The 2014 Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers trade show, held at the Marriott Renaissance Denver Hotel from October 9–11, kicked off with a memorable Children’s Author and Illustrator breakfast. More than 100 of the 171 booksellers in attendance at the show were in turns delighted and moved by three authors and one author-illustrator, who explained how memorable incidents in their lives shaped their latest books.
“What can I tell you about this book? It’s a spy novel, a memoir, a detective story, and a sports book,” Avi said about Catch You Later, Traitor, a middle-grade novel from Algonquin Young Readers (March 2015) that was inspired by his childhood in Brooklyn in the 1950s. Catch You Later, Traitor is about 12-year-old Pete, whose father is accused of being a communist, an allegation that turns his classmates against him. The year is 1951 and the New York Giants are tied with the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League championship. Pete cements his being treated as an outsider by his classmates by rooting for the Giants over the Dodgers in the historic three-game playoff that the Giants ended up winning. “The title has many meanings,” Avi told booksellers. “Pete is considered a traitor to the Brooklyn Dodgers as well as a traitor to his country.”
Disclosing that he has always loved reading detective fiction, and that The Maltese Falcon remains his “all-time favorite” detective novel, Avi praised Sam Spade, “who spoke like he was spitting firecrackers.” Spade was, Avi confided, “my Shakespeare.” Avi wanted to become a private detective like Sam Spade when he was a youth, “but a detective with nothing to detect is like a fish in a tree.” So, he became the next best thing – a writer – and hopes that with Catch You Later, Traitor, he will successfully introduce young readers to the pleasures of classic detective fiction.
In speaking of her wordless picture book, The Farmer and the Clown (S&S/Beach Lane, Sept.). Marla Frazee explained that people usually respond to the idea of a book about clowns by telling her that they don’t like clowns. “I don’t like clowns either,” she noted, although, she once dressed as a clown in high school to make fun of the homecoming celebration there. “Miss Uzzell told me to wipe that smile off your face,” Frazee recalled, before assigning her detention, during which she had to write an essay on the importance of homecoming.
“When it comes to clowns, Frazee said, “There is a disconnect between the way they look, the way they act, and the way they may be feeling, so it’s kind of freaky.” That disconnect between the interior and the exterior inspired her conception of the book’s two characters: the baby clown who looks happy but isn’t, and the farmer who looks grouchy, but is really very kind.
Noting that her books always seem to reflect her life passages – such as her writing and illustrating books about babies when her own children were young – Frazee touched booksellers by disclosing that The Farmer and the Clown reflects yet another major personal milestone: the breakdown of her 31-year marriage a few years ago. Describing how especially painstaking the process of drawing the illustrations on the pages that contain multiple vignettes was, Frazee recalled that “it was such a tense time,” in her life, “but this slow process really calmed me.” And an inspirational text from her editor, Allyn Johnston, provided her with flap copy, which she quoted: “Home. You know where it is when you’re there. But sometimes you get a bit separated from home, and you may need a little help finding your way back.”
Introduced by Valerie Koehler of Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop as a “literary darling,” Meg Wolitzer endeared herself to the booksellers by joking that her contract stipulates that she always has to be referred to with those words at appearances. Wolitzer, who has written a number of acclaimed adult novels, including last year’s The Interestings, and one middle-grade novel, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, has written a YA novel – Belzhar (Dutton, Sept.) – which, she said, is very close to her heart.
Explaining that her mother, Hilma Wolitzer, is a writer, which meant that she was allowed to check out as many books from the local public library as she wanted during her childhood, Wolitzer said that, growing up, she felt like her family was the “Jewish bookish version of the Kennedys.” Her writing was encouraged by a teacher, who would write down stories as Wolitzer dictated. “I felt like an executive,” she joked.
While Belzhar is Wolitzer’s first YA novel, she noted that she has often included teenagers in her adult novels. “I think it’s because adolescence is such a time of firsts,” she explained, adding that it’s “not such a leap” writing for YA readers after writing for adults. She wrote Belzhar, she explained, because she wanted to write the kind of novel she herself would have wanted to read when she was 14.
“My ideal book would be a mash-up of boarding school, love, loss, and a touch of magic,” she said – which pretty much describes the premise of Belzhar, the story of a girl from New Jersey who is sent to a therapeutic boarding school in rural Vermont after her British exchange student boyfriend dies less than two months after she met him and fell in love. A journal-writing assignment in one of her classes pulls her into another world, where the past is restored, and what has been lost is now found.
“If you hear echoes of The Bell Jar, you are not wrong,” Wolitzer said, disclosing that she feels a strong personal connection to Plath: like Plath, Wolitzer was a guest editor one summer at Mademoiselle; it was the last year that magazine conducted its guest editor program for college students. Wolitzer also attended Smith College for two years before transferring to Brown University. “You could feel [Plath’s] presence all over that campus,” she said about Smith; Plath attended Smith from 1950 to1955.
The morning’s final speaker, Brandon Sanderson, wearing a Batman T-shirt, introduced himself by recalling that the first time he’d attended Mountains & Plains was in 2004 when he was promoting his first novel, Elantris (2005). “A lot has happened since then,” he said, including the publication of 10 novels and the forthcoming release of Firefight (Delacorte, Jan. 2015) the sequel to Steelheart, the first volume in his Reckoners series for YA readers. The book, which moves the story from a futuristic Chicago to Manhattan, begins with the premise that certain people are granted magical powers. But, Sanderson said, “Only evil people get them.” Firefight is a story about “normal people fighting back in a world where there are no heroes,” he explained, recalling that the story was inspired by an incident when he experienced road rage after getting lost while driving in West Virginia.
Sanderson disclosed that he’d been a reluctant reader in his youth until a junior high teacher, Mrs. Reader, had assigned him to read Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly (1985) and to write a report. The assignment changed his life, he said: he loved the novel and “from that day on” he wanted to write epic fantasy fiction as well. Sanderson believes that for reluctant readers like he was before Mrs. Reader handed him Dragonsbane, it’s all about finding the right fit. “Books are like shoes,” he tells his fans, whom he considers to be primarily teenage boys and young men. “The right shoe is awesome and the right book is awesome.”
Referring to Dragonsbane, he pointed out that it was a fantasy novel about a middle-aged woman, and thus “weird” that it was such a tale that turned him into an eager reader. But, he confessed, the heroine reminded him of his own mother, who’d made so many personal and professional sacrifices on his account when he was a child. “I understood my mother better,” he said, noting that Dragonsbane was the story of her life, “only couched in the context of dragon slaying.”