Children’s books were front and center at this year’s “Discovery” conference held at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City, Va., September 19–21. Booksellers had a chance to meet children’s authors, ranging from Marla Frazee (The Farmer and the Clown, S&S/Beach Lane) to David Baldacci (The Finisher, Scholastic Press) and A.S. King (Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, Little, Brown) at breakfasts and dinners throughout the weekend. The association also held its first #WeNeedDiverseBooks reception/signing with 15 authors, including WNDB president and cofounder Ellen Oh (Prophecy, HarperTeen).

The programming included a keynote conversation about Amazon between New Republic editor Franklin Foer, author of Insurrections of the Mind, and Andrew Keen, author of The Internet Is Not the Answer, and separate tracks of educational sessions geared to store owners, frontline booksellers, and children’s specialists.

Overall the 2014 conference, which had attendance that matched last year’s with 166 booksellers and more than 250 authors and publishers, received high marks. Mindy Kemper, events manager at Sparta Books in Sparta, N.J., said, “This was my second NAIBA conference, and I really enjoyed every second of it. NAIBA is an incredible experience, bringing authors, booksellers and friends together in one place. The talent and knowledge shared by all is invaluable.” Rita Maggio, owner of BookTowne Bookstore in Manasquan, N.J., said that “I always love NAIBA. There are always great things, great books, and great people.”

Best Practices for Satisfying Young Readers

One of two panels aimed specifically at children’s booksellers, Helping Our Youngest Customers, opened with an a cappella rendition of Otis Redding’s Respect by panelists Francine Lucidon, owner of the Voracious Reader in Larchmont, N.Y., and Kirsten Hess, owner of Let’s Play Books! in Emmaus, Pa. For Lucidon, talking about how to treat children, a topic raised recently by the Adrian Peterson case, is something she’s wanted to do since she opened her store eight years ago.

“The role of independent booksellers is subversive,” said Lucidon. “We’re selling ideas in the form of books. How does that get translated to selling books to children?” To emphasize her concern about what she sees as a growing disrespect for children in our culture, she read a selection of quotes from Daniel Handler, Mo Willems, and J.K. Rowling along with a statement by Maurice Sendak: “I don’t believe in children .I don’t believe in childhood. I don't believe that there’s a demarcation. ‘Oh, you mustn’t tell them that. You mustn’t tell them that.’ You tell them anything you want. Just tell them if it’s true. If it’s true you tell them.”

Hess said that in working with children, she sometimes has to ignore the parents and what they want the child to read. “I never realized,” she said, “how difficult it is to deal with overzealous parents and grandparents.” On the other hand, Rob Dougherty, manager of Clinton Book Shop in Clinton, N.J., tends to side with the parents in situations like a 12-year-old caught between middle grade and YA. “It’s the parents who spend the money. I really want the check,” he said.

To a question about choosing the right reading level, Lucidon responded, “The level you should focus on is the level of books next to the bed.” No consensus was reached on how best to show children the respect booksellers agreed that they deserve, while at the same time honoring the wishes of hovering parents, who want what’s best.

Creating Authorless Events

By contrast a session on Remembering How to Play, which focused on creating authorless events, was much more hands-on. Each attendee received a paper plate and a goodie bag filled with googly eyes, stickers, two pipe cleaners, and a pair of blunt scissors. The tape had to be shared.

As booksellers, and this reporter, perfected their art, Voracious Reader’s Lucidon spoke with Stephanie Steinly, who handled events for Harleysville Books in Harleysville, Pa., for five years before purchasing the store in July, about what makes a good event. Lucidon advised booksellers not to overlook authorless events: they’re fun, kids love them, and there’s no call in the morning from a publicist asking how it went yesterday.

Both offered dozens of tips from stockpiling event kits and sorting all the pieces to reuse later in the year, to looking for coupons for craft stores like Michael’s and A.C. Moore to use to stock up on supplies like 40¢ jump ropes that can be decorated. Steinly also advised, “While we are indies, don’t be afraid to take advantage of the biggest trend: Frozen.”

Steinly encouraged booksellers to charge for events. “My time is valuable; my store is valuable. While people may not spend a lot of money on themselves, they’ll spend it on their kids,” she said, adding, “I very much believe in the independent bookstore. But at the end of the day, I have to pay my electric bill.”

She holds paid book club dinners at a nearby Italian restaurant and gives each attendee a galley with a coupon inside for 10% off on the author’s backlist. In-store events always feature a book, which is often included in the price. For nonbook events like pumpkin painting, she will display pumpkin books nearby. She also builds events around Girl Scout troops and sells Girl Scout supplies.

Audience members volunteered suggestions of their own, including checking Pinterest for snack ideas like making a snowman from powdered sugar donuts, holding a Tenzi tournament, or setting up a sleepover for stuffed animals and taking pictures of what the animals do when the kids go home.

As for those paper plates, they soon became the base for bookseller projects. Through them Steinly and Lucidon made their point that a good children’s bookseller has to be crafty.