For children, dinner at the kids’ table means being relegated away from the fun stuff. But at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association’s recent “Dinner at the Kids’ Table” event, it was the epicenter of inspiration, insight, and, yes, fun. PNBA’s weekend event was held September 28 through 30, at the Hotel Murano in Tacoma, Wash. The four featured authors at the Friday night dinner encapsulated in their works and words the current political moment, with stories that, among other things, explore mental illness and give voice to multi-dimensional LGBTQ+ individuals and female characters.
One of the evening’s featured speakers, Yuyi Morales, introduced her picture book Dreamers (Holiday House/Porter), which tells her personal story of immigration and migration, motherhood, new beginnings, and struggle. Morales, who now lives in her native Mexico, shared with the crowd of more than 200 librarians, booksellers, and publishers, “There is a place for every one of us in books. We need to give voice to those we haven’t heard yet. We’re all part of this weaving, of telling these stories.”
Another featured author, Brad Meltzer, said that in the third grade, he had a teacher who believed in him as a writer. Ever since, he has wanted to research and give greater depth to heroes and what inspired the passions that made them famous. He and illustrator Chris Eliopoulous do so in their Ordinary People Change the World series that features, among their myriad historical figures, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington, and Amelia Earhart. The two newest installments are I Am Neil Armstrong and I Am Sonia Sotomayor, which also has a Spanish-language version.
In his closing remarks, Meltzer said, “These are not books about history, but books about values.” He added that in the year following the 2016 election, sales of the Ordinary People series skyrocketed. “Why?” he asked rhetorically. “Because parents and grandparents were tired of putting on the TV and seeing politicians” instead of leaders and “real heroes” like those highlighted in their books for the youngest nonfiction readers, he said, referring to the “tons” of letters he and Eliopoulos receive.
Suzanne Selfors, author of 34 books, turns the idea of the invitation list on its head in Wish Upon a Sleepover (Imprint). What if, she posits, the people on a girl’s do-not-invite list to a party are those who receive said invitation? “This is a great idea at this time,” she said at the dinner event, referring to the Supreme Court hearings that had wrapped up just before her presentation. Maybe being forced to talk to others could yield commonalities, and perhaps that person “might be able to be your best friend,” she said, calling this concept (with a raised eyebrow) “edgy” as well as “very timely.”
Wildcard (Putnam) is Marie Lu’s 10th book and the final volume in her Warcross duology for teens, which features a hacker who is a girl gamer. Lu told the Kids’ Table crowd that she lived her first five years in Maoist China and was at Tiananmen Square with her grandmother during the days of pro-Democracy demonstrations leading up to, and including, the massacre there on June 5, 1989. “I remember the tanks,” she said, emphasizing that the experiences of those days before her family left the country (first, implausibly, for New Orleans during Mardi Gras) inform her work. She experienced a dystopian world of banned books in China, and, she said, “We’re living in a dystopian society now.” She continued, “I use fiction to make sense of the facts and real life. In books, people can see the truth and they wake up.”
Heard on the Floor
“Own Voices” writing is in demand, said Hana Boxberger, bookseller at Village Books in Bellingham, Wash., and a “Kids’ Pick of the Lists” panelist. For example, authors are increasingly representing people of color, LGBTQ+ characters, immigrants, disabled people, those suffering addiction or mental illness, and those on the autism spectrum. Importantly, they’re including individuals in each category who are multi-layered and not solely defined by their differences.
For example, in debut novel Darius the Great Is Not Okay (Dial) by Adib Khorram, the main character has depression, but it’s not a plot point, explained Colleen Conway, sales manager at Penguin Young Readers. “It’s a natural part of the book,” she continued, noting it had appeared on four PNBA booksellers’ “Kids’ Pick of the Lists,” which catalogue their must-reads.
Another example of this trend in characters is in Stephen Wallenfels’s Deadfall (Disney-Hyperion). In the book, twin brothers are the protagonists; one brother is coming out over the course of the cross-over thriller, but the book is not a coming-out story. “I wanted to write a book where a character is coming out but it doesn’t define him; it’s just a personality piece,” Wallenfels said.
Chris Satterlund, a longtime sales rep with Scholastic, said inclusive books “are being done better and better,” such as Bill Konigsberg’s The Music of What Happens. “You’re not just seeing a brown person or a gay person just so they’re there.” Rather, she said, “Can we just have a gay kid who just wants to get on the basketball team? Yes. And I think that’s where we’re going” in publishing.
PNBA also featured new books emphasizing plain old goodness, strong relationships, and learning to count. Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse by Marcy Campbell, illustrated by Corinna Luyken (Dial), also was big on the “Pick” list. The picture book underlines the values of kindness and understanding and the importance of sincere friendships. This is Luyken’s debut work for young readers, and she was featured at PNBA’s Friday night “Feast of Authors” event.
Jessica Hahl of Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Mont., touted middle grade novel The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Greenwillow) as a possible literary award winner. Hahl said the book, which is set in medieval Europe and whose main character has a hump on his back, leans heavily on kindness toward others and includes interesting religious insights that are accurate to the setting.
Richard Wisniewski of Flyaway Books said its goal is diversity and inclusion, where books’ characters are “multi-national and not gender-specific… where we include everyone and… we provide a voice for everyone.” Flyaway is a new children’s books imprint of Westminster John Knox Press, which is a non-profit division of the Presbyterian Church. “We don’t take a stance on all that’s going on,” he said, adding self-esteem books are a big part of its stock in trade. For instance, What in the World Is Wrong with Gisbert? by Jochen Weeber and illustrated by Fariba Gholizadeh, is about a giraffe who, the more he’s teased and the more he feels bad, shrinks to a fraction of his size. Then, a frank chat with his parents and zoo-animal friends helps turn things around, including his literal and emotional stature.
Booksellers attending the show also noted the popularity of books showcasing the strength of young female protagonists. Earl Dizon, a bookseller at Portland-based Green Bean Books, said, “I love seeing that people have been responding so well to stories about strong female characters, in fiction and nonfiction.” His store’s “tower of girl power” display attracts a lot of positive attention, as do kids’ books generally. “They contain amazing lessons,” Dizon said, “about love, kindness, acceptance, and friendship.”
PNBA’s abundance of children’s, middle grade, and YA books ultimately reflect overall trends in publishing, if not national movements like activism and diversity. Dizon gave as an example Jacqueline Woodson’s new middle-grade novel, Harbor Me (Penguin/Paulsen), and shared a key message from Yuyi Morales’s remarks with PNBA attendees on the trade show’s first night. Dizon said, “It’s so important to tell your story before someone else provides the narrative.”