “always had good reasons. She said the reader always wants something new.” As to the “bravest thing” she ever did as a writer, she recalled printing a copy of her Rules manuscript and then hitting the “delete” button, and starting over. She also passed around her Newbery plaque; she does this at many of her school visits, and tells children that they can wish on it. It’s not clear whether that also counts for booksellers, but NECBA members joined an estimated 70,000 schoolchildren and wished on the Newbery.

“From the day you win [an award], people start saying, how are you going to top it?” said Lord. She got a laugh when she said that she began writing her Hot Rod Hamster books (Scholastic), illustrated by Derek Anderson. Their newest collaboration, Monster Truck Mania!, is due out in April; a new middle-grade novel, Half a Chance, was just released.

Like Scholastic, where Lord has spent her entire career, Wilcox said that HMH also likes to have careers-long relationships with authors like Lois Lowry. But the press seeks out new authors as well, by working with agents and reading through the slush pile. For Wilcox, “trust” is the most important part of the relationship between an author and editor, while Lord says that she looks for people who like the same thing about her book that she does. “The editor’s job,” added Egan, “is to make sure the story works.”

Richmond asked the panelists what scares them as editors. In Egan’s case it’s an author who doesn’t like the way the book comes out. But for Wilcox, it’s crafting a letter with suggestions to an editor and getting back something worse.

Wilcox then turned the table on the booksellers and asked them what they see as the most underserved areas. Moushabeck at the Odyssey replied, more children of color in the books. And Lamb from Toadstool added: more people of color on the jacket, not just graphic representations. Carol Stoltz, children’s books manager and buyer at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., would like to see more blended families. Kelsey April with Bank Square Books in Mystic, Ct., asked for more YA standalones and fewer trilogies. Karin Schott at DDG, who has a seven-year-old son, requested more books for seven- to 10-year-olds. She noted that they have to read 20 minutes a day at school.

By then, the sun had come out. The chance of snow was over, and it was time to head home – and read.