This year’s Northern California Independent Booksellers Association conference, held October 16–17 at the South San Francisco Conference Center, featured an outpouring of love for departing executive director Hut Landon, who has held the role for 18 years. Calvin Crosby will be Landon’s successor; Landon passed the reins to Crosby at the closing annual NCIBA meeting.
While overall attendance of 350 was down by 50 attendees from last year, Landon said the exhibitor pool was almost identical to the 2014 show, and that there were more children’s authors in attendance than last year. Several booksellers mentioned that the conference seemed somewhat smaller than in recent years but that didn’t affect the upbeat and celebratory mood as booksellers, publishers, and authors praised Landon and highlighted new children’s titles.
The Children’s Author Tea featured Dav Pilkey (Captain Underpants #12, Scholastic), Rebecca Stead (Goodbye Stranger, Random House), Katherine Applegate (Crenshaw, Feiwel and Friends), and illustrator Christian Robinson (Leo: A Ghost Story, Chronicle). Pilkey opened the tea by talking about his difficulty reading as a child. “I was so happy, then school started,” said the author, who turned to drawing and is now coming out with his 60th book. Applegate spoke about her new novel, which addresses hunger and poverty among children, “a tough subject and one we usually don’t broach in children’s books.” The author mentioned that indie bookstores have set up food drive boxes in conjunction with the launch of Crenshaw.
The education sessions included a panel on the challenges of handselling picture books, featuring Julie Barton (Tandem), Shannon Engelbrecht (teacher-librarian at San Francisco Unified School District), and Sharon Levin (Books Inc.), moderated by Summer Laurie, chair of the Northern California Children’s Booksellers Alliance. The panel discussed issues that arise in stores around picture books, and challenged assumptions that parents have about the value of them. Laurie brought up the trend of picture books getting shorter and shorter. Engelbrecht said, “Parents have shorter attention spans and less time.”
On their value, Engelbrecht said, “When you’re introducing a new topic or talking about something challenging, images create a bridge for students for what they already know to the next new world. As librarians, we are constantly pushing back on the ‘I’m a big kid, I just want a chapter book’ because an image really is worth a thousand words.”
Barton noted that while parents will sometimes choose wordless books to avoid having to read a text-heavy book, the irony is that they often end up requiring more words. Engelbrecht added that wordless books develop the important skill of inference among children readers. “Inference is a critical comprehension skill that I don’t think is pushed enough. A wordless book is pure inference.”
Issues around picture books were echoed on the show floor. Marissa Moss of Creston Books was one of a few independent children’s presses represented, and she wondered why usual exhibitors like Candlewick Press and Goosebottom Books were not in attendance. Moss added that she saw “very few picture books on display” and noted mostly seeing a “lot of YA and middle grade.”
Gã Lombard, veteran children’s book buyer at Bookshop Santa Cruz, said, “A lot of picture books were underrepresented on the floor, because there’s new excitement about middle grade books,” seconding Moss’s comments.
Some booksellers attributed the lower attendance to a “fluke,”while others guessed it might be due to the fact that the show was held on two weekdays instead of spanning the weekend.
Moss said Creston’s author signings went “very well,” adding that they gave away 80 copies of April Chu’s title Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, “and we could have given away many more.”
Korje Guttormsen, bookseller at Books Inc. Laurel Village, said that while she felt like there were less children’s offerings on the floor, “most of the children’s highlights were at the author’s tea,” and then, like a true bookseller, asked, “Can I read now?”
Overall, attendees were just happy to be in the company of book lovers. Ruth Manlove, bookseller at The Storyteller in Lafayette, which closed just prior to the conference, attended NCIBA with a former coworker. “Even though our store closed, we came because we just love coming here.”
At the annual meeting, Laurie talked about a Northern California Children’s Booksellers Alliance fall diversity initiative at the annual meeting called the Mirrors and Windows Program, in response to booksellers voicing the desire for more diverse books. The initiative has chosen two books, one visual, One Word From Sophia by Jim Averbeck and one text-based, The Misadventures of The Family Fletcher by Dana Levy. Laurie said the NCCBA is “hoping that stores throughout our membership base will sell as many of those books as they possibly can through December,” at which point they will collect sales data to return to the publishers, to show them “that we can actively move books we want to move. If we can prove that then maybe they will publish books we want them to publish.”
She added good news. “It was announced yesterday that [author] Averbeck has just gotten a contract for two more Sophia books, so it’s working. They’re actually publishing more of what we want to be able to sell.”