In workshops, breakfasts, and banquets, children’s booksellers and authors came together earlier this week to discuss ways to increase diverse perspectives in children’s literature at the annual New England Independent Booksellers Association gathering in Providence, R.I. The conference, held September 18–20, was also an opportunity for attendees to celebrate major awards and milestones, including the 30th anniversary of the New England Children’s Book Advisory council.
The conference kicked off on Monday afternoon with a session coordinated by outgoing NECBA co-chairs Sarah Hines of Eight Cousins Books in Falmouth, Mass., and Beth Wagner of Phoenix Books in Essex, Vt., who shared updates from their three-year old initiative, the Windows & Mirrors Project. The project solicits nominations of books with diverse perspectives from booksellers and publishers and then shares a selected list of titles with booksellers at seasonal intervals.
Wagner said this year’s list began with 80 submissions and was whittled down to two dozen by a committee of six. Along with soliciting membership for an expanded selection committee to review the growing number of submissions, Hines and Wagner also shared a new logo for the project. The design was drawn and donated, free of charge, by children’s author-illustrator Grace Lin. In turn, NECBA has made a donation to the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, in Lin’s name.
Hines said that one purpose of the program is to help smaller stores locate more diverse books. For that reason, along with the book lists, she said the new logo will be made available for free as a PDF for booksellers to use for bookmarks and shelf-talkers.
Excitement was high at a packed children’s author breakfast Tuesday morning, which began with a presentation by author Matt de la Peña and illustrator Loren Long, who shared their process of working together to create the picture book, Love (Putnam, Jan. 2018). They were followed by Justina Ireland, author of the YA historical-political zombie tale Dread Nation (Balzer + Bray, Apr. 2018) and Holly Black, author of the dark fantasy faerie title The Cruel Prince (Little, Brown, Jan. 2018).
In her remarks, Ireland urged the 150 audience members to recognize that many books feature Black protagonists as victims or criminals, if they include them at all. “There are precious few Black girls living full and complex lives in children’s fiction,” said Ireland. “Black girls die for the hero’s second act turn, so that Katniss can go on to learn what it means to fight for a greater good. Black girls get to watch someone else get a happily ever after, again and again, but rarely get one of their own. Black girls don’t get to go to Hogwarts, they don’t get to lead a revolution, and if they do, they are white when the movie is cast.”
For white readers, she concluded, “most especially in literature, the possibilities are endless. But for Black children they are either relegated to a supporting role, victims of circumstance, or completely nonexistent.”
Alice Ahn, a bookseller at Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, N.H., said that similar problems extend to issues of gender and sexuality. While she said there are plenty of forthcoming young adult titles she can praise, persuasive and compelling female protagonists still remain few and far between. “There is a trope, a trend, of the female character where the author tells me she is strong,” Ahn said, “but ultimately she’s a tier lower.”
Among bookseller favorites to emerge from the conference, Nichole Cousins from White Birch Books pointed to the recent picture book The Bad Seed (HarperCollins, Aug.). Tildy Banker-Johnson, manager of the newly opened Belmont Books in Belmont, Mass. also recommended That Inevitable Victorian Thing (Dutton, Oct.). Along with Ahn, both booksellers also included Ireland’s Dread Nation on their lists of favorites.
In a Wednesday morning event, authors shared their own perspectives as debut writers, discussing their experiences as their books went from manuscript to marketing and sales. Two poignant author perspectives were offered the evening before, however, at the New England Book Awards banquet, where both the Children’s and Young Adult award-recipients were bookseller-authors.
In remarks delivered on her behalf, Melissa Sweet (Some Writer!) cited her time as a bookseller at the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, Mass. as formative for her development as an author. Mackenzi Lee, who received the Young Adult Award for The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, described her own changing perspective as an author and a bookseller, beginning at last year’s banquet.
Lee told the audience that she had just started working as the events manager at Trident Booksellers and Café in Boston, and spent the evening sitting alone, unsure of her place in the community. “I felt like I would never possibly be part of this group,” she said. Instead, a year into her job with her own book on the shelf, she told the audience, “It is such a remarkable difference to look around, and to feel embraced by this community.”