New England’s children’s booksellers are carving out an increasingly prominent place within the New England Independent Booksellers Association. At the annual NEIBA conference, held in Providence, R.I. from October 2–4, the organization’s children’s book advisory group (NECBA) rolled out a series of organizational, programming, and planning ideas that chart a big vision for the coming years.

The developments reflect the group’s efforts to “create a more harmonious relationship with NEIBA,” said incoming NECBA co-president Nicole Brinkley of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, N.Y.

Brinkley said the group took steps last summer to put their ideas to paper, and organize them in a way that could be more easily shared with fellow booksellers in the organization. Out of that process, the group announced a new nominating process for president during the conference town hall, in an effort to ensure that more booksellers have an opportunity to have a say in leadership decisions.

In addition, the group is planning to increase programming with the addition of a major annual event. NEIBA executive director Beth Ineson announced that a children’s and young adult focused version of the spring All About the Books program will debut in January. The highly successful annual program consistently draws standing-room only crowds of booksellers from across New England to hear presentations from 10 authors about forthcoming books.

In previous years, a handful of authors presenting at the gathering have written young adult titles, but the predominate focus of the event has been on adult fiction and nonfiction. Ineson said the first children’s All About the Books will be held in January 2020 at the offices of Beacon Press in Boston.

Diversity Group Looks to Grow

Discussions also began about how to expand NECBA’s Windows & Mirrors program nationally. The group reviews dozens of nominated titles and releases two lists each year that recommend forthcoming diverse titles with full descriptions for fellow booksellers. The lists are made available to booksellers online.

During the NECBA town hall, booksellers discussed ways to first begin to monetize their efforts and raise awareness about Windows & Mirrors within NEIBA. Ineson suggested publisher sponsorships for bookmarks and shelf talkers, and Belmont Books manager Tildy-Banker Johnson’s proposal of including the list in the annual holiday catalog was well-received by the group.

A representative from Candlewick Press said that the publisher would be interested in supporting such efforts, but that steps would need to be taken to further refine the branding and messaging. Ineson agreed that big picture plans may take years to come to fruition and would need substantial focus on branding, acknowledging that, “It’s a big task and it will take a long time.” Still, she said, “Why not start now?”

At a Windows & Mirrors workshop, members of the group shared how they vet the books that make their list. “We’re trying to find books that aren’t harmful and are promoting great representation,” said the group’s co-president, Alice Ahn of Water Street Books in Exeter, N.H.

While the panel shared numerous recommendations throughout the workshop, they also expressed challenges in finding quality nonfiction titles, especially picture and early chapter books. Ahn also expressed disappointment that this year’s list contained few #OwnVoices titles by disabled authors.

Among the forthcoming titles recommended by members of the group were All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney (FSG, Oct.); Amy Sarig King’s The Year We Fell From Space (Scholastic/Levine, Nov.); and Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal (Roaring Brook, Oct.).

Ahn and others on the panel encouraged the dozens of attendees to become involved with the group as a way to identify more titles for the list and also increase the diversity of perspectives in the group.

Author Talks and NEIBA Awards

Along with professional development, children’s booksellers were treated to a host of author talks including a poetry-infused breakfast with authors Kate Messner, Jessie Sima, and Renée Watson. All three authors shared a deep desire to meet their readers in increasingly sophisticated and trusting ways. Sima’s forthcoming Spencer’s New Pet riffs on silent cinema to tell a story without words, while Watson’s Some Places More Than Others asks readers to move beyond stereotypes about beauty, race, and family.

At the New England Book Awards banquet, Jarrett Krosoczka took home the Young Adult prize for his graphic novel Hey Kiddo. Krosoczka thanked the audience for selling his book—which recounts a childhood scarred by addiction and loss—in the face of efforts by some educators to shield teens from discussions about addiction, as well as the continued stigma among some educators against graphic novels.

With family and friends—some of whom appear in the book—looking on, he thanked Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn., for helping overcome opposition from a member of the selection committee that ultimately chose Hey Kiddo as the OneBook read for Eastern Connecticut.

Accepting the award for best children’s book, New Kid author Jerry Craft thanked booksellers for welcoming him a year earlier for his first author talk for the book, and for converting him into a lifelong reader as an adult. “I was really a reluctant reader. It was an indie bookstore in Brooklyn that made me a reader,” Craft said. “It was as an adult that you indie book people made me a reader.”

New Booksellers in Search of a Career Path

Of the 377 booksellers in attendance, 62 were first-time attendees, up 50% over the previous year, in what Ineson termed “a youthquake” for the organization. Younger booksellers were complimentary of the increased representation, though many noted the lack of diversity in key areas, including within the Windows & Mirrors group. Many expressed eagerness for the conferences to serve as hubs for continued professionalization of the trade to allow for more sustainable career paths.

First-time attendee and frontline bookseller Lizzie O’Connor was among them. O’Connor began working at Eight Cousins—a children’s-focused bookshop in Falmouth, Mass.—in 2017. “I really didn’t know what a trade show was,” O’Connor said. At the encouragement of conference organizers, O’Connor and other frontline booksellers attended a luncheon with publisher representatives that would typically have been for owners and buyers.

She came away with a new pick for the store: Christina Soontornvat’s A Wish in the Dark (Candlewick, Mar. 2020), and a different outlook on bookselling. “It bridged the gap between bookselling and the publishing side of things,” O’Connor said.

Whether there’s a career path ahead in bookselling, is still unclear to the young bookseller. “If it were viable I would [consider a long-term career in bookselling,” she said. The conference had introduced her to people who make it work. Over the long term, she still expressed reservations, saying, “I’m not convinced it is.”