While much of the first half of the American Booksellers Association’s 45 hours in Orlando for Children’s Institute (June 21–23) emphasized E.M. Forster’s admonition “only connect,” the second focused on making those connections through stories. Even Disney Institute v-p and general manager Jeff James spoke about stories, particularly the ones that every leader tells about what he or she values. And stories were an essential part of both Dave Barry’s and Julia Alvarez’s keynotes.
Despite the early hour of Barry’s breakfast presentation, the humorist kept booksellers laughing with his stories of how he came to be a children’s book author and his encounters with kids’ books. He might be the only father to read and reread The Very Hungry Caterpillar with his son and wish that at least one time he’d turn the last page and the caterpillar would transform into a tarantula or Scarlett Johansen. “I used my kids,” he admitted as he showed a picture of himself picking up his son, then in middle school, in an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. And he talked of his band the Rock Bottom Remainders, which is where he met Ridley Pearson, with whom he teamed up for the Peter and the Starcatchers series.
Those books for kids, he said, completely changed his life as a writer. “Kids aren’t interested in your writing process,” Barry said. “Kid readers don’t care what reviewers said. If they like what you’ve written they immerse themselves in it. If you make any kind of a mistake, they’ll find it.” As for the most exciting moment on his tour, it was at his local bookstore, Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla. He and Pearson were reading a section of the book about a humongous snake, when suddenly a man draped a 90 lb., 10 ft. python drape around their shoulders. “I’m just glad we didn’t write a scene involving spiders,” Barry said.
In spite of the laughter, the Pulse nightclub shootings, which took place in Orlando, were never far from anyone’s thought. At the conference, the ABA collected nine cartons of LGBTQ and grief books to give to area schools and libraries and created a list of nearly 400 books for bookstores to stock. As Alvarez noted in the opening of her talk: “On one brutal night a man closed down the world of stories for 49 people and for himself.” And it is through stories, she continued, that we must begin to create a world again. Stories enlarge the heart and nurture tolerance.”
Stories were an important part of Alvarez’s childhood in the Dominican Republic. “Ours was not a literary culture” she said, “but an oral culture.” Years later, when she was studying plot and character, she realized that she had learned both from the stories she was told by people who couldn’t read or write. Nor did Alvarez want to read at first; she flunked every grade through the fifth. Her first “amazing grace” moment came when her aunt gave her a copy of the story of Scheherazade, who tells the sultan stories for 1,0001 nights. “It told me a luminous piece of information,” Alvarez said. “Stories have power.”
At age 10, when her family was forced to leave the Dominican Republic and emigrated to the United States, Alvarez had a sixth-grade teacher who nurtured her sense of stories. “The world of stories was a welcoming place,” Alvarez discovered. But the more she read, the more she wanted to read about people like her. Another moment of “amazing grace” was finding Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too, Sing America” in an anthology at school. “That was music to my ears,” Alvarez said. “Mr. Hughes, he was claiming his place at the table of American literature. These encounters helped me find my way to be the writer and person I am today.” Even so it took her 25 years of sending out her writing and having it rejected before her first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent, came out when she was 41.
But just as critical as the authors’ stories and the opportunity to meet more than 50 writers and illustrators at the authors reception and Scholastic’s Meet and Treat party, was the excitement that booksellers brought to the conference. “The energy and enthusiasm is palpable,” ABA CEO Oren Teicher told PW. “It makes it all worthwhile.”
In part of that energy was fueled by the number of new booksellers attending CI4, including: DeAndra Beard, who opened Beyond Barcodes Bookstore in Kokomo, Ind., earlier this year; Deserea Russell, founder of the online children’s bookstore and book fair company, Imaginations, who plans to open a physical store in Columbia, Md.; and Sandy Loomis, who is readying a fall opening for Enchanted Passage, a children’s bookstore and enrichment center in Sudbury, Mass.
The fact that most independent booksellers’ sales have been up for the first half of 2016 hasn’t hurt. “The best days of children’s bookselling are ahead of us,” Teicher said. It certainly seemed that way as booksellers left the conference hall for the last time and headed out into the Florida heat.