What this year’s Heartland Fall Forum, held Oct. 5–7 in Minneapolis, lacked in terms of bookseller attendance, it made up for in enthusiasm, especially when it came to children’s books and authors. This year’s joint trade show of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association drew 280 booksellers from 69 MIBA stores and 29 GLIBA stores, 238 exhibitors staffing 72 booths and tables, and 160 authors to The Depot, a 19th-century train station that has been converted into a conference hotel complex. Attendance was about 5% down from last year’s show in Chicagoland, and 31% from 2014, when the regional trade show was last held at The Depot.
The booksellers who did attend, though, were happy to be there, because, they reported, meeting authors is just as important to them as checking out publishers’ newest offerings – and the children’s book authors at Heartland fully delivered.
“You read a book and say, unh hunh,” Mary Gehring of the Bookshelf in Batesville, Ind,. told PW before the children’s breakfast began. “But you come to this and you hear the authors speak, and when you hear their passion, you want to read the book and you really want to sell it [because] you think, I have this person that I can [handsell] this book to.” And, as Becky Anderson of Chicagoland’s Anderson’s Bookshops noted while moderating the children’s breakfast, children’s book authors create magic.
The four authors certainly did create magic for a room full of booksellers, with their talk of how they came to write about kindly witches and shape-shifting cats and badass dinosaurs.
Kelly Barnhill, author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Algonquin) spoke of her upbringing in a family of Midwestern educators and how writing middle-grade fiction has allowed her to connect with her educator self. Disclosing that she could never hold down a normal job, she came to write “weird fictions” because she likes “weird things” – including “kindly witches,” “wise swamp monsters” and “dragons who suffer from delusions of grandeur.”
Every story she writes, Barnhill disclosed, begins with a conundrum that “delights me, [and] makes me wonder.” The Girl Who Drank the Moon, she said, began with the swamp monster. “I don’t know where he came from,” she said, but she knew she had to investigate whether there was a story there.
“My job is weird,” she concluded. “But it’s OK – the [real] world is weird too.”
Next up was Brendan Wenzel, who presented They All Saw a Cat (Chronicle) the first picture book that he both wrote and illustrated. Describing himself as a “life-long lover of animals,” Wenzel noted that physiology, history, and location all have an impact upon perception and emotion, one of the points he wanted to make in They All Saw a Cat, in which “a cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears and paws” and all of the other creatures it encounters see it differently from the others. Displaying the book’s illustrations to the audience, Wenzel demonstrated how the same cat is a cuddly friend to a child, an endless expanse of sky-high fur to a flea, and a roaring monster to a mouse.
Wenzel noted that he included Rorschach-style endpapers in They All Saw a Cat. “I like to ask kids what they see in the endpapers,” he said. Concluding his presentation, he expressed his hope that booksellers will close the book after reading it and “think of all the fun stuff” that he created in the production of this book.
Brandon Mull, author of the bestselling Fablehaven series (Shadow Mountain), then explained how he came to write fantasy stories. Disclosing that he was the oldest sibling in a family of five, Mull said that he “has always lived in my head, fighting battles and having adventures” as a “coping mechanism,” especially against boredom.
“My head was a factory of weird creative things,” he said of his childhood, recalling that reading the Chronicles of Narnia “broke my little brain [because] all I wanted was it to come true.” Like C.S. Lewis, Mull said he began to write down fantastic stories “about people who never existed and things that never happened.”
Mull’s new series, Dragonwatch, is launching with Shadow Mountain in March. The world he created in Fablehaven is an entry point for this new series, which is about a family entrusted with guarding the dragons in dragon sanctuaries.
“Most people [in his novels] can’t speak to dragons,” he said: “They become paralyzed with fear.” The characters in Dragonwatch, he said, were his “favorite cast of characters ever.”
Concluding on a serious note, Mull emphasized the importance to him of writing about fantastical worlds so that young people could use his stories as their own coping mechanisms. “One way I can describe my job is that I pretend to be a 13-year-old girl talking to a centaur,” Mull said, explaining that if an author of children’s fantasy novels is adept at writing compelling dialogue, “you can draw in kids and get them to read.”
The morning’s final speaker, Eric Litwin, also emphasized the importance of drawing children to books. Saying that he is a former teacher, or, as he joked, “a recovering teacher,” Litwin recalled how, as a child, he could not sit still in class and received bad grades, but survived school by reading voraciously. As a teacher, he noticed that kindergartners loved books, but that there were older children who were turned off to books.
“What happens between kindergarten and third grade?” he asked. He concludes that the two typical methods of teaching children how to read are flawed. He writes his books keeping in mind that repetition, rhyme, and plot prediction are much more effective methods in teaching children to read than the widely-used phonics method, in which children are taught the alphabet first, the sounds they make, and how letters form words. He then adds in some motion and music to the mix to ramp up the fun.
Litwin then strapped on his guitar and began performing Groovy Joe: Ice Cream & Dinosaurs (Scholastic, Sept.). Within minutes, he had the crowd of booksellers singing at the top of their lungs the refrain, “Love my doggy ice cream,” while waving hands, pumping fists, and even doing a few 80s-style dance moves in their seats. It was, Litwin pointed out, “literary disco” with a message: it’s good to share – even with a dinosaur.
Finishing a raucous performance, Litwin recalled that his first children’s book, Pete the Cat, was self-published more than 10 years ago. His local bookseller, Little Shop of Stories, in Decatur, Ga., got behind the book and brought it to the attention of indie booksellers as well as to others in the publishing industry.
“What I have learned is booksellers are the heart and soul of the book publishing industry,” Litwin said in thanking them.
“That was the funnest breakfast I’ve been to,” said Kate Scott of Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, afterwards. “There was so much excitement and energy there. Everyone matched that energy. I loved seeing the authors do what they actually do [at author events]. Oh my gosh, if you can entertain adults like this, kids must go nuts.”
Zsamé Morgan, who is opening Babycake’s Book Stack, a children’s bookstore in downtown St. Paul next spring, agreed, describing the breakfast as both “enlightening and entertaining.” She added, “I can’t wait to have author events at Babycake’s Book Stack and witness the children meeting the dynamic people responsible for reaching the corners of their minds.”
Tom Lowry of Lowry Books in Three Rivers, Mich., echoed their sentiments, adding that he appreciated that the four authors demonstrated “new creative ways of looking at the world” and is gratified that “such talent go into children’s books.”
Lowry noted that he already stocks Groovy Joe and They All Saw a Cat in his store, but “to have the authors talk about them adds to the experience.” And Gary Shapiro, who opened a bookstore in Arkeny, Iowa, earlier this year, said that The Girl Who Drank the Moon is the kind of book that will sell well at his store. He predicted that Dragonwatch is going to do well too, especially because he cannot keep Fablehaven titles in stock.
“We order five, we sell five. We order five, we sell five,” he said. Like magic.
Next year’s Heartland Fall Forum returns to Chicagoland next year. It will be held once again at the Westin Lombard in Lombard, Ill., from Oct. 11–13.