Accepting the award for Midwest Independent Booksellers Association’s bookseller of the year at the Heartland Fall Forum, Danny Caine, owner of The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kan., addressed the 200+ booksellers gathered in Cleveland. But he might as well have been speaking to this year’s featured speakers who were children’s book authors.
“Advocate for human rights and fair policies, sure, but also advocate for yourselves,” Caine said, “Don’t forget that you who trade in stories have a story that people want to hear. In this way I don’t actually think our books are our most valuable commodity. I think it’s our stories.”
The importance of telling one’s story also was the underlying theme of the marquee keynote by Ruta Sepetys, “Future Eyes to the Past,” in which she explored her passion for writing historical fiction. Sepetys, the author of four historical novels for YA readers, describes herself as “the speaker of lost stories and hunter of hidden histories,” and noted that stories of people struggling with adversity are “part of [her] family’s fabric.” Between Shades of Gray, Sepetys’s 2011 debut, was inspired by her father’s youth in Lithuania under Soviet oppression, and her second, Out of the Easy (2014) was inspired by her mother’s experiences growing up in New Orleans.
“We can’t choose our hardships, but we can choose how we face our hardships,” she said.
Unlike the earlier novels inspired by family lore, Sepetys’s latest, The Fountains of Silence (Philomel, Oct.), about an American boy and a Spanish girl in post-war Spain, was inspired by her wish to know more about the great oppression in that country following World War II, when the Fascist government did such things as eliminate freedom of speech and press and even kidnapped the children of those citizens who opposed its policies and sold them.
“How do we forget history? Does silence heal pain or does it prolong it?” Sepetys asked, “If we don’t know about one another’s history, we are missing an opportunity for progress. We are letting small and inconsequential things stand between us.”
Sepetys emphasized that people’s discussions of history in such intimate and casual settings as book groups almost always lead to a discussion of their personal histories, so that history changes from being “a statistic to becoming stories about human beings.”
“Sharing our stories connects us in a way that our hearts open,” she said, “We can go from criticism to compassion. And compassion has no borders.”
When she researched Between Shades of Gray, Sepetys said, she interviewed many survivors of the Russian oppression of Lithuania, who had wished at the time to remain anonymous. By the time of the premiere of the movie adaptation, Ashes in the Snow, this past January, many of those same sources stood up and introduced themselves as the various characters. “Sharing their stories gives people courage to own their history,” Sepetys commented.
Her words certainly resonated, as summoning up the courage to share one’s story and thus own one’s history was on the menu alongside quiche and tater tots at the Children’s Author Breakfast on Friday morning. After being introduced by MIBA executive director Carrie Obry, Kaedyn Oliphant-Buchta, age 13, who was attending her third Heartland as Obry’s guest, told the booksellers that she found Juliet Takes a Breath (Dial, Sept.) by Gabby Rivera, one of the speakers, “powerful and very relatable.”
“Being a member of the GLBTQ community myself, we need more books like that,” she said.
Rivera, the morning’s first speaker, who is Latinx and grew up in the Bronx, introduced herself to booksellers by saying, “My name is Gabby Rivera and I wrote a book! I never thought in my whole life I’d write a book, go on a book tour, and talk about my book on a stage. This is wild.”
Rivera said that she wrote Juliet Takes a Breath, a tale about a Puerto Rican “baby dyke” from the Bronx who goes to Portland, Ore,. to intern for her favorite author, a white feminist, because she “just wanted to tell a story about a character who is in love with herself.”
Explaining that too many novels featuring characters who are people of color emphasize their unhappiness due to their oppression, Rivera said, “It’s like we don’t matter unless we offer you suffering,” something that she wanted to counter with her “joyful and exuberant” characters.
Juliet is a “joyful, happy Puerto Rican babe,” said Rivera, who herself comes across as happy and joyful. “This book is a love letter to all the round brown girls out there in the world who may not feel like they’re enough. So much of my life is wrapped up in this book.”
Following Rivera to the stage, Sharon Robinson, the daughter of legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson, talked about the events in 1963 that inspired her to write Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963 (Scholastic Press, Sept.) which opens with her 13th birthday on January 12, 1963, and ends with the young Robinson’s grief in response to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala,. nine months later, which killed four African-American girls.
Robinson, who has already written a memoir for adult readers, Stealing Home: Intimate Family Portrait by the Daughter of Jackie Robinson (1996) said that she initially was reluctant to write a memoir for young readers “because the first one was so intense.” But, she said, disclosing that the combination of her 97-year-old mother no longer being able to read books and her own experiences talking to children about growing up during the Civil Rights movement made her realize the importance of passing stories on to the next generation.
“We’re talking about 1963, but we’re talking about today as well,” she said, emphasizing that youth today are dealing with their own issues, and that it is important for them to be able to walk into a bookstore and be handed a book that helps them understand life and the world, and the obstacles that young people before them have facedand overcome.
Robinson’s presentation focused on the events that occurred in Birmingham that year, especially the Children’s March in early May, when 1,000 young African-Americans marched through its streets, demanding equal rights; 800 children were arrested the first day and hundreds more were knocked off their feet when water hoses were turned on them.
“We watched the police turn violent against children,” she said., “Their strength, their power, their willingness to go to jail, to risk their lives to change the world, was unforgettable to me.”
Discussing her conversations today with schoolchildren, Robinson said that she tells them to “love themselves, so they can find their voice to defend themselves, to grow as people, and to embrace those who are different from ourselves.”
The morning’s last speaker, Pam Muñoz Ryan, expanded upon the theme of speaking one’s truth as an act of bravery and honesty. Manañaland (Scholastic Press, Mar. 2020), her latest middle grade novel, she said, is a magical tale of “someone who is true of heart who can hold tomorrow in their hand.” Acting upon the legend he’s been told of a gatekeeper who leads travelers into the future, 12-year-old Maximiliano uncovers a family secret that was meant to protect him from harm but now leads him on a quest for answers to what happened to his long-lost mother.
Relating that when she herself was 12, she learned of a family secret about her biological father that was kept by her mother and stepfather and meant to protect her, Ryan said that “guardianship is at the core” of Manañaland. “It’s the age-old legacy of people needing protection and those who protect them,” she said. “Being a guardian is not about borders, laws, or money. It’s about people helping people.”
After all, she added, “We all have worth. We are all connected. We are part of this community called humanity.”
Referring to Maximiliano and Manañaland, Ryan concluded her presentation by saying, “This story happened decades ago, this story is happening now; sadly this story is likely to continue.”
Bookseller Melia Wolf, owner of Cover to Cover for Young Readers in Columbus, Ohio, told PW after the breakfast that the three author presentations “so psyched” her. “I want to write grants, I want to bring these three authors into the schools in Columbus,” she said. “Pam with her message about bridge-building, Gabby with her message about loving oneself, and Sharon’s message of how Martin Luther King took his message to the most segregated areas—these three authors are walking the walk, they’re not just talking the talk. It’s so important to pass these stories on.”