Heartland Fall Forum, the joint trade show of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association and the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association, took place October 11–13 in the Chicago suburb of Lombard, Ill., drawing 275 booksellers, vendors from 79 companies representing hundreds more, and approximately 160 authors. If there was a theme to this year’s gathering, it was that all present were essential links in the book publishing supply chain.

“The only job we have as publishers is to connect authors with readers,” Sourcebooks senior v-p and editorial director Todd Stocke told a group of 50 Heartland booksellers touring the company’s headquarters in nearby Naperville on Wednesday afternoon. Hours later, the MIBA and GLIBA book awards ceremony included presentations by Andrea Beaty, who won the Great Lakes, Great Reads Award in the picture book category for Ada Twist, Scientist (Abrams); Phyllis Root and Betsy Bowen, who won the Midwest Booksellers Award in the picture book category for One North Star: A Counting Book (University of Minnesota Press); and Jack Cheng, who won the Great Lakes, Great Reads Award in the YA category for See You in the Cosmos (Dial). Kelly Barnhill, who won the Midwest Booksellers Award in the YA category for The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Algonquin), was unable to attend, but relayed her thanks via video. During her speech, Beaty thanked booksellers for using their “superpower” to “help children find their superpowers” such as “to read, to question, to think.”

The Children’s Author Breakfast on Friday shone an even stronger spotlight on all the links in the book supply chain between author and reader. Standing at the podium, MIBA executive director Carrie Obry introduced two 11-year-old girls from the Milwaukee area, Kaedyn Oliphant and Zoe Peterson, describing them both as insatiable readers, and noting that their excitement at being able to attend Heartland as her guests reminded her anew of how books can inspire children and enrich their lives.

Cynthia Compton of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Ind., an Indianapolis suburb, served as the morning’s emcee. She described the first speaker, Matthew Holm, as “just like a pied piper, getting legions of children to follow him.” Holm is the co-author with his sister, Jennifer Holm, of Swing It, Sunny (Scholastic), a new graphic novel for middle grade readers that is sequel to their Sunny Side Up. Disclosing that he does “most of the artwork, while Jen does most of the writing,” Matthew drew laughs when he said that he had noticed that the books he has created with Jennifer “feature a heroic older sister and an annoying younger brother.” Swing It, Sunny is the story of a middle-schooler in Pennsylvania, and her adventures with her family and friends—culminating in learning from her mysterious new neighbor how to be a flag twirler and marching in a parade.

Holm noted that their graphic novels are set in the mid-1970s because the siblings were so inspired by the popular culture of their childhood. That era was “a magical time,” Matthew declared, singing “It’s the Sunny Show” to the tune of the Brady Bunch theme song, and projecting on a screen a few family pictures from the period, including one of Jennifer twirling a flag in her school band. “It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since the 1970s,” he concluded. “Sometimes you just have to swing it.”

After the two 11-year-olds returned to the podium briefly to express their enthusiasm for Marie Lu’s novels, the author introduced her latest YA book, Warcross (Putnam), which marks her return to writing science fiction. Warcross is set 10 years in the future, and the world is obsessed with a virtual reality game called Warcross, developed by a young Japanese prodigy. When teenage bounty hunter Emika Chen accidentally hacks into the game’s opening ceremonies, its creator asks her to join in as one of the featured players to spy on the other players for him.

“I wanted to explore technology with Warcross,” Lu said, pointing out that the iPhone was developed only 10 years ago, and has completely revolutionized communications in that time. “Children don’t know what it was like—life before the digital age—and it wasn’t so long ago. What did we do before the iPhone? What is the next thing? What will we do if there’s a device that can put us into a virtual reality?”

Explaining that she is greatly interested in the cyberpunk subgenre, Lu said that she wanted to write a cyberpunk novel that explores Asian cultures and also wanted to write a story “about gaming that has girls in it.” Lu noted, “Warcross is close to my heart, because there’s so much of me in it, and memories of my mother. Even my dog is in it.”

The next speaker, Cressida Cowell, creator of the How to Train Your Dragon series, disclosed that her Heartland appearance, for the Wizards of Once (Little, Brown), marked her “first real talk in America” to introduce the illustrated tale for middle grade readers. The book features Xar, a Wizard boy who has no magic, and is desperate to obtain some, and Wish, a Warrior girl, who owns a forbidden magical object that she must conceal.

“How great it is to come halfway across the world and to meet people who know me and know my books,” the London-based author said, showing off her sketchbook and displaying various stages of drawings of both characters and landscapes. Cowell explained that the real-life inspiration for the forests in the British Isles where Xar and Wish live is the Sussex landscape. Recalling visits there as a child, Cowell said that she thought when young that “the 3,000-year-old hills” in Sussex were “the forts of the fairies.”

Cowell told booksellers that she prefers that parents read her books aloud to their children. “I want to make dads cry,” she said. “I want children to think, ‘Books have the power to make my dad cry.’ ” Books, she concluded, “are so good at creating empathy. We need to make sure this is a medium that remains alive.”

The last speaker that morning, Philip Stead, presented The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine (Doubleday), which was written by him and illustrated by his wife, Erin Stead. Philip explained that in 2014, the Steads were asked to fill out a story for middle grade readers based on some rough notes jotted down by Mark Twain after his daughters begged him to tell them a story. According to the notes, Twain told the girls a tale about Johnny, a poor boy in possession of some magical seeds, who finds himself on a quest to rescue a kidnapped prince. “It’s a book about kindness, about gentleness, about friendship,” Stead said, noting, “I happen to think in these times, there’s nothing more radical than gentleness.”

Turning from books to bookselling, Stead, who met his wife when they were teenagers, noted that Books of Wonder in New York City played a major role in the couple’s early careers, when he aspired to create picture books and she to be an artist. The couple discovered the store by chance after turning down 18th Street during a walk in Manhattan. The store and its treasures solidified their ambitions to create children’s books. Erin even worked at Books of Wonder for a while. “We owe our careers—literally—to indie bookstores,” Philip said, “Bookstores make people feel part of something larger. Thank you, everyone for being in it with me.”

Stead wasn’t the only one thanking his colleagues for “being in it” with him. Following her return from Heartland to Columbus, Ohio, Melia Wolf, the new owner of Cover to Cover Books for Young Readers and one of the approximately 110 first-time conference attendees, told PW, “It was so affirming. We [she was accompanied by store manager Tamara Withers] loved getting to meet so many other booksellers, especially my mentor, Cynthia Compton. She helped us with everything [and] introduced us to so many people. I also met a lot of the publisher’s reps: it helps putting names to faces. Heartland has been key in preparing us to open Cover to Cover.”

After buying the store in August from Sally Oddi, its founder and owner for 37 years, Wolf closed it for renovations to make it ADA-compliant. The store will reopen in January.

Heartland Fall Forum will return to Minneapolis next year and will be hosted by MIBA. The conference will be held once again at the Depot, October 3–5, 2018.